Photographing Waterfalls

By Ash Davies
November 10, 2009 from Photography,Tips and Tricks

Nelson Falls of Tasmania

It’s often said that great photography captures, not only a scene, but its unique feeling and essence. Expressing these properties helps to bring your photo to life. When photographing waterfalls, the intricate and consistent flow of water is the trait that makes them such a beautiful scene, and because of this it’s important to try and capture the flow, motion and the colours of the water in your photo.
In this guide we’re going to learn how to capture a waterfall so that when you look at the photo, you feel like you’re right there.

Use a long shutter speed.

By using a long shutter speed you can capture the motion and flow of the water. In order to do this, it helps to have a basic understanding of your cameras exposure. You’re going to need to increase your aperture (higher F-stop) to minimise the amount of light entering the lens, as well as lower your ISO to reduce your cameras sensitivity to light. This will simulate darker conditions and allow you to use a long shutter speed without over-exposing your photograph. Aim for a shutter speed that’s between 1 and 2 seconds. This range will give you a silky flow of water and will still hold some of the waters texture. Longer shutter speeds will capture a smoother flow, but they can also become too surreal.
The two images below show the differences between a normal photo and one with a slow shutter speed.

Normal 1/15 second shutter speed dscf1602 Slow 2 second shutter speed dscf1604-with-sharper-rocks

Use a Tripod.

This is a fairly obvious step. If you’re using a long shutter speed then any jolt or movement of the camera will result in a blurred photo, so it’s essential that you have something to keep it still.

Do the complete opposite to what I’ve just said.

Sometimes a photograph of gentle silky water doesn’t depict the real mood of the waterfall. Sometimes a waterfall is raging and powerful. If this is the case, experiment with fast shutter speeds to catch the wild rush of water right in its tracks.

Use a Circular Polarised Filter.

If you’re photographing a waterfall in sunlight, your camera becomes susceptible to lens flare or glare from the water. Even in cloudy conditions, the angles of the rocks can reflect light into your lens. A circular polarised filter will help you to remove this glare.
It will also help you to blur the flow of the water. Think of the filter like a light pair of polarised sunglasses. It will eliminate the glare as well as darken the light entering the filter, which will allow you to use a longer shutter speed more effectively.
They can be fairly costly, but if you do any photography outdoors a polarised filter is an essential tool that will greatly improve the colours of your photos. It’s well worth the investment.

Bracket your photos.

Bracketing basically refers to taking multiple photos of the same scene at different exposures and apertures. As a result, you’ll receive a range of photos of a single scene with gradually changing settings. When photographing waterfalls, bracketing is certainly something you should try so that, when you’ve uploaded your photos onto the computer, you can pick the photo with the perfect level of blur in the water.
Remember to take a control shot first on auto mode, and then switch to shutter priority or manual mode in particular and take a range of photos with different settings.
Bracket your exposure using a fairly wide range. Try from 1/10th of a second to 8 seconds. This should give you a variety of photos, each with a different level of blur in the water.
Also experiment with different depths of field by bracketing your aperture.

Photograph at night time.

At night time, the darker lighting will be far more natural than anything you can simulate with your exposure. Even if you switch your camera to auto mode the settings should automatically allow for the smooth silky flow of water. The night scene far better suits a gentler, more docile flow of water, so if your waterfall is raging and strong, it’s probably best to photograph it in daylight.

That’s pretty much it. All you really need to do is find the characteristics of your waterfall, and then capture them in your photo. Hopefully this guide will help you do that.