You Can Take Better Pictures!
I don't pretend to be a professional landscape photographer. But hopefully some of the tips below will help you to improve your waterfall photography. If I can learn, so can you!
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. (Skip to intermediate-level tips
, or to advanced-level tips
- Get close! But only if you can do it safely! If you can't safely move closer to the falls, use your zoom. Either way, 'fill your frame' with your subject.
- It's 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 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 slightly crooked photo.
- Watch the lighting. Taking a picture with the sun in front of you rarely works out well. (In fact, as you will read further 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 close or your use your zoom to fill the screen
The Next Level
Waterfalls change with the seasons. In most cases, summer is NOT the best time to photograph 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!).
Bright summer sun and heavy shade made it hard to get a balanced photo of Robertson Creek Falls. Expose for the water, and everything else is underexposed. Expose for the trees and the water is blown out.
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!
Getting low to water level helps to fill the frame and makes you feel like you are a part of the scene.
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. It would have fixed the image of Robertson Creek Falls shown above, a lot better than fancy techniques like HDR.
Don't be afraid of wet, dull days. We are chasing waterfalls afterall! But there is a limit... my visit to Magpie Falls on a windy, rainy day did not result in good photos!
Rainy days can be a bust for photography... though you may have better luck with close ups of smaller falls.
Having said all of the above, you CAN take 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.
Do you have the book?
A Better Camara?
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 the camera... if you buy a $10,000 oven, your lasagna won't improve overnight!
At some point you may say "Maybe I need a more expensive camera." 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.
Long Exposure for Milky Water: Love it or Hate it!
If your camera lets you control exposure, and you use a tripod, you may be able to try the "milky" water trick. By keeping the camera lens open for a half second or more, the movement of the water blurs across the image. Stationary objects stay in focus. Some people love this look, and others hate it!
Recently, we've seen lots of people call it the "Photoshop effect" or "the smooth filter". While the look can now be simulated by some cell phones, the trick has actually been around for one hundred years. Some of the earliest examples turned out this way because the photographer needed a long exposure due to low light conditions.
A one-second exposure blurs the water but keeps stationary items in focus.
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 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. 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. 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!
Even if you don't have a fancy camera, you can do the long-exposure trick if you shoot close to dusk.
It's critical to have a tripod if you want to do this. 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, 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.
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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 1/250 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 useful, though I have been using it less in recent years. 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.
- As for spray, sometimes a few steps to the left or right can take you to a spray-free zone.
- 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'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).
- 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.
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