- It is essential to use a sturdy tripod when photographing waterfalls. Because of the longer exposure and possible water movement around the base of the tripod, it’s important to have a tripod that’s sturdy and heavy enough to stay firm. In the past, longer exposures where I had my tripod base in the water, I noticed camera shake and loss of detail in the background.
- A circular polarizer will be very beneficial in most cases when photographing waterfalls to reduce glare. Not only will the glare be reduced from the water’s surface, but you will get an increase color saturation. I use a Singh-Ray LB Color Combo which has the option for a color intensifier. When you combine this polarizer with its color intensifier it can replicate stunning vibrant colors that pop in the image. I use this polarizer for a majority of my images when trying to reduce glare and boost the colors on the image. Another bonus of the polarizer is that it adds approximately an extra stop and half for longer exposures. This can be very handy when you don’t have a Neutral Density Filter. A Neutral Density Filter (ND Filter ) is a filter that reduces the intensity of all wavelengths or colors of light equally. In layman terms, it lets less light into your camera and thus a longer exposure which a lot of photographers use to get that dreamy look in the water. I really enjoy shooting waterfalls during the day when I can throw on a 5 or 10 stop ND filter to get a longer exposure during times when it would normally be too strong to photograph waterfalls. A word of caution is to avoid the temptation to go with super long exposures when capturing waterfalls. You really want to capture texture and patterns in the water; when you expose for too long the water takes on a milky approach and loses the details. This is especially important for waterfalls and cascades in the immediate foreground.
- Make sure to try a variety of different lenses when composing your shot. Many of the images that have worked for me have been with the ultra-wide a lens so that I can include foreground elements as well as the waterfalls. Every photographer is different, and thus composes images in a different way. For me, I always try to add leading lines or elements in the foreground that balance the composition with the waterfall. But this doesn’t mean, I don’t try a variety of different compositions with different lenses. Having as many images and different compositions make it easier for me to choose something I like when I post process.
- If your camera will allow, bracket your images so that you capture a wide variety of different looks and moods with water movement and patterns. Typically, I focus on trying to get the water exposure to be around half a second. One of the main things I try to avoid when photographing water movement is overexposure of the water. I like my histogram to be on the slight underexposed side so that I can see detail in the water. It’s nice to create a softer mood with a longer exposure, but make sure you watch your histogram so that you don’t blow out the water and more specifically the highlights on your histogram.
- In many situations, waterfalls are located within high contrast scenes like forests and parks. Be aware of the scene and how much difference there is between the waterfall and its surroundings. To be more specific, I often have to expose separately for the water and then take another image for the surroundings. This is because of the high contrast between the elements within the image. In terms of exposing correctly you need to take separate exposures for each element. Sometimes I’ve had to take one exposure image for the water, another for its surroundings, and another one for the sky.
- For most situations when photographing waterfalls, I like to use an aperture around F 13 or F-16 to capture sharpness from front to back in the image. Setting my camera at F-16 and choosing a shutter speed of half a second, I then let my camera tell me the ISO needed to achieve the appropriate exposure. My aperture is F/16 and I’m always trying to achieve between ¼ sec and a couple of seconds at the most. Thus the only variable that changes is the ISO when photographing the water specifically.
7. Be aware of the light in the scene and that you use to add to the image rather than distract. Because sunlight can make or break composition, it’s important to use light in a way that showcases your subject rather than compete with it. I like to place strong light in the top corners.
- Look to capture interesting patterns in the water that provide interesting shapes and details. The best are when you can find leaves flowing through the water that provide leading lines to your subject. Also, look for rocks or objects in the water that point toward the waterfall subject you are shooting.
- Don’t be afraid to get creative and try different things. One of my favorite things to do when composing images with waterfalls is to find angles to shoot where it would be unrecognizable or uncommon. Most of the images that are photographed from waterfalls are from one viewpoint. I encourage you to break the mold and find different places to photograph. Challenge yourself to shoot it in ways that very few photographers have thought of. In the beginning, it can be very tough and frustrating but with time and patience you develop a style that is your own.
- Try to tell a story with your images. Whenever I teach a workshop, I ask the participants to figure out what’s most important to convey in this particular waterfall before shooting. Figure out what is most important about the waterfalls that you would like to convey through your photography. For example, it could be the size of the waterfall, the shape and color of the waterfall, or just the unique patterns in the water. Whatever that one thing is, make that the subject of the waterfall. Tell your story and have fun no matter what !
Kevin McNeal is a landscape photographer who resides in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. He focuses on grand colorful landscapes that reflect the most unique places on earth. Capturing moments of magic light and transferring this on print, images behold a combination of perseverance, patience, and dedication to capture the images in ways unseen before. The stories of how these images are rendered come across in the feelings the images convey.