You Can Take Better Pictures!
I don't pretend to be a professional landscape photographer. Some of the photos below are pretty good, but I see better ones just about every day. Here are some of things that I've learned through 25 years of waterfalling. Hopefully you will find something to help you to improve your waterfall photography.
Five First Steps for Beginners
can take a good waterfall photo. This means you! You don't need a fancy, expensive camera to get a good picture; you can do a lot with your cell phone. Give some of these tips a try before you run out to spend a bunch of money.
- Fill Your Frame!. Get closer to the waterfall if it safe to do so. If not, use your zoom. We will see later that you can break this rule, but many beginner photos do not show enough waterfall.
- Keep it Simple! It is just as important to exclude what you don't want in your photo. Nobody wants to see a garbage can, a fencepost, or your uncle Larry's left shoulder.
- Keep the horizon horizontal! Nothing says "amateur" like a slightly crooked photo. You can take a crooked photo, but make sure that it looks intentional.
- Watch the Lighting. This one is harder to teach, but can make a huge difference. Taking a picture with the sun in front of you rarely works out well. Does the surrounding vegetation look green or washed out? Are there lots of bright spots and deep shadows? If so, trying moving to a different vantage point. This leads to Step No 5...
- Take Lots of Pictures!This is simple statistics - the more photos you take, the more likely you are to get a keeper. Sometimes the lighting is better in a different location. The pros do this, and so should we!
Get close or your use your zoom to fill the frame with the falls.
Many of us take waterfalls on vacation or on day trips. This is fine! Not everyone has the ability to take extended photography trips whenever they feel like it.
Waterfalls change with the seasons. Many beginners are surprised to find that a sunny summer day is usually NOT the best time to photograph waterfalls. Many smaller streams (especially in southern Ontario) can suffer from very low flow. In addition, bright sun and thick vegetation can cast harsh shadows. This can make things tough on your camera.
Oops! Bright summer sun and heavy shade made it hard to get a balanced photo of Robertson Creek Falls.
Many experienced waterfall photographers prefer spring and fall. Stream flows are almost always more reliable, and the harsh shadows of summer are less problematic. Fall can be absolutely magical, as the colourful leaves can add significant warmth to your photo. A small, but dedicated group of waterfallers are active in winter too. As long as you are careful and aware of winter hazards, SOME waterfalls can look like a winter wonderland.
Don't believe me... believe the members of the 'Waterfalls of Ontario' Facebook Group
Many online tutorials recommend that you take photos on dull, overcast days. This is often good advice, because the 'softer' light that comes on a cloudy day is more diffuse. In other words, everything appears to be lit evenly from all directions. This eliminates the strong shadows shown at Robertson Creek Falls above. Colours can be more natural too.
Not a shadow or overexposed spot in this photo of Yankee Falls! The photo was taken on a cloudy day. A bright sunny day would have resulted in uneven brightness across the scene.
Is it possible to overdo the overcast day "rule"? Absolutely. If your photo is going to include a big swath of grey skies, it can result in an uninspiring image. Thus, these conditions are usually best for smaller waterfalls that are hidden deep in the woods. And while you shouldn't be afraid of rainy days, things can be "too dull and wet." Mmy visit to Magpie Falls on a windy, rainy day did not result in good photos. Aside from the challenge of keeping your camera dry, a steady rain between you and the falls can make it impossible to get a clear photo. For this reason, you may have better luck on rainy days if you are photographing smaller waterfalls that you can get close to.
Oops! Too much rain makes it hard to get a good photo, especially of larger waterfalls.
Having said all of the above, you CAN take awesome waterfall photos on bright sunny days too! This generally works best for waterfalls that are open to the sky with very little shade. Including a bright blue sky, or dramatic set of clouds can result in very pleasing photos. This isn't so good for smaller waterfalls hidden in the woods... save those ones for cloudy days.
Bright blue skies are fine, as long as the waterfall is open to the sky.
Do you have the book?
Composition is an art that I'm still learning. The simplest rules were covered in the beginner's section above. "Keep it simple" and "isolate your subject" are valid for just about any type of photography. I have found through the years that taking photos from different angles can give you a nice surprise when you get home.
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 many photographers find that the best shots often come from the bottom of the falls at river level. If you can do this safely
it can help you to immerse yourself in the scene and cuts out the 'non-waterfall' stuff around the top of the gorge.
No matter what you do, don't risk your life for a photo!
Getting to the bottom of things at Lower Aguasabon Falls. Getting low to water level helps to fill the frame and makes you feel like you are a part of the scene.
There are a few general photography tips that also work well with waterfalls. Read about the Rule of Thirds.
In a nutshell, keeping everything perfectly centered in an image can result in very sterile, boring photos. eg. Instead of putting the horizon right across the middle, try to offset it so that it is only one third of the way down from the top. eg. Instead of putting a foreground feature right in the middle of your image, put it one third up from the bottom and one third in from the side. This is a general rule that is meant to be broken, but it is often quite effective.
Rule of Thirds at High Falls on Papineau Creek. In this case, the 'horizon' is the crest of the waterfall, and is 1/3 from the top. The position of the boulder in the middle of the stream is a good application of the Rule of Thirds.
Traditionally, most landscape photographers chose to use 'landscape orientation' for their photos. In other words, this would be horizontal and fill a computer screen. In my opinion, this usually results in the best shots that you would want to enlarge and hang on your wall.
However, if you are sharing photos to social media, you need to accept that the majority of people are going to be seeing your image on a phone screen. For example, my tracking software shows that more than 3/4 of the people that visit this web site do so from a phone or tablet. Since these devices are usually held vertically, you should really consider posting more photos in 'portrait orientation'. It makes a much bigger impact if you can fill your viewer's screen.
If you are using a mobile phone right now, scroll up... Which image makes more impact? The one showing the rule of thirds at Papineau Creek, or the one showing water level at Lower Aguasabon Falls?
A Better Camara?
If you bought a $14,000 oven, would your lasagna necessarily taste any better?
You don't need an expensive camera to take good photos. But more advanced cameras are usually behind the very best photos. Like anything else in life, you still need to know how to use it. On it's own, a $14,000 oven in my home would not make me a better chef!
Better cameras usually give you better control over your photography. Remember, basic "all-automatic" cameras are programmed by engineers to give decent results in average conditions. In other words, it has to be "pretty good" in as many different situations as possible. When conditions are specific, sometimes your image will benefit from specific settings.
Before you jump out and spend a bunch of money, see if the camera that you already have has controls and functions that you haven't tried before. A good test is to see if you can do the 'long exposure trick' (see next section below). If you can set your camera to do this, then you already have better control over your camera.
More expensive cameras can result in better image quality.
'Image quality' is a very ambiguous term that is often mis-used. It can actually be impacted moer by the photograher's skill as well as by environmental conditions and lighting. In other words, a better camera does not always give better image quality. You can make an instant impact on your image quality by learning to be a better photographer.
"Real cameras" have an advantage over cell phones. They use much larger sensors and much larger lenses. These is a reason for this. Together, they gather more light for the camera to compute with. This results in images that are less "noisy"/"grainy". It also increases the dyanmic range of your image. This is the range between the lightest and darkest part of your image. Which camera would you rather have during tough summer sun conditions?
In recent years, cell phones have made huge strides. For photos taken in good light and intended for display on a phone or a computer screen, you may not notice much difference in the image. Printing is a different story, with the bigger cameras being a clear winner. A real camera can also give you easier control on exposure. They also tend to make you slow down and think about what you are doing.
At the end of the day, the best camera is that one that you have with you!
The Long Exposure Trick
The photo below is not "fake". It was not produced using a "Photoshop trick", and was not created using an "iPhone filter" or "Instagram filter". This is the result of using a long exposure, which causes the water (and anything else that moves) to blur across the image.
A one-second exposure blurs the water but keeps stationary items in focus.
This blurring effect has been used by photographers for 100 years, long before computers were invented. Rivers move, and this is one way of conveying that movement to the viewer. Many photographers choose to use this effect because it can be challenging to do it right. Up until very, very recently, you couldn't do this with a cell phone. Being able to acheive this look is a right of passage for many amateur photographers.
Some people love this effect, and others hate it. That's OK. It looks great at some waterfalls, but looks horrible at others. It is probably over-done. But recently, we've seen lots of people call this the "Photoshop effect", and claim that photos like this are "Fake". People write that they want to see a 'real waterfall'.
Many photographers argue that your eyes don't see a "freeze-frame" when looking at falling water, so using a quick "snap-shot" exposure is no more realistic than long exposure. One added benefit of long-exposure is that it simplifies the image, making it look less chaotic (remember the "keep it simple" rule). This applies sometimes, but not always. Note that there are occasions when long exposure is necessary and unavoidable, such as when the light is fading at the very end of the day.
The long exposure effect can be over-done, and doesn't work in all situations. My general rule now is that it works best for smaller to medium-sized waterfalls, and is best done when the falls is shaded. Larger waterfalls often look better without the long exposure effect, especially if they are in bright sun. For example, I worked hard to slow my exposure enough to get this shot of Kapkigiwan Falls. But I think that the long-exposure effect makes the falls look much smaller and weaker than it really is.
The long exposure effect isn't always a good idea. It made Kapkigiwan Falls look small and weak... which it definitely is not!
If your camera lets you control exposure, and you use a tripod, you may be able to try this trick. By keeping the camera lens open for a quarter second or more, the movement of the water blurs across the image. Stationary objects stay sharp.
Most photographs are taken with the shutter open for a very short time, like 1/250th of a second. When a 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 mirrorless or a bridge camera, read 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 (the largest number), like f/16 or f/22. What is happening is that this small aperture lets much less light into your camera. Your camera will now have to use a longer (slower) exposure to get enough light for your scene. The milky look is a by-product of this long exposure.
Unfortunately, on a bright sunny 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. Or, 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 Tip!
Even if you don't have a fancy camera, you can try the long-exposure trick if you shoot close to dusk.
It's critical to have a tripod if you want to do this. Otherwise, your image will not stay sharp, because the rocks and trees will streak across the image during the long exposure time. UPDATE 2021: Ok, it USED to be critical to have a tripod! Some new cameras, like the flagship models from Olympus, are so advanced that you can get sharp images from a one or two second exposure, even if you hold the camera in your hands! This would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago.
Note that cell phones that are simulating this effect are doing it using computational photography. If you look closely at the results, you can see the difference, though it usually isn't noticeable on a mobile screen.
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. Remember, I'm not a pro!
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. This helps to convey a sense of power, and I find that the milky effect makes the larger falls just look like a big blurry mess. Again, personal preference.
- Try to put something in the foreground. This creates depth and interest. I often try to include a boulder in the river bed and use the rule of thirds (see the example from Papineau Creek, above). It's not always possible to use the rule of thirds, and that's Ok.
- 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 a useful tool. Without getting into the physics of it, it can cut down on the glare from wet rocks and can reduce the reflections coming off a flat water surface. Sometimes this has a very dramatic effect, but other times it isn't worth it.
- Do not scrimp on a cheap polarizer or neutral density filter. Cheap filters WILL decrease your image quality. You don't need to go crazy, but avoid the cheapest models.
- Wide angle lenses often give a good sense of drama in photos, because they gently distort perspective. This works best when you get close to the photo, but also include something in the foreground. 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.
- As for spray, sometimes just a few steps to the left or right can take you to a completely spray-free zone. Try it!
- 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 the system thinks that it is ~too still~. I've also read that this doesn't matter....(?)
- 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). That said, HDR can be the only way that you can properly capture some scenes, especially when there are sunny and shady patches.
- The problem with blending exposures for waterfalls is that no two waterfall images are exactly the same. The jet or whitewater is always changing. Thus, blending will give you artifacts that can ruin the image. Blending can still be useful to pull in overexposed skies or underexposed vegetation or rocks. But try to expose for the water correctly the first time.
- 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 recording several thousand levels 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.
Got more ideas? Looking for help?
I used HDR to blend 3 images of Duchesnay Falls. Strong sun was making it hard to expose for the water without severely underexposing the surrounding trees. You can even see bright patches in the water... A cloudy day would have been better, but this is scene is 500 km from home and so you have to work with what you have!
Join the 'Waterfalls of Ontario' Facebook Group
. Really! We have a tonne of very talented members that are willing to help!