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8 Tips for Photographing Waterfalls

Iguazu Falls and the Devils Throat, Iguazu National Park, Brazil. ©Richard Bernabe
Iguazu Falls and the Devils Throat, Iguazu National Park, Brazil. ©Richard Bernabe

Waterfalls are one of Mother Nature’s most magnificent spectacles. Who doesn’t love the sight and sound of them? From tinkling cascades to thundering torrents, these scenic wonders offer wonderful opportunities for capturing images. In this post, I’ll offer some simple tips to help you make the most of your waterfall shoots.

Opening image: Igazu! ©Richard Bernabe

1. Don’t spend a lot on equipment.

One of the best things about waterfall photography is the fact that you don’t need a lot of expensive gear to create really spectacular images. This means you can pack light and save your energy for the hike, as well as the money to get you there.

A sharp, fast lens is, of course, recommended and a wide angle will give you a creative edge in framing your shots. The Irix 15mm and 11mm lenses are both excellent choices for waterfall photos. Along with their sharpness and speed, they also offer weather sealing, so you needn’t worry about damage caused by mist and water drops. They’re also reasonably priced, making them an easy addition to your arsenal.

2. Mind the light.

Although bright sunlight can be used for some interesting effects with falls, it’s rarely the best choice for a variety of reasons:

  • Glare on the water can cause hot spots in your images.
  • Strong sunlight can make it difficult to extend your exposure time.
  • If the sun – or a bright sky – is located behind the waterfall, autoexposure modes may underexpose the water.

You may want to choose a day with overcast skies to help balance your exposure and give you more latitude in your choice of shutter speeds. Alternatively, you can shoot in the morning or evening, when the sun is low in the sky.

Waterfall in Iceland, ©Dmitry Kupratsevich
Canon 6D + Irix 15mm f/2.4. ISO 100, f/11, 1/60s ©Dmitry Kupratsevich

If you have to shoot in bright conditions, having a few neutral density filters on hand may be a good investment that allows you to slow your shutter speed for the right effect. Here’s another situation in which Irix lenses can help you save money on gear. Both wide angle lenses offer a filter slot behind the rear element, allowing you to use multiple, inexpensive gel filters to increase exposure time.

3. Experiment with shutter speed.

I’ve mentioned extending exposure times a couple of times now. To avoid getting too far ahead of myself, here’s why:

Moving water takes on different appearances with various shutter speeds. Now, that may seem obvious to anyone who understands exposure basics, since shutter speed affects motion blur. Water, however, is one of the elements of a scene that can be completely transformed by the effect – especially as it falls. From silky, ethereal mists to magically suspended sculptures, the length of your exposure will make a tremendous difference in your waterfall photos.

Icelandic waterfall ©Thijs Schouten
Skógafoss waterfall, Iceland. Captured with the Irix 11mm. ©Thijs Schouten

There isn’t a right or wrong result; the same photo may be equally appealing with various water effects. That’s why you’ll want to play with different shutter speeds to determine the look that most appeals to you. Note how the water below the waterfall is affected, too.

4. Bracket your exposure.

While we’re on the subject of exposure time, keep in mind that the grasses, flowers, trees, clouds and any other parts of the scene will be affected by it, too. Make sure that motion blur in other parts of the image doesn’t detract from the overall image. If necessary, you can take another photo with the same framing, but with a faster shutter speed to freeze the motion of the surroundings and blend them in post-processing.

Using the Automatic Exposure Bracketing feature of your camera can simplify the process of getting the shutter speed right. Most digital cameras will allow you to take successive shots with up to a 3-stop difference in exposure. Using this feature may help you capture the images you need to blend as mentioned above and may also help you get just the right effect for the water.

5. Use the sun when appropriate.

Although this is going to contradict an earlier statement, there are times when the sun can be used to your advantage. For instance, if you can catch it peeking through deep woods, the rays can help highlight your subject. You may also be able to create a nice starburst by shooting toward the sun and using a narrow aperture.

waterfall with sunburst

Obviously, the latter of those two examples will mean balancing your exposure carefully in order to retain the shadow details while avoiding blowing out the sun. This is another instance where bracketing and blending your exposures might be a good choice.

6. Find a unique point of view.

If you have the space to do so, try different vantage points – look high, low, right, left, or even behind the falls if possible. Don’t settle for the straight-on postcard shot. If your options are limited, consider – carefully – wading out and getting down below eye level. A wide angle will also let you get closer to the falls while still capturing the full drop.

Take the time to consider all the possible angles. Find the one that makes your image stand out.

behind waterfall

7. Remember the rules of composition.

As always, it’s important to build an image rather than just document a pretty scene. Use the basics of composition to create something fresh. Frame the falls with the branches of a tree. Use the stream below the waterfall as a leading line. Shoot in landscape orientation and use the Rule of Thirds.

I could go on listing ideas for composing your shots, but the point is to use what you know about creating an image to give your waterfall shots something special. There’s no “correct” way; there’s only the way you choose to create an image rather than simply taking a photograph.

swing over falls

8. Enjoy the experience.

Photographing nature should always be rewarding. Take the time to relax and appreciate the experience. Your mood will be reflected in your images. Not only that, it’s very likely you’ll find even more subjects to capture, simply because you took a few minutes to look. Have fun!

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Written by Dana Crandell

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