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How to photograph waterfalls A Comprehensive Guide
Would I run a mile to photograph a waterfall? Yup! Living on Vancouver Island, all waterfalls are up a hill.
Did you know that there is over 500 waterfalls on Vancouver Island according to the World Waterfall Database?
I find waterfalls are a wonderful subject for photography. With a little effort and practice, you can capture stunning images of water cascading down the mountainsides.
To make it easy for new photographers to learn how to photograph waterfalls, here is an exhaustive guide that includes everything from camera settings and equipment.
Table of Contents
Photographing Waterfalls You Want A LOW ISO
When photographing waterfalls, it’s important to set your ISO to its lowest possible setting for that smooth silky look. This will keep the shutter speed slower and help you avoid overexposing the image. A low ISO also makes it harder to see noise in an exposure, which is made easier by decreasing the sensitivity of light.
Start with ISO 100 if that’s your lowest native ISO and increase it in increments if needed. By using a low ISO on your camera, you can get great shots of waterfalls without having to worry about noise. Most recent cameras can take a photo at 800-1000 without to much noise.
I never ever use Auto-ISO for waterfall photography. It’s not wrong, I just don’t use it. When shooting in a dark wooden forest, Auto-ISO can get confused with the contrast between the white rushing water and the dark old growth forest.
What Camera Mode for Waterfall Photography?
The first key to awesome waterfall photography is choosing the right camera mode. It is important to have a sense of control over your camera. There are three options you can choose from aperture, shutter priority, and manual. Think of the exposure triangle. The main objective is to have that silky smooth look. Therefore, my main priority is my shutter. But I don’t have to be on shutter priority to accomplish my goals.
Manual mode gives you complete control of your settings, and allows for more creativity in your photography.
Shutter priority lets you set the shutter speed, while your camera takes care of the rest.
Aperture priority you choose your aperture the camera chooses the shutter speed. I know it seems to be counterintuitive, but I sometimes do set the camera to this mode.
Option 1 – Camera Shutter Speed Priority
One way to photograph waterfalls is through shutter speed priority mode. This setting allows you to set your desired shutter speed, regardless of the lighting condition. By dialing in shutter speed priority, you can take control of your camera and ensure that you get the shot you want. Using shutter priority is the most ‘logical’
Flowing water appears ‘silky’ if the shutter is open for at least ¼ second to less than a second. The longer (or slower) the shutter speed, the silkier the flowing water will appear. The idea is the have a silky water look NOT a milky water look.
Keep monitoring the automatically selected f / number when setting your shutter speed. If your f / # starts blinking or giving some other warning. You’ve scrolled your shutter speed too far. If this happens, simply scroll your shutter speed back until the f / # stops blinking.
Option 2 – Manual Mode
In manual mode, you have more control over the photograph as you are able to set both the aperture and shutter speed. This is a beneficial setting when you want more creative freedom or if you’re not sure what exposure you want. For example, if you’re looking for low ISO and high shutter speeds, manual mode is your best bet.
Keep in mind that there is a bit of trial-and-error involved when using manual mode; different lighting conditions can easily throw off your settings. However, with a little practice it becomes easier to compensate for these changes automatically.
Option 3 – Aperture Priority
When photographing waterfalls, you will want to use a shutter speed that will give you the effect that you are looking for. If you want to show the motion of the water, then you will need a longer shutter speed. This can be accomplished by dialing in a bigger f/# on your lens. This allows more light to hit the sensor, and gives you a longer shutter speed. The camera will automatically choose a different shutter speed for you if it’s too dark, and you can increase the camera ISO if you need more light available.
Composition and Tripod
When photographing a waterfall, it is important to think about composition. One way to create an interesting photo is to use the rule of thirds. Divide the frame into nine equal parts with two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. The four points where these lines intersect are your viewers’ focal points. You can then place the waterfall along these lines at one of their intersections or into one third of the photo.
Another thing to consider when taking photos of waterfalls is where to put your camera and tripod in order to maximize creativity. For example, placing them near the edge of a cliff will give a sense of depth to the photograph, while positioning them downstream will emphasize movement in the water.
When composing for a waterfall, take into account not only the rule of thirds but also leading lines. These are elements in the scene which help draw attention towards the features you want viewers to focus on. Adding foreground elements can also add interest and framing to your photo.
Turn Stabilizing OFF
When photographing waterfalls it is often best to turn off the image stabilizing systems on your lens, especially when using a tripod. This will prevent a blurred photo caused by the movement of the Image stabilization system.
There may not appear to be a difference on certain cameras / lenses, it does in many older lenses. The camera is already rock solid on your tripod. We recommend turning stabilization off, even if it is just to conserve batteries.
You might be surprised by the results of turning off stabilizing systems when there is no motion. Experiment with both options and see which you like best!
When photographing a waterfall, it is important to focus on the correct point in order to create a pleasing photograph. There are two things you need to consider when focusing: what should be in focus, and how do you achieve that focus?
For some people, setting the focus before connecting the camera to the tripod makes focusing simpler. Other options include simply moving your AF point, or turning on ‘live-view,’ which allows you to touch or pick the area of the shot you wish to focus on.
One of the most asked questions I receive is what F-stop or aperture is best to have the complete waterfall in focus? Rick Salomon said it best “it depends”. If I’m in the dark woods shooting a waterfall that is a straight drop on the side of a mountain. I may use F5.6 to F10, because a large depth of field is not required. If the waterfall is in a wide open area, like Niagara waterfalls, then I may need an F16 to F20 because I want everything surrounding the waterfall to be in focus as well. To understand how depth of fields is calculated, check out the Cambridge in colour DOF calculator.
Check your Exposure and Histogram
When photographing waterfalls, it is important to get the exposure right. This will help you avoid overexposing highlights and getting pure white in your shot.
One way to check your exposure is to use your camera’s histogram along with your camera highlights alerts. This will help you find areas that are blown out, AKA pure white.
A spike on the extreme right side of the histogram shows an overexposed shot. This means that some portions of your image have a brightness level of 100%, resulting in pure white pixels.
Which is easy to do when photographing waterfalls, after all the falls are white.
Use Time Delay or Shutter Remote.
Whenever using a tripod, there is a risk of moving the camera when pressing the shutter button. Resulting in a slightly blurred, out-of-focus image. Using the ‘drive mode’ and setting a 2-second delay can help. If your camera doesn’t have a delay function, you may use a shutter remote for your camera. Failing these options, just press the shutter button as gently as you can.
Filters Neutral Density and Polarizing
When photographing a waterfall, it is important to use the right filters to get the best picture possible. ND and polarizing filters are two of the most important filters to use when capturing waterfalls.
Neutral density filters assist in preventing light from entering the camera, allowing the shutter speed to be extended. They are helpful in making sure that your photos don’t come out overexposed.
When photographing waterfalls, polarizing filters help reduce the reflections of the water on the surface of rocks and even the water itself. They also help saturate the colours of the leaves and surrounding foliage.
Mistakes and Blunders to Avoid
“The master has failed more times than the beginner has tried” – Stephen McCanie
The allure and splendour of chasing waterfalls never fades. I know I’m not alone. It’s not just a photography thing. Hiking to a waterfall and then sitting in awe of its magnificence while the water cascades over rocks has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in photography. They look amazing up close.
I’ve listed my top mistakes to avoid while photographing waterfalls below.
1 Appropriate Footwear
When visiting waterfalls, it’s important to make sure you’re wearing the right shoes. Many people make the mistake of not wearing suitable footwear and end up slipping and falling into the water. This can be dangerous, especially when there are sharp rocks in the area.
Make sure you wear a good pair of hiking boots when checking out local waterfalls. This will help keep you safe and prevent you from slipping and falling into the water.
2 Where Did We Leave That Tripod.
In order to get the sharpest images possible, you’ll need to use slow shutter speeds which can be difficult when photographing waterfalls without a tripod. This can be difficult to do when there’s not a lot of light available, so having a tripod will give you more control over your camera settings. Tripods are also essential for waterfall photography, so if you’re interested in this type of photography, don’t leave home without your trusty tripod!
Image stabilization on today’s mirrorless and DSLR cameras is incredible, and it’s possible to photograph waterfalls without using a tripod. However, it depends on how slow you want your shutter speed and how crisp you want your image.
You make the creative decision about how you want the water to appear in the photo. You can shoot at a slow shutter speed with in camera image stabilization, but it’s tough to get that silky smooth effect without a tripod.
3 Using a Wide-Angle Lens at All Times
When photographing waterfalls, it’s important to use the right lens for the job. Many photographers make the mistake of only using a wide-angle lens (16-35mm). Another option for waterfalls is a 50 mm or a telephoto lens. Just remember that a wide angle lens distorts and a telephoto compresses.
Another mistake some photographers make is not getting close enough to the waterfall. This can result in photos that lack detail and are not very interesting. If you can get close enough to fill up most of the frame with water, you’ll likely have a more successful photo.
Ultimately, it’s up to the photographer to choose the technique that works best for them. Some people prefer to use a wide-angle lens in order to create an intimate portrait of the waterfall, while others prefer to stay further back and capture more of its surroundings. The choice is yours!
4 Only Using One Shutter Speed
When photographing waterfalls, it is important to experiment with different shutter speeds to see how they impact the image. Many photographers make the mistake of using only one shutter speed, and this can often lead to disappointing results. By experimenting with different speeds, you can find the right setting that captures the waterfall for your vision.
Shutter speed is the most important setting when photographing waterfalls. It can have a dramatic impact on the final image, so it’s important to experiment with different speeds before taking a picture. If you want a milky, creamy look, shoot slightly higher than one second. If you want more detail in the waterfall, try using a faster speed.
5 Using / Not Using an ND Filter
When photographing waterfalls, it’s important to know which filters to use and when. One common mistake is using a neutral density filter (ND) when it’s not necessary. This can lead to blown highlights in your photos and decreased image quality.
A better option and one I prefer is shooting waterfalls with a circular polarizer. This filter will help you achieve the results you’re looking for by reducing glare and increasing color saturation. In addition, it can also help with reflections from the water surface.
If you find that you need to reduce the amount of light hitting your camera even more, consider using a three-stop ND filter instead of a ND filter with a higher stop value. This will help keep your photos looking sharp and clear without sacrificing quality.
In my experience most photographers just get lazy and leave the ND filter on. Don’t be lazy!
6 Not Taking a Second Image
Mistakes or shooters’ remorse, whatever you want to call it, I’ve done it. Slowing down the shutter speed will give you the effect you want in the water, but if there is just a little breeze, it will blur the rest of the image, especially leaves and vegetation. Without question, this frustrates me the most. No one to blame but myself and even if there was no wind, you can always count on me photographing fuzzy leaves.
Sometimes the slightest breeze is created by the waterfall, therefore pay attention to the leaves, trees, and greenery. Often capturing a second shot with a quicker shutter speed (1/100 or higher) to freeze the leaves and greenery is needed. You can then blend two photos using layer in your favourite photo editor.
7 The Sunny Day Photo Bum
When it comes to photographing waterfalls, many people make the mistake of only shooting on a sunny day. You can get some amazing results by photographing waterfalls on a cloudy and rainy day as well!
Sunlight pouring through the forest canopy above the waterfall can sometimes enhance the image. Photographing a waterfall on an overcast day is just as awesome. Clouds are nothing more than a big soft box, providing equal light throughout your photo with no glaring highlights on the waterfall or the forest floor. Your colours are saturated, and the shadows have incredible detail.
8 Strange Dots on the Photo
Spray from the waterfall on the lens is likely the culprit. Wipe it dry and try again from a different angle or move back. Lens flare, caused by stray flecks of light entering the corners of your lens, might be the origin of the dots; if you have a lens hood, apply it. If the sun is in your shot, attempt a composition that eliminates it.
9 No Silky Smooth Effect?
If your ISO is set to ‘Auto,’ the camera may select a high number, resulting in a faster shutter speed. Manually set the ISO instead of auto.
Maybe there is just too much light, and you can’t set a slow enough shutter to freeze the water, even with the lowest ISO. if it’s really sunny, you may need an ND filter to get that smooth silky effect.
10 Long Exposure Noise Reduction.
You may have long exposure noise reduction activated.
Long exposures create higher ‘noise’. Having noise reduction turned on means immediately after taking the photos, the camera will take a second photo of the same duration, with the shutter closed. Trying to remove the noise in the waterfall photo. Hopefully resulting in a slightly less-noisy photo in the end. It takes ages though, and I’ve never found it that worthwhile, and so being impatient, I turn it off unless I am doing stars, or the Milky Way.
Where to Find Waterfall Destinations to Photograph?
There are a number of online resources that can help you do this, but one of the best is the World Waterfall Database. This website has an exhaustive list of waterfalls from all over the world, complete with photos and information on how to get there.
If you’re looking for a more specific waterfall, or want to find waterfalls near you, I recommend using AllTrails. This app allows you to search for waterfalls by location and see which ones are closest to you.
Also check back often on my website as I work through adding more trips from Vancouver Island.
By following the tips in this guide, you’ll be on your way to taking amazing waterfall photos in no time! And don’t forget to check out our other photo tips while you’re here.
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