4 Tips for Shooting Waterfalls

July 06, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

(c)Telluride Gravity Project

Waterfalls are a great subject to shoot for landscape photographers but can be quite a challenge if you don’t get it right.  Harsh mid day sun, or an east facing waterfall at sunrise can all be challenges so timing your shot is prudent.  Sunrise and sunset are still the best times to shoot waterfalls, just make sure you are not getting direct light.  So, let’s get started.  Shall we?

1. Your gear is good enough

Let’s start with a camera that can shoot on manual and a tripod. That’s all you need. Forget ND filters to deal with the sun, rather time your shot so that natural light works with you, not against.  The best thing to do is show up at sunrise and sunset. Waterfalls are often in deep canyons, so as long as the sun is behind the mountains with the whole waterfall in the shade, you can achieve a long exposure with nice even light.

2. Study the waterfall

How long does the exposure actually need to be? I think the answer varies like people’s taste in beer, music, or food. Personally I categorize waterfalls into two different categories. There are the falls that rage with so much water they take your breath away. The others are dainty and delicate.
On Manual, I usually start with the slowest ISO my camera can go, 100. Then I set my aperture small enough to maximize focus, usually around f/8 to f/10. Then I see what kinds of shutter speeds that yields.

For the big falls, I try to keep my exposure under a second. Anything between ¼ to a full second will show the water’s motion and still retain all the detail in that movement. Small stringy waterfalls just love putting on a show with longer exposures. These shots look great when you can go as long as possible. Don’t be afraid of the small aperture police who say you will lose sharpness. Photography is always about compromises and in this case, the slightest loss in sharpness only visible when viewed at 200% is greatly outweighed by capturing the water’s movement. Don’t be afraid to use f/22 if you need it. I try to shoot for exposures 1-4 seconds long at these kinds of waterfalls.

3. Check the frame

Have you ever tried to shoot a waterfall with a long exposure and noticed that the leaves on the trees and plants move?  You will either have to reframe the shot (may mean wet feet) or switch gears and shoot to identical shots of the same waterfall with different shutter speeds to freeze motion.  You can then stack or layer the photos in post processing and compress them into one single image. This is where using a tripod is critical.  Don’t be afraid if you up close and personal with a waterfall to go as high as f/22 to keep everything in focus.  The detail lost at 200 percent viewing on a computer screen is not enough to outweigh getting the entire shot in focus.

4. Head out when it’s cloudy

One way you can buy yourself some more camera time is to hike on overcast rainy days. You get all the benefits of shooting when the sun is low, with the freedom to shoot all day. I also find you get much better color when it’s overcast so things like mossy rocks or autumn leaves really pop.
If you choose to shoot on a cloudy/rainy day just make sure you frame the shot so the sky is excluded from the picture.  Remember, your subject is always the waterfall so frame it accordingly.  If you include the sky, make sure it’s not a distraction to your viewer and enhances the subject.


Until Next Time,

Markus Van Meter



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