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I have recently shared a lot of waterfall photos from Iceland on Instagram, Google+ and Facebook, and ever since my first picture of Kirkjufell hit the newsfeeds, I have been asked constantly how I capture these stunning waterfalls.
Waterfalls are one of my favourite things to shoot, as their natural beauty makes it easy to take an amazing photo. There isn’t this big secret to waterfall photography, in fact, anyone can do it with the right techniques and some very basic equipment.
So in this waterfall tutorial, I’ll try to explain a few important things about waterfall photography and show you my best tips and tricks.
What Camera Gear to Bring Along:
First, we of course have to talk a bit about what equipment to pack into your camera bag. Apart from a camera and a tripod, all these things listed below from filters to lens tissues aren’t absolutely necessary and you can still take good waterfall photos at the right time of day even if you own just the basics. Seriously, your gear is good enough and you can save yourself a lot of headaches by simply showing up around sunrise and sunset. Above all, you don’t need super expensive equipment and a cheap $15 filter will do a great job if you treat it well.
But a few camera accessories definitely make the job easier, so I’m going to talk a bit more about them. Here’s what I suggest bringing on a waterfall shoot:
- Camera with manual or at least aperture or shutter priority mode
- Wide or super-wide lens: Waterfalls are often found in narrow canyons or are simply so big, that you need a little bit of extra width to capture it all. I also love to find a way to get close to the waterfall and shoot right at the base of it, incorporating some stones and water in the foreground, in which case a wide angle lens is obviously the way to go. While I occasionally photograph some details with a zoom lens, I use my wide angle lenses in most cases.
- Tripod: Don’t even think about photographing a waterfall without a tripod. You need a stable setting to capture the movement and especially if you want that silky water look, the shutter speed needed is way, way to slow to attempt anything handheld. Unless you’re into that I-messed-up-and-turned-it-into-art kind of look, of course.
- Neutral Density (ND) Filter: Sometimes we simply can’t be at a waterfall location at the right time of day and for these instances where you get stuck shooting in broad daylight, you need an ND Filter. ND Filters come in varying strengths shapes and sizes, but what they all are is basically a darkened piece of glass that allows you to circumvent any brightness issues. It reduces the amount of light that reaches your sensor and this light reduction is measured in stops. I, for example, prefer to use a 3 stop ND filter, which I have found to be great in a variety of situations.
- Graduated Neutral Density Filter: Graduated ND Filters work just like the ND filters described above, with the difference that half the glass is clear and the other half darkened, with an abrupt or gradual shift in the middle. I use a Graduated ND Filter if the waterfall photo I want shows any sky. In these cases, I position the filter to darken the upper part of the image and avoid an overblown sky.
- Polarizer: Polarizers are used to reduce glare from wet vegetation and stones and get rid of reflections in the water. Some photographers swear by it and use it in every single waterfall photo, while I only put it on if I really feel like I need it. In any case, it’s a good filter to have in your bag in case you need it.
- Lens tissue/cloth and a clear piece of glass or an old filter: Ok, this one I can absolutely recommend for any bigger waterfalls. You know that big cloud of mist that is created by the thundering water? Yup, combined with the always present wind that stuff usually blows straight into your lens. If the angle you need is in the path of that spray, your lens will be covered in water by the time you have set up your shot. To avoid this, use a clear piece of glass or an old filter and hold it in front of the lens while you fiddle with your settings and composition. Once you are all set up, wait for a lull in the wind, take your shot and quickly cover the lens again. Bring enough lens tissues that leave no residue or lint to get rid of any water that makes it past.
About Getting the Right Exposure
Keep Your ISO as Low as Possible!
Since you are shooting on a tripod, don’t want any noise and want to lower the shutter speed, keep your ISO as low as possible. On most cameras, this is ISO 100.
Shutter Speed and Aperture
When it comes to waterfall photos, shutter speed is simply a matter of preference. However, most people are looking to capture the movement and get that silky water look. In this case, you’ll want a shutter speed of at least 1-2 seconds, however something as low as 0.3 seconds might work as well. To get a longer exposure like that, especially when you are shooting in the middle of the day, you want a narrow aperture. Go as high as f/16, even f/22 in really bright situations, but my personal limit is f/16 – because if you stop down even lower, you’ll have to deal with a loss of sharpness.
How to Shoot Waterfalls in Daylight
Often, I’m travelling from point A to point B and suddenly I see this cool waterfall by the side of the road. This happened to me once again in Iceland when I discovered the amazing Folaldafoss right beside the road. Of course, I wanted to shoot it even though it was the middle of the day and the light was harsh.
This is where the ND filter comes in.
You can buy anything from 1 stop to 10 stop filters, depending on if you only want to darken the scene a touch or if you want to do ultra long exposures. It’s again a personal preference, but I think the 3 stop filters work great because they are kind of a happy medium and not too extreme.
I usually photograph waterfalls in manual mode, as I like to have full control over all my settings, but when you have to shoot moving water in broad daylight, you can also switch to aperture mode to make things simple. In the middle of the day, you would not only put your ND filter on, but already know that if you want the water to have a smooth look, you’ll most likely have to use an f-stop of 16 or higher. So you can make things easy, use the aperture mode with that f-stop and let the camera figure out the rest.
Weather: Clouds Are Your Friend!
It isn’t a big secret that waterfalls don’t photograph very well in sunny weather. Sunlight creates harsh shadows, unwanted reflections and makes it really difficult to get the exposure right. If your schedule allows it, shoot on a cloudy day to avoid brightness issues as well as an overblown sky. Watch out for too much wind as well. If it’s too windy out, not only is it more likely that the spray of water will get in the way of shooting, but it also creates movement in the foliage around the waterfall. Then, if you take a long exposure shot, all the plants will look blurry.
Shooting Waterfalls during the Golden Hour/Blue Hour
To avoid all these problems, it’s as always best to shoot during the golden hour and early blue hour, when the sun isn’t as strong or completely gone and the light is more diffuse. This obviously requires a bit of pre-planning as I recommend you arrive at least an hour before the sun hits the horizon so you have enough time to experiment before it gets dark. Since the scene is darker, you are able to get slower shutter speeds with a lower aperture and if you are lucky, get some cool coloured clouds in the sky as well. You can of course keep shooting as the sky goes dark and just go for longer and longer exposures.
So the best time to shoot is… during the golden hour on a cloudy day with no wind.
Work with the Movement
It’s really all about what look you prefer: do you want to create that silky look or do you prefer to freeze the motion? Some think the flowy look is drop dead gorgeous and others think it’s highly over rated, so seriously, do whatever floats your boat. Either way, it isn’t as simple as telling you that shutter speed X and aperture Y are the key. You’ll have to experiment what works with your waterfall and light situation and that’s why I’m going to elaborate on different methods a bit more:
The Silky Looking Water – How Do You Do That?!
If you want your waterfall to look silky and smooth like in the photo below of Plitvice Lakes, your exposure has to be long enough to blur the moving water. An exposure of around 0.5 to 1 second is enough to create that style. Of course, this also depends on whether the waterfall has slow or fast moving water and how much water the river carries. Although I do think that the length of the exposure eventually stops making a difference and an exposure of 5 seconds looks just like one that is 10 seconds long. I do recommend a test shot at about 1 second and go from there: speed up the shutter if you think the water is too smooth and slow down if you think there could be more silkiness.
If you can’t get a slow enough shutter speed, lower the aperture and/or add a ND filter to darken the scene.
Freeze the Motion
If you want to freeze those dramatic waves of water raining down from the cliff, you will have to choose a shutter speed that’s fast enough to stop the action. Usually 1/500 does the trick, but once again depending on the water speed, it could be anything upwards of 1/50. I recommend a control shot and adjusting it from there.
While you might be tempted to simply crank the ISO to get faster shutter speeds, work with your aperture first and only adjust the ISO if the exposure is still too long for you.
Composition Tips for Photographing Waterfalls
Watch out for the Rules of Composition
Remember the rule of thirds and leading lines? Do you know about foregrounds, middlegrounds and backgrounds? I could write paragraphs upon paragraphs about it, but I actually pieced together this awesome tutorial about it: the 10 basic rules of composition.
Lead the Eye to the Waterfall
I think it’s important to find an interesting foreground that draws the eye into the picture and towards the waterfall. A good approach is always to look for some interesting rocks, use the curve of the stream, incorporate that round pool of water in front of it and so on.
Don’t Hesitate to Cut out the Sky
If your sky is boring or is overblown by the sun because you are shooting in the middle of the day, it never hurts to exclude it completely. Trying to force the sky into your photos in these situations can easily mess with your exposure and then end up being a white strip in your otherwise cool image.
Look for the Unusual
Most people simply stand a bit downstream from the waterfall, point their camera at it and shoot the waterfall straight on without even thinking about it. This results in a lot of very similar photos and to me at least, they are very uninspiring because I’ve seen a thousand shots just like it. Instead, explore the surroundings to find a unique angle or composition, maybe try to frame the waterfall between trees, leaves or cliffs, shoot from high or from very low, zoom in to capture a detail and shoot in landscape or portrait orientations.
Waterfalls are like models and some angles are more flattering than others. Instead of shooting a waterfall straight on, try some different angles to show the curve in the falling water.
Basically, let your creativity run wild!
If a photo only shows a waterfall without much around it, it can be difficult to judge how big that particular natural wonder actually is. To show scale and add a focal point to the image, add a person into the shot.
Include the Scenery
Some people say that if you have seen one waterfall, you have seen them all. Close up, they often look similar to each other and to make your waterfall stand out, try to include the scenery around it. For example, show some rocks in the foreground and the plant life around the waterfall or go really wide and incorporate the whole landscape. You know, show that canyon the waterfall is located in, show the towering mountains it tumbles down from or the dense forest surrounding it. What surrounds a waterfall gives it its character and showing the environment around the waterfall, is just as important as the thundering water itself.