Photographing waterfalls can be very challenging for even the most experienced of landscape photographers. The attraction to their natural beauty is very easy to understand, but successfully capturing amazing images can be a bit harder than you may think. It is important to have the correct equipment and to plan the correct seasons and time of day to visit any individual waterfall to maximise your chances of coming away with something really special. Capturing silky smooth water takes a little bit of knowledge of how to control your shutter speeds, and the use of a good tripod, remote shutters and specific neutral density filters can assist with this. Here are 5 tips for photographing those dreamy, surreal silky smooth waterfalls.
Use a tripod / remote shutter
Stability is one of the key factors in being able to shoot long exposure shots and to achieve that smooth, motion blur effect on flowing water that is so sought after when photographing waterfalls. Even the tiniest bit of movement through the camera in any exposure that would typically last between 2 – 15 seconds will mean your image is not sharp and is essentially a waste of time capturing. A good, sturdy tripod will be able to hold your camera steady in windy conditions, will withstand a reasonable amount of water movement and will allow you to feel secure in knowing your expensive camera equipment will not fall over.
A remote shutter will also allow you to reduce any vibrations caused by pressing the on-camera shutter button, as well as control the exposure time easily. You would be surprised just how much vibration your finger can cause when you begin an exposure, so reducing the impact of this through a remote trigger of some kind will again maximise the chances of having crisp, sharp images. In cases where the exposure time exceeds the 30 seconds most better quality cameras allow for in aperture priority / exposure priority, you will need to use bulb mode, and for this some form of external remote / trigger is essential.
Use neutral density filters to control shutter speed and image quality
Controlling exposure time, the balance of light and even the overall quality of saturation and colour reproduction is quite easy to achieve with neutral density filters and circular polarisers. I generally always shoot waterfalls with a circular polariser at the very least and use them to control glare or reflections on the water, and saturation of the green foliage that often surrounds the waterfalls I like to photograph. A CPL can also be used as effective 2 stop filter to assist in increasing the exposure time.
For those times when more than a CPL is required, I will often use it in combination with either a 6 stop ND and / or possibly also a graduated neutral density filter to balance the light coming in from the top or sides of the scene. If you are able to see the sky in your composition, you will most likely need to control the light in that part of the scene to ensure a balanced exposure.
As a general rule when there is a good amount of flowing water, I personally aim for somewhere between a 2 – 15 second exposure time and use a combination of neutral density filters, aperture and ISO to achieve this. Something to take into consideration with the exposure time is any movement in the surrounding foliage. The longer the exposure, the more chance you have of seeing movement in things like ferns and other plants, which is why I would typically never use a filter like a 10 stop ND, as it forces a much longer exposure time to be required and can have a big impact of reducing overall image quality. It is possible to shoot bracketed exposures in situations where there is movement around tha main water flow, but the more you can get correct in camera through a single exposure, the less post processing you will need to do after the fact.
Circular polarisers help to increase overall saturation in greens, yellows and other colours, and again will reduce the need for post processing colour corrections. This is a huge advantage in forest scenes and can help to achieve the vibrant, deep greens that are a signature element of many great waterfall images.
Shoot when there is even light across the scene
When the sky is overcast, grey and mood, this is the perfect time to pack up your camera gear and head out to chase some waterfalls! Cloudy skies can help to provide even, diffused light in many waterfall scenes, and can reduce the impact harsh light can have when shining directly on water. Evenly balanced light across a waterfall scene is also important for reducing shadows caused by trees, rocks, or even reducing brighter regions of the image that can cause reflections and overexposed elements. There is only just so much you can control through the use of neutral density filters, so shooting in the best lighting conditions possible will maximise your chances of producing some amazing waterfall images.
If the sky is not cloudy, aim for early morning and late afternoons when the sun is low on the horizon. The higher the sun is in the sky, the more likely it is that the light will shine on water, rocks and other part of the scene and introduce shadows and brighter areas into the exposure.
Know your location / season
Having an understanding of when waterfalls in different regions are more likely to be flowing at their best for photographing them is always a good idea. And just because a waterfall is flowing at or close to it’s peak capacity, doesn’t mean to say that is the best time to photograph it. The amount of water coming over any specific waterfall will seriously impact on overall image quality. It is very possible to have too much water, just as it is not having enough water flowing.
Different seasons cause different weather conditions in specific regions. An example of this is in Tasmania the best time to photograph many of the waterfalls is during Winter or Spring when the snow is melting from the higher regions and flowing down through the forest streams below. But in the Northern Territory, the monsoonal weather conditions during Summer bring the heavy rains, which fill up the streams that flow through the massive waterfalls that are found throughout that part of Australia. Obviously heavy rains during any season can get local waterfalls pumping, but localised weather factors in different regions of Australia and the rest of the world will play a huge factor in their seasonal reliability.
Other factors like water spray on lenses and filters, too much “white water”, tannins flowing through the streams causing brown water, motion in the surrounding plants caused by wind movement, and general safety concerns are all things to consider when choosing the best time to photograph waterfalls. As much as we would like to think more water is always better, this is simply not the case.
When you are in an enclosed forest scene huge volumes of water will quite often cause massive amounts of water spray, which makes it very difficult to shoot front on compositions. Huge volumes of water also make safety a serious concern when getting into streams and can cause issues with stability of the tripods and camera equipment.
Just as knowing the best seasons to visit specific waterfalls are, the time of day is just as important. The position of the sun as mentioned above can either make or break an image. Although I would recommend shooting on cloudy days and early in the morning or late in the afternoon, there are some waterfalls where a high sun can create incredible rays of light shining through trees, which can add an extra “wow factor” to an image.
Quite often I visit waterfalls several times before I get images that I am happy with. But this is half the fun of photographing waterfalls or anything else for that matter! Knowing the locations, doing research on the local weather and even getting tips from other local photographers will help to maximise your chances of coming away with some amazing waterfall images.
Shoot strong compositions
Just as with any landscape photography, a strong composition can make or break a waterfall image. Utilising the water flow itself as a leading line will help you to draw viewer’s eyes through the image and towards a strong focal point. More often than not this is done by standing downstream from the waterfall and finding paths in the stream that will lead your eye through the image. Using other elements in the scene such as rocks, logs, other plantation, people and being downstream from the waterfall itself can also assist in providing an overall sense of scale and depth to the scene.
Make sure you are shooting multiple compositions. Take your time and move around so you come away with as many great images as possible. Quite often the most obvious of compositions are not the most creative. They are also most likely the angles that have been photographed the most, which means you need to be a bit more creative to come away with truly unique images. Think outside of the box and shoot more abstract composition by using different focal lengths and lenses. Often it’s the close up shots that are the most visually pleasing, and being creative is part of the fun of photograph!
Recommended Gear For Shooting Waterfalls
Camera – Any modern DSLR or mid range / full frame mirrorless camera will allow you to control your shutter speed as well as provide an equivalent bulb mode for exposures above 30 seconds. Use the camera that suits you the best for your overall photography needs.
Lenses – A selection of different lenses is very beneficial. I personally use a set of lenses that cover focal ranges between 16mm and 300mm for flexibility and creative options.
Tripod – A sturdy tripod is a must. Look for a tripod that has the balance between weight and overall stability. There is no point in having a really lightweight tripod with legs that flex, and at the same time the heaviest tripods on the market are not always the most portable.
Remote Shutter Release – Triggering the camera either wirelessly or through a cable remote can help give you the flexibility for positioning your camera, and reduce any possible vibrations through pressing the shutter button on the camera.
Circular Polariser – For shooting waterfalls a circular polariser is a must have. A CPL can make a massive difference in overall colour saturation as well as reducing reflections from objects like rocks and the water flow itself.
Neutral Density Filters – Controlling the balance of directional light can be done through graduated neutral density filters. Using filters such as a 6 stop ND are also a great way to assist on controlling the shutter speed.
Lens Cloths – Invest in a whole pile of lens cloths. If you are going to be close to flowing water, or even in environments with increased humidity you will get water spray issues and also fogging over of your lenses and filters. Keep them clean and ensure you carry them around in your photography kit. You will need them.
This article was originally written for our good friends over at Australian Photography Magazine and was published in the June 2017 edition.