How to Photograph Waterfalls (With 9 Amazing Examples)

Article from Light Stalking

Waterfalls are a hugely popular subject among photographers and one that can produce some spectacular results. If the popularity of waterfall photographs on sites like Flickr and 500px are anything to go by, then the general public cannot get enough of them either. But how do you go about getting a great photograph of a waterfall? Let’s take a good look at all of the things you should know to get the best photo!

Iceland = "waterfall heaven" by Doxi, on Flickr

Researching the Best Waterfalls for Photography

Forewarned is forearmed as the saying goes and knowing what you are in for before you get there allows you to plan your shot. Good research is NOT essential when choosing a place to photograph a waterfall, but it sure makes things a LOT easier if you are looking for that magical shot.

Where Should You Look?

The Vringfoss by kennymatic, on Flickr

What Should You Look For?

The question of what you should be looking for in the images you research will have a different answer depending on your situation. For somebody living near Niagra Falls (for example), you might simply be looking for an original angle or vantage point from which to photograph one of the most photographed waterfalls in the world. In other instances, you might simply like to compare how the crowd reacts to certain types of waterfall photographs (we will discuss this more below).

Start with a general search for “waterfall” (on Flickr, sort them by “interesting” so that the community can find the best quality ones for you).

If you want to get waterfalls that are closer to your location, then just add in a geographical area (depending on how popular the location is, you might get from zero through to a few hundred or even thousand results). For example “Chicago Waterfall.”

In general, you will want to ask yourself a few questions about the images that you find and like:

The answers to some basic questions like those will help your preparation substantially. You can plan your trip and gear a lot more easily armed with this information.

Girrakool National Park by mickyg9, on Flickr

Packing Your Camera Bag – What Camera Gear Will You Need?

What photography gear you need will largely depends on what information you gleaned from the research stage, but a lot of gear will be suited to practically every situation when shooting waterfalls.

While sometimes you’re going to have access to the gear you want, and other times you might be stuck with an iPhone or something similar. You obviously need to make do with what is available, but if you did your planning well, you should have the gear you need.

Large Format Study N. 55 by rachel_thecat, on Flickr

Notes on Choosing a Lens for Photographing Waterfalls

Your lens choice will largely depend on where you are shooting from in relation to the waterfall and also what you are trying to achieve. A lot of people shoot wide through to mid range zooms. There are benefits and draw backs to each.

rockbottom by paul bica, on Flickr

Notes on Using Filters for Waterfall Photography

Waterfalls throw up a few challenges for the photographer related to light. For starters, shooting water anywhere will often involve problems with reflections and highlights (mainly from the water reflecting very bright light into the lens). The other problem you might come across, and one that is common to a lot of outdoor photography, is that the sky often throws out a lot more light than the scene you are trying to capture, effectively acting like a giant soft box.

The solutions for these lighting conditions can happily involve a couple of filters.

Some Notes on Time of Day and Lighting With Waterfalls

As with most outdoor shooting, the best times of day for photographing waterfalls will usually be towards the golden hours (and even arguably the blue hours). This gives that magic, golden hue that looks so great on so many outdoor scenes.

Also, overcast days are actually pretty good for photographing waterfalls – it means that the harsh light and resulting reflections in the water are far easier to deal with.

One big factor to consider when photographing waterfalls in low light is that it begins to necessitate a slower shutter speed. That in turn can begin to have implications for the water displaying motion blur. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to be aware of. If you prefer a fast shutter speed to freeze to motion of the water, then it will probably be a good idea to get to your shooting location while the light is still bright.

Finally, you will also want to try to get to the waterfall at a time when it is all in shadow. It becomes extremely involved to compensate when half of your waterfall is in stark sunlight and the other half is in dark shadow. Even lighting will help your cause immensely.

Notes on Composing Waterfall Photographs

Composition is very much a personal thing for most photographers. Some choose to adhere to guidelines such as the rule of thirds, the golden section etc while other prefer to play it by ear.

A few keys to getting effective waterfalls can include experimenting with compositional elements such as including more foreground, shooting sections of the waterfall (rather than the whole thing) and shooting at different angles.

A large part of how you choose to compose your own images will come from the inspiration you take in others’ photographs. The research stage of your project will help you a lot with your composition of your favourite waterfall. Look at how other people approached it and see how you can improve.

As with anything, make your own decisions, but make them educated decisions.

Blue mists at Snoqualmie Falls by joiseyshowaa, on Flickr

Photographing Waterfalls With Motion Blur

As mentioned above, many people love the motion blur effect in water when shooting waterfalls. Some people don’t care for it so much. But how do you get it? Here is a basic rundown:

Slateford Creek (Revisited) (1) by Nicholas_T, on Flickr

Photographing Waterfalls Without Motion Blur

Gorgeous images can be created by freezing the motion of the water in waterfalls too. Some traditionalists might even prefer the moment frozen in time. This is how to achieve this effect.

PA120005.JPG by Susan E Adams, on Flickr

Common Problems With Waterfall Photos and How to Fix Them

Highlight Blowouts – If you are seeing your histogram up against the right of the screen, then you are getting blowouts. Don’t panic, it happens a lot when photographing water. Try using a CPL filter to eliminate them. If that isn’t enough, you might want to switch up to a ND filter. It is very difficult to fix blown out highlights in post-production so it really pays to get this right when you’re shooting.

Another strategy to deal with that is to come back to your waterfall at a time when the lighting is more suitable – early morning, late afternoon or on an overcast day.

Post Production for Waterfall Photography

If you have done most of the research work and preparation above, then you should only need minor adjustments in post-production. As most photographers are Adobe Lightroom fans, we will stick with referring to possible adjustments in that, but other programs such as Photoshop or Apple Aperture offer similar abilities.

The suggestions below are exactly that. You may not even need some or all of them, but they are the likely places that you will want to turn in post-production if something didn’t turn out quite as you would have liked with your waterfall photographs.

As with most things, less is more when it comes to post-production on your waterfall photographs. Be gentle with the sliders!

Sgwd Gwladys by Capt’ Gorgeous, on Flickr

Some Awesome Tutorials on Waterfall Photography Not to Be Missed

Now, this isn’t the only waterfall photography tutorial online and you would be well advised to read some of the great ones here:

Layers Magazine also has a brief, but very cool tutorial on using Lightroom to improve landscape photographs. It isn’t specifically about waterfalls, but a lot of the tips do hold true for waterfall photographs.

Wrapping It Up

Waterfalls are one of the great joys of outdoor photography and often result in some of the most amazing results. While they require a lot of preparation and forethought to produce the exact image you have in your mind, the results make the effort well worthwhile. The most important thing is to get out there and shoot and experiment for what works for you in your unique shooting situation. Hopefully you have a few tips in your arsenal to test out from this lot.

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Light Stalking
I'm Rob, the editor of Light Stalking. I try to keep this ship on course.

Tags: Guides | Shooting