10 tips for making better waterfall Photographs

Lower Bingham Falls cascade in Stowe, Vermont

Shooting waterfalls can be a great way as a beginning photographer to learn more about camera settings and filters. They provide great subject matter showing the power of nature and can be a great learning tool to master your camera. Here are ten tips that I have put together for you to use as a starting point when working in this type of photography. Mastering the waterfall shot can be a huge confidence boost when your are just beginning to learn how the camera controls work. Of course all shooting situations are different but by following these ten simple steps you can come home with more keepers.

1. Look for overcast light- Always check weather reports and look for overcast or relatively cloudy days. You will need an even light throughout the composition to avoid what I call “hot spots” or blown out highlights. (These are areas where the water is cresting over rocks or direct sunlight that is filtering down through the forest canopy. Without the overcast light these areas are difficult to expose properly in a long exposure.  I generally use evaluative metering as the camera is going to take into account the whole image area including the areas around the water which without even light can become over or under exposed. Experimentation is key here as it may take a few shots to nail down the exposure.

2. Use a circular polarizer – Don’t be afraid to use one of these bad boys. I was at first but once I did use them they became an indispensable part of my gear. In this instance, I would not buy cheap. You will have this filter for a long time and more expensive equals better. My first one was a B+W 77mm circular polarizer which I still have. B+W make excellent, well constructed filters. In fact the one I own I accidentally dropped on a rock, putting a small scratch in it but has no resulting loss of image quality. This investment will pay off as the filter will help to reduce glare from the water’s surface and give you that “see through” look to it. It will add depth to the image by saturating the colors and will allow a slightly longer exposure.

3. ISO- Right off the bat when setting up the image I know that if I want the long exposures I will be using Iso’s from 100 to 200 and no more. Using a low Iso will help to reduce grain in the image from the long exposure but is also another tool to make the exposure longer by allowing less light to reach the sensor. However if you are doing the opposite and freezing the waters motion Iso’s in the 400 range in sunlight will allow for a shorter exposure. Remember to use your judgement depending on the scene and the light. Ask yourself what you want to do..Do I want to freeze the water?,  Which would mean Iso’s above 200 or do I want to record the water over a long period of time? Which means an Iso of 100.

4. F-stop I always have my camera in aperture priority mode and using F-stops in the 8 to 16 range will give you the best depth of field while reducing the effects of blur that can come from diffraction at the higher F-stops. F8 will be the sweet spot but I always shoot in the F11 to F16 range. You must test your own equipment but for me these work by letting me lengthen that exposure time and giving me great sharpness throughout the image.

Green moss and vegetation with a waterfall

5. Shutter speeds and Neutral density filters –  Shutter speeds from ¼ to 1 second will give you perfectly acceptable results. I prefer to work from the 1 second and up range but again it all depends on the light in the scene. I am currently using the Cokin filter system which lets me stack different filters in front of each other rather that the more expensive screw in type. A neutral density filter simple has a neutral grey color throughout and restricts the amount of light entering the lens without changing the image. They come in different strengths and are a crucial component in long exposure work.

6. Choose your time of year carefully This point is important as the time of year will affect how the water is running in a particular falls. While they can be shot successfully in all seasons here in Vermont I think the summer and fall     months are best. The spring months bring fast-moving water from melting snows however the landscape around the falls can be a bit boring. Not much is growing and their isn’t much color so I think close up views are best here. In     the summer and fall seasons you have your friend the forest canopy to help in providing a nice, even light as well as blocking a good portion of direct sunlight from hitting the composition. You also will have the green colors in the summer and all of the various foliage colors in the fall. Winter is a challenge as I think you can have too much white in an image from a long exposure but not impossible to get a decent waterfall shot in this season.

7. Use a stackable filter system Using a stackable filter system from Cokin or Lee instead of the screw in type will allow you to get the benefits of your three main filters for landscape and waterfall  work…The circular polarizer, the neutral density filter and the graduated neutral density filter. The other major advantage to these is cost. I use a Canon 17-40mm L series lens with a 77mm filter diameter and just a screw in circular polarizer alone is well over $100 dollars. The cost savings has allowed me to have a number of these filters in different strengths to cover most shooting situations that I would face.
8. Compose so the viewer is right in front of the falls – While this is not always possible I want the viewer to feel like they are standing right in front of the falls. I want them to feel the rush of the water and the mist from the water spray. I just like how dynamic that kind of composition can look versus one from above or from really far away.

9. Wide angle or close up?- The weather in Vermont can be a cruel mistress some times as it can change very rapidly. There are days when the clouds are low, flat and have now form or shape which can make exposures with waterfalls in them difficult and the resulting composition sometimes can be a little boring. I never let weather stop me from shooting and in these times I try to look for some really interesting close up views instead of the wide-angle ones. These detail shots are great as they slow you down and let you see what otherwise you may have missed. I save the wide angles for when I want to get the entire falls into the shot or when I want to include the sky in the frame.

10. Shoot at sunrise or sunset-  This is a time honored piece of advice but one that works equally as well when doing waterfall work. The low and even light at these times will give you nice long exposures and highlights that are not overexposed. The white from the water will really stand out against the darker background,  The glare on the water will be reduced and these times of day make getting the exposure right much easier. I love these shots when I am out in the woods early in the morning as it can be really quiet and lets you focus on your craft.