A Complete Guide to Waterfall Photography

In Landscape/Nature by Brenda Petrella9 Comments

Mill Bridge Waterfall, New Hampshire. (c) Brenda Petrella Photography

If you are looking for a new way to improve your photography no matter your genre, try shooting waterfalls. Here is everything you need to know to photograph waterfalls like a pro and have fun while doing it.

How to Photograph Waterfalls – Camera Settings

Shoot in Manual

If you are already comfortable with shooting in manual mode, then this is where you should start following the advice below. If you haven’t yet gotten acquainted with manual mode, then waterfall photography is a great opportunity to start learning it!  The cool thing about shooting waterfalls is that while you are attempting to capture motion (which can be stressful in some situations) the subject continues to move indefinitely. Super handy. It’s pretty improbable that you will miss the shot, unlike in sports photography or other types of photography where the moment could be gone in an instant. Waterfalls are very forgiving subjects, and you can take your time getting to know your manual settings and get a stunning waterfall photo to boot.

If you are REALLY uncomfortable with shooting in manual mode, don't fret. Start by shooting in shutter priority mode. You will get used to adjusting the shutter speed and will get a sense of how time with the shutter open correlates with how much motion in the water you will capture to get the look you desire.

Here’s the catch: when you shoot in shutter priority, you choose the shutter speed and ISO settings, and the camera chooses the aperture setting to get the correct exposure. If you have a low-light situation, it is possible that the camera will set the aperture wide open, which will reduce the depth of field. If you have any foreground elements, then they (or the waterfall, depending on where your focus point is) might be out of focus.  All the more reason to play around in manual mode and get comfortable controlling all three exposure triangle settings. However, if everything in the frame is at distance and can be focused on at infinity, then this might be less of a concern.

Shutter Speed: Capturing Motion

The first thing to keep in mind when starting to learn how to photograph waterfalls is that you are capturing the movement of water. Some people like the smooth, creamy waterfall look that is popular these days, and others prefer the more frozen-in-time look. To convey more or less motion in your photo, you should think about shutter speed first, and then determine your exposure triangle settings from there.

(c) Brenda Petrella Photography

Of course, in addition to whether you are trying to capture the movement of the water or freeze it in time, the speed and volume of the water will also dictate what shutter speed to use, so keep that in mind. Use longer shutter speeds to get that creamy waterfall look and use shorter shutter speeds to see more definition in the water. Generally speaking, shutter speeds of about 1/6 second to several seconds will give you that silky water appearance. It is best to take a few test shots and adjust the shutter speed according to the story you are trying to convey in your photo.

ISO Sensitivity

Start off setting your DSLR at the lowest ISO (usually ISO 100) setting it has. ISO sensitivity is the camera sensor’s ability to capture light transmitted through the aperture opening and the shutter opening and closing. Higher ISO settings result in more noise in the photo because they increase the sensitivity of the sensor to the light that is being transmitted. Today, camera sensor technology is advanced enough that high ISO noise is less of an issue than it used to be. That said, low ISO settings will give you a higher quality photo, so it is a good rule of thumb to use the lowest ISO you can to get the exposure you want.

Aperture: Depth of Field

The composition you have in mind will determine what aperture you should use. Besides controlling how much light hits the sensor, aperture controls depth of field, which is an important consideration in composition. For instance, if you found a great foreground element to include in your shot, such as some nearby rocks at the bottom of the waterfall, then you will want to go for a long depth of field or a higher f-stop number (>f/16) to try to get everything in focus. If you want to maximize the depth of field so that you can get really close to a foreground element and have the entire shot in focus, then consider learning a how to do image stacking to combine multiple shots with different focal points into one. If you want to blur out part of your image for a certain effect, then use a shallow depth of field, or a lower f-stop number (<f/8).

Nikon D5500, 1/3 sec, f/14, 32mm, ISO 125. (c) Brenda Petrella Photography.

 

Camera Gear Essentials for Waterfall Photography

Here is a list of essential equipment to photograph waterfalls like a pro:

  • DSLR camera
  • Wide angle and/or telephoto lens
  • Tripod
  • Filters
  • Shutter Release

DSLR Camera

Any DSLR that allows you to control the shutter speed and (ideally) shoot in manual mode will enable you to take stellar waterfall photos. I recommend shooting in RAW format because this will give you the most information to work with in post-processing of your image.

Lenses

As you learn how to shoot waterfalls, it is fun to try different focal lengths to get different effects. Most often, a wide-angle lens (16-35mm) is used to include a cool foreground and/or to frame the entire waterfall. I think it is fun to bring along a telephoto lens (24-70mm or 70-200mm) to experiment with a capturing a more intimate look of a section of the waterfall. This works especially well on cascading waterfalls.  A telephoto is also handy if you can’t get right up near the waterfall and need to compress the scene.

Using a telephoto or cropping an image can give a more intimate look at the cascading waterfalls. Captured on a Nikon D5500, 1/3 sec, f/14, 42mm, ISO 125. (c) Brenda Petrella Photography.

Tripod

Tripod feet spikes

Because waterfall photography often involves using longer shutter speeds, it is nearly impossible to shoot waterfalls without a tripod. Even with the best vibration reduction or optical stabilization technology that your lens may have, you will be disappointed with handheld shots. Any sturdy tripod that will keep your camera safe and steady in or near the water current will do. If you are looking to upgrade from your first tripod, check out this Improve Photography article on things to consider when choosing a tripod. Since you will be shooting near water, it is highly likely that you will encounter some slippery conditions, and spikes on the feet of your tripod can help prevent accidental slippage.

When you are working on a tripod, it’s easy to get locked into place and not walk around and try different angles. Be sure to keep exploring a location and have fun experimenting with different angles, depths of field, and settings. Sometimes, it helps to scout the area first and take some shots with your smartphone before getting your tripod and camera set up.

Don’t forget to clean your tripod after exposing it to water, sand, grit, etc. Check out Brent Bergherm’s awesome video available on Improve Photography Plus on how to properly clean your tripod.

Filters

While some might argue that using filters is not absolutely essential to waterfall photography, if you are going for the silky, graceful, moody look of waterfalls, then they are a must. If you don’t already have a set of filters for landscape photography, the first filter I would purchase is a circular polarizer. A polarizer filter works to cut down on glare, very similarly to polarized sunglasses. Compare the two photos below to see how a polarizing filter reduces glare on the rocks and on the water. Additionally, by reducing glare the water can appear clearer and underwater rocks or other elements may become more visible, which often makes for a more interesting composition.

Left: no polarizer. Right: polarizer filter. Notice that the glare on the water and rocks is reduced by the use of a polarizer filter. (c) Brenda Petrella Photography.

 

Another advantage of polarizers is that they reduce exposure by about 1-2 stops, thereby allowing you to slow down the shutter speed and record more of the water’s movement. Sometimes, this is all you need to get that silky smooth look of the water.

However, if you are shooting on a bright day and are already at your lowest ISO setting and/or if the water current is such that you need to slow your shutter speed down even further, then the next filter you need is a neutral density (ND) filter. ND filters are basically dark glass of varying levels of darkness that work to reduce light from hitting your camera sensor. They are called “neutral” because they block all wavelengths of light without altering color. ND filters are available in a range of densities that block a certain number of stops of exposure. For more details on ND filters, check out the Improve Photography article “ND Filters 101: 8 Things You Need to Know”.

6-Stop ND Filter

The ND filters that I use most often for waterfall photography are the 3-stop and 6-stop ND filters. Very rarely do I bust out the 10-stop ND filter, but it is fun to have on hand if you can fit it into the budget. I am a big fan of Breakthrough Photography filters, and I highly recommend their 3-stop, 6-stop, and 10-stop ND filters for waterfall photography.

When purchasing filters, be sure to chose the correct thread size for the lens(es) you plan to use. Check out Improve Photography’s article “Lens Filters: Which Filters do Photographers Actually Need” to get more info on these and other filters.

Shutter Release

As I mentioned above, waterfalls are excellent subjects on which to hone your skills in capturing motion in your photography because they are constantly moving, and the “moment” isn’t lost before you’ve dialed in your settings. That said, the water is constantly moving and changing and so no two waterfall shots will be exactly alike. I recommend taking several consecutive shots for each setting and composition so that you can pick your favorite capture of the water during post-processing. The easiest way to do this is to use a shutter release cable or remote and set your camera to continuous shooting mode. This way you won’t inadvertently introduce camera shake while holding down the shutter button on your camera.

Don’t Be Afraid…

To Get Your Feet Wet – literally, that is, not just to try something new. You will find that some of the best shots are taken from being right in the water with the waterfall or stream. It’s a great way to shoot low and include foreground elements, like river stones under the water (that you can see with your polarizing filter), a mossy log, a colorful leaf, or what have you.

Hip waders

Before you take the plunge, though, be sure to have proper footwear to protect your feet. If you are shooting in warmer temperatures, river sandals, old sneakers, or water shoes are fine for protecting your feet from sharp rocks, sticks, and the like. Remember that rocks under the water are often slippery, so take your time getting into place. If the water is fairly deep or cold, then I recommend investing in a pair of hip waders. You won’t be winning any fashion contests, but they will keep you dry (if you don’t go in too deep), and you can wear warm socks with them. Speaking of socks, if you’re anything like me and get cold feet no matter what the temperature, then I recommend wearing some neoprene socks, such as the NRS Boundary Sock.

Finally, if you are photographing waterfalls in colder temperatures, then you are likely to encounter ice. And if you think ice is slippery, try walking on wet ice. Under these conditions, I always pack a pair of Kahtoola Microspikes, which I find to be more effective than other over-the-boot traction cleats and less cumbersome than crampons.

Protect Your Gear

Rain sleeve cover for DSLR

Undoubtedly, your camera gear is going to get wet when you photograph waterfalls. Hopefully, not submersion level of wet, but the mist from waterfalls tends to build up on the surface of your camera lens, and so you will need to clean it frequently. I recommend using your lens hood to help keep mist off the lens, and keep the lens cap on until you are ready to start composing the picture. Once you have your composition set, check the lens and wipe it clean with a microfiber cloth and/or lens cloth depending on how moist it is. If the waterfall is giving off a lot of spray, you should check your lens between shots. I’ve definitely slacked on this before and have come home disappointed to find out that my photos were all a bit smudged. Boo.

You should protect your camera body as well, even if you have a weather sealed body. It’s just good practice. I use this rain sleeve, which is super economical and cinches down around your lens hood, providing a nice little rain coat for your camera and tripod head. If you are working in more extreme conditions, then it may be a good idea to have extra protection for your camera, such as with the Peak Design Shell Cover.

Other Tips and Tricks for Shooting the Best Waterfall Photo

Avoid photographing waterfalls when bright sunlight is hitting only part of the waterfall.

Weather and Light Make a Difference

  • The best time to photograph waterfalls is on a cloudy day. Clouds essentially work as a giant soft box in the sky and cut back on the harsh contrast of highlights and shadows on the water. It is very difficult to properly expose for a waterfall if part of it is in bright sunlight and part of it is in the shadows. It is still possible to shoot on a sunny day, especially if you use ND filters, but try to wait until there is even light hitting the waterfall.
  • Another great time to photograph waterfalls is during (or just after) a rainy day. Rain tends to bring out the vibrancy of colors in nature and a polarizing filter will only further this effect.
  • Having trouble exposing for your waterfall? Consider leaving the sky out of the frame and/or using a graduated ND filter to reduce the brightness of the sky.
  • Be mindful of windy days. Because slow shutter speeds are used with waterfall photography, it is very easy to get blurred tree branches in your shot on a windy day. If you aren’t able to expose for the waterfall AND also freeze flapping leaves in the same shot, then take multiple shots at different shutter speeds and blend them afterward in Photoshop.

Shoot in Landscape and Portrait Format

3 Legged Thing L-Bracket

Don’t forget to play around with shooting in landscape and portrait layouts. It can be a pain to constantly adjust your tripod to accommodate switching between landscape and portrait modes, so I highly recommend investing in an L-bracket, which will easily attach your camera to your tripod in either format. You will be glad you did. It will save a lot of time and fiddle frustration.

Some L-brackets are fairly expensive but definitely worth the investment in terms of getting the correct fit for your camera so that it is properly secured on your tripod. This is super important when shooting near or in water. Although more affordable, many folks recommend against universal L-brackets because they are not a custom fit to your camera. I’ve been using the universal L-bracket from 3 Legged Thing for my Nikon D810 and Nikon D5500 and have had zero issues. It is more affordable than many of the custom fit L-brackets, and so I decided to give it a try. No regrets so far! It also includes a neck strap attachment on either end, to which I easily attach Peak Design’s anchor connectors. Very handy, indeed. It’s up to you to decide what your comfort level is with the potential risk and cost of using a universal versus custom L-bracket.

Camera Strap

It may seem counter-intuitive to recommend using a camera strap while shooting with your camera on a tripod, but I’ve found that it puts my mind at ease to have a lightweight strap around my wrist when I’m positioned precariously in or around water, just in case things take a dive (hopefully, not me or my camera). For some, the strap may introduce an extra level of clumsiness, but I’ve definitely been glad to have had some connection to my camera during those unexpected, slippery moments when you see your camera dreadfully heading towards the water. For this purpose, I really like the Peak Design Leash; it is lightweight and unobtrusive.

Watch Your Highlights

If a waterfall is your primary subject in your composition, expose for the waterfall rather than for the shadows. The waterfall will be the brightest element of the photo other than the sky, if you’ve included it, and you can usually bring up the shadows in post-processing without losing too much detail. I find it best to slightly underexpose the waterfall and check the histogram. You want to avoid blowing out the highlights in the waterfall, because you won’t be able to recover that detail in post-processing.

Quick Post-Processing Tip

Now that you’ve mastered your camera settings and can navigate moving water like a ninja, it’s time to post-process those RAW images. Even if you’ve properly exposed for the waterfall and underexposed it a little bit, it may appear blown out on your LCD display or in your post-processing software (this is why the histogram is critical to check). As a general rule of thumb, the first step I take in post-processing waterfalls is to bring the highlights way down. See the difference in the two photos below that were processed identically in Lightroom except one has the highlights as shot and the other has the highlights down. More detail in the water can be detected with the highlights brought down.

Same photo duplicated in Lightroom and edited identically, except that the photo on the left has no highlight adjustments whereas the highlights in the photo on the right were reduced to -100. (c) Brenda Petrella Photography.

Practice Makes Perfect

Find a waterfall near you and visit it throughout the year. The water levels will likely be different in each season and will present new challenges in perfecting your waterfall photography. Use the Really Good Photo Spots App to find waterfalls in your area or to post ones that you’ve discovered for others to check out.

Practice taking photos of local waterfalls at different times of the year to get difference effects and expand your skills. Texas Falls in Spring, Vermont. (c) Brenda Petrella Photography.

Same waterfall (Texas Falls, Vermont) as the image above but taken in Autumn. (c) Brenda Petrella Photography.

Bonus Tip!

All of the skills and equipment needed to shoot awesome waterfalls can be applied to photographing streams and babbling brooks as well. Now, go get your feet wet and have some fun!  What waterfall photography tips do you have?  Please share by commenting below.

All of the techniques used to capture waterfalls can be applied to streams and brooks as well. (c) Brenda Petrella Photography.


About the Author

Brenda Petrella

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After careers as a cancer biologist and then as a biosafety professional, Brenda recently decided hang up her lab coat to pursue a long-standing passion for outdoor photography. Her goal is to inspire others to take a break from the digitized world and to be an active part of enjoying and protecting the natural world. Brenda is based in Vermont where she enjoys having an active role in rural communities and adventuring whenever she can. You can see her portfolio at Brenda Petrella Photography and follow her on Instagram and check out her photography tutorials on YouTube

Comments

  1. Nice tips!!! Also…cloudy days are great for reducing highlight blowouts in the sky if you want to make that part of the composition. These tips can also be applied to photographing seacoasts as well…I took a trip to Oregon and was able to use very similar techniques for photographing along the Columbia River Gorge and then up the Oregon coast. It applied really well to Thor’s Well, a million little waterfalls inside a yawning seaside chasm.

  2. Thanks Brenda. Well written and great tips. I especially like the links included in your article.

  3. Brenda: Thank you so much for preparing this very complete guide. I especially liked all the great links and you wonderful images.

  4. This article was very helpful. My daughter is just starting out in photography going to make sure she reads this too.

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