Take Better Waterfall Pictures
I don't pretend to be a professional landscape photographer. But hopefully some of the tips below will help you to improve their waterfall photography.
The good news is that anyone can take a good waterfall photo. You don't need a fancy, expensive camera to get a good picture. You can do a lot with your cell phone, so give some of these tips a try.
- Get closer to that waterfall... but only if you can do so safely! If you can't, user your zoom. The idea is to 'fill your frame' with your subject.
- It's just as important to exclude what you don't want in your photo. Sometimes taking a step to the left or to the right is all you need to do to vastly improve your picture. Nobody wants to see a garbage can, or a fencepost, or your uncle Larry's left shoulder.
- Keep it simple. If you want to show the waterfall (or any other subject), get rid of just about everything else!
- Try to keep your horizon horizontal. Nothing says "amateur" like a crooked photo.
- Watch the lighting. This one is hard to teach, but comes with practice. Taking a picture with the sun in front of you rarely works out well. (in fact, as you will read below, cloudy days are usually better for photography). Sometimes all you need to do is move to a different vantage point and the light will look better.
- Take more than one picture. This is simple statistics - the more photos you take, the more likely you are to get a keeper.
Get closer and fill your screen.
The Next Level
Waterfalls change with the seasons. In most cases, summer is NOT the best time to photgraph waterfalls, because stream flow can be very low, and bright sun can cast harsh shadows. Spring is usually best, because the flows are low and there are no harsh shadows due to the lack of leaf shade. Fall is good too, because the bright colours make for wonderfull backdrops. Winter can be good, if you are safe, warm and the waterfall is not covered in snow (ice is great though!).
There is no simple rule for getting the best vantage point for a waterfall picture. Most observation decks are situated near the top of the falls in order to get that panoramic view of the entire scene. But the best shots often come from the bottom of the falls at river level. This is not a rule. But I've found that shooting from the bottom allows you to immerse yourself in the scene. It often cuts out the 'non-waterfall' stuff around the top of the gorge. ** No matter what I write here, there is no photo for which it is worth risking your life!
The boulder in the foreground helps to add depth to the photo.
Another common tip is that you should visit waterfalls on dull, overcast days. This is often good advice, because the softer light that comes on a cloudy day is more diffuse and lights things up from all directions. This usually helps you and your camera to capture the scene more evenly.
An example of bright sun casting harsh shade on part of the falls.
Having said the above, I have seen great waterfall photos on bright sunny days too. My general rule is that if the waterfall is shaded or is in a deep gorge, a dull day is better. In contrast, waterfalls that have no shade and are open to the sky can be fine in bright light. If you can include bright blue sky at the top of the falls, it can be very pleasing.
Bright blue skies are fine, as long as the waterfall is open to the sky.
Using a tripod can often help with a sharper photo. It also helps you to slow down to more carefully compose your photo. There are even cheap tripods for cell phones. If you don't have a tripod, you can often put your camera on a rock or tree trunk. Some people carry a bean bag for this purpose, as it lets you adjust the angle a bit.
At some point you may say "Maybe I need a more expensive camera." This isn't always necessary, though it is true that more advanced cameras are usually behind the very best photos. But before you jump out and spend a bunch of money, see if the camera that you have has controls and functions that you haven't tried before.
If your camera lets you control exposure, and you use a tripod, you may be able to try the "milky" water trick. I've had several people comment to me to say "I hate when people use Photoshop." But this trick has actually been around since before the computer days.
A one-second exposure. Anything less than about 1/8 sec will do it. Experiment with different exposure lengths to get different looks.
The key is to get your camera to take a long exposure. Most photographs are taken with the shutter open for a very short time, like 1/60th of a second, or shorter, like 1/250th of a second. When the camera can be told to keep the shutter open for 1/4 second or longer, the falling water will blur into a beautiful silky look.
If you have a dSLR or a bridge camera, read your manual about using "Aperture Priority" mode. Sometimes your camera dial will have a setting called "A" or "Av". Switch to this mode and adjust the "f/stop" to the smallest aperture (largest number), like f/16 or f/22. A small aperture lets much less light into your camera. Your camera will now have to use a longer exposure to get enough light for your scene.
Unfortunately, on a bright day, you may not be able to slow your shutter enough to get the blurry water effect. If this is the case, you have two options. 1) Purchase a "Neutral Density" filter, which is basically a pair of sunglasses for your camera. 2) Visit the waterfall late in the day when the light is starting to fade. Less light means that the camera has to expose longer. Bonus!
Even if you don't have a fancy camera, you can do the long-exposure trick if you shoot close to dusk.
More Advanced Tips
This section is mainly intended for people using dSLR or Mirrorless cameras. These offer more user control, accept different lenses and filters and have larger sensors. For now, here are some tips in no particular order.
Putting it all together: Cloudy skies, up close, down low, polarizer to reduce reflections, with a long exposure and a nice boulder in the foreground. The swirl in the water is a neat bonus for long exposures if there is a quiet pool below the falls.
I continue to find that smaller waterfalls can often result in more pleasing photographs. This isn't always the case, and is probably a bit of personal preference. But I think that they are more intimate and help to fill the frame.
- The slow-exposure, milky look usually works better with smaller, less powerful waterfalls. I often find that large, powerful watefalls look better with a faster exposure, like 1/125 second. This conveys a sense of power, and I find that the milky effect makes the larger falls just look like a big blurry mess.
- Try to put something in the foreground. This creates depth and interest. I often try to include a boulder in the river bed. Use the rule of thirds and put this near a corner of the photo. If the main waterfall is offset a bit to the other side of the photo, it creates a visual tension which can be good. Be sure to use a small aperature, like f/8 or f/11 to get everything in focus.
- A polarizing lens can be very valuable. It can cut down on the glare from wet rocks and reduce the reflections coming off a flat water surface. Sometimes this works better than others, and it depends on the direction of the sun/light. TIP: Do not scrimp on a cheap polarizer, as cheap ones will decrease your image quality by affecting sharpness. You don't need to go crazy, but do look for something better than the cheapest model.
- Same goes for a Neutral Density filter for slowing exposure. Don't put cheap glass in front of a good camera!
- Wide angle lenses often give a good sense of drama in photos, because they gently distort perspective. But this only really works if you can get close to the waterfall to fill your frame (see the beginner tips above). Another reason why I like small waterfalls.
- Be sure to pack a bunch of lens wipes and a small lens wipe solution bottle. Waterfalls can have lots of spray and you want a clean dry lens (or filter) for a nice crisp shot.
- If you are using a tripod, try not to put the legs in fast moving water. During slow exposures, this can cause the tripod to shake, resulting in blurrier photos. Also, they say that you should shut of Image Stability for long exposure, because the Stability mechanism will feedback and vibrate if it thinks that it is ~too still~.
- I rarely use HDR or blend exposures. The sensors on newer cameras are so good that you can usually adjust exposure in post production. I will sometimes under-expose by 1/3 or 2/3 of a stop in order to prevent blowing out highlights in the sky or white foam. I can then pull back up the shadows in Lightroom (or similar).
- When shooting in winter, be sure to ~over-expose~ by up to one full stop if there is lots of snow in the scene. Remember, you camera's meter wants the overall scene to be 18% grey. If it sees mostly white snow, it will compensate to make this 18% grey, not bright white.
- Lastly, if you haven't switched, start using RAW rather than JPG. Your camera will throw a lot of data away when it save as JPG, because this is a compressed file format. Sort of like a poor quality MP3 copy of a CD. Insted of 256 brightness levels in JPG, your camera is records several thousand when you use RAW. Shooting in RAW helps ~you~ choose what to do with it, rather than the camera's generic algorithm. It really helps - give it a try - see the tips in Post Production below.