Sloshing around small and big waterfalls while taking pictures leaves one feeling better for the experience, especially on a warm summer day when you may find yourself more immersed in your subject than usual. There are thousands of waterfalls across the U.S., and a few of them are probably nearby.
Having photographed hundreds of waterfalls, I’ve come to a few conclusions that I’d like to share. One is that you should give it a try. Two is that if you follow some simple techniques, you’ll soon be creating waterfall photos that will find a prominent place in your home gallery. Three, unless you’re careful, you, too, will become addicted to photographing waterfalls. Four, wear old sneaks (maybe a bathing suit, too) and bring an extra set of dry clothes.
Getting your feet wet
As with most projects, preparation is key. You need to arm yourself with the right equipment (see list below) and the right techniques. Try to plan your photography trips on days of good waterfall conditions. Look at the forecast and pick a day with partly cloudy days (or mostly cloudy if you don’t have a choice); partly cloudy skies give you the option of waterfalls lit by bright sun or soft diffuse light. Try to pick a period when the stream level is high enough to create a strong waterfall but not so high as to create soaking mists—in other words, the peak of spring runoff can be an even more difficult time than a summer drought that reduces a waterfall to a trickle.
Discovering a waterfall in pristine conditions can lead to some exciting photography.
You can find stream levels at http://water.usgs.gov/. Click on Real Time Data and select your state from the map that appears. Stream levels are color coded. In spring, anywhere from slightly below normal to slightly above normal may give good conditions. In summer, choose slightly above normal (turquoise or blue color coded circles on map)—you may need to wait for some rain.
Allow at least one hour at each destination to take pictures. Given the many variables, be prepared to make more than one trip to the same waterfall. I have visited some waterfalls well over a dozen times to find better light, a better water level, or seasonal variations--be they the colorful leaves of autumn or a fairyland dusting of snow.
And be careful. Slick rocks and steep slopes are a dangerous combination.
Selecting shutter speed
Slow shutter speeds (5 seconds to 1/15 second) give falling water that soft cotton-candy look that most people like. Using a low ISO and a small aperture (such ISO 100 and f/16) makes it easier to achieve a slow shutter speed. Shutter speeds of 1/15 second and slower generally require a tripod. Fast shutter speeds (1/125 second and up) freeze the water into individual strands and droplets. In bright light, unless you’re carrying a neutral density filter, you may have no choice but to use a fast shutter speed to yield correct exposure.
A fast shutter speed, such as 1/320 second, freezes water's motion, often giving an unnatural look.
Many waterfalls are nearly white, requiring you to increase exposure to avoid a dreary gray waterfall. I typically set the exposure compensation dial to + ½. If your waterfall is whitish, check the histogram to make sure its tonal values are on the right quarter of the graph, but not jammed up against the far right.
When using a slow shutter speed, instead of pressing the shutter button with a finger, release it with the self timer, a cable release, or a remote control. Your pictures will be sharper.
A slow shutter speed, such as 1/6 second, gives falling water a soft, flowing appearance.
Selecting an aperture
Landscape photos traditionally render the scene sharp from front to back. To achieve such sharpness, you need to set a small aperture on the lens, such as f/11 or f/16. If the focal length of the lens you are using is 24 to 50 mm, you can then focus on an object about a third of the way into the scene (approximately 10 to 15 feet from the camera), to assure that you get front-to-back sharpness in your photos.
To give your pictures more depth, include a foreground subject.
White balance settings
Because so many waterfalls are white, they easily pick up the color of the light striking them. This is most noticeable when a waterfall in the shade illuminated by the blue sky appears a distinct blue in the photo. Depending on your tastes, a blue waterfall can be a pleasing or distracting. Because several variations of white balance may look good, waterfalls are subjects that especially lend themselves to the RAW file format so you can later change white balance to choose the effect you like best.
When I'm traveling light for a long hike, the list below is what I carry. When I'm photographing near a road, I'll carry a few more lenses, and possibly a heavier tripod.
Great for waterfall photography are neutral density filters. Neutral density filters are like sunglasses for your lens. They reduce light reaching the sensor, allowing you to increase exposure with a slower shutter speed for that soft water effect. In addition to reducing watery glare, polarizing filters let you increase exposure (use a slower shutter speed) about 1 2/3 stops, acting like a moderate neutral density filter. But for waterfalls that’s not a lot. Consider carrying a neutral density filter with a density value between 1.0 and 2.0. A 1.0 lets you use a shutter speed 3 1/3 stops lower, a 2.0 6 2/3 stops slower. In other words, on a sunlit waterfall instead of using 1/125 at f/16, if you attach a 1.0 ND filter, you could set the shutter speed to about 1/15 second at f/16. With a 2.0 ND filter, you could slow the shutter speed down to about 1 second at f/16.
Use a polarizing filter to control watery reflections. Choosing how much to reduce the reflections is a matter of taste. Eliminating most reflections may look unreal, leaving too many may result in distracting highlight glare.
||Provides exposure flexibility
|Wide-angle zoom lens
||Good for big waterfalls in a narrow gorge
||Holds the camera steady for long shutter speeds
||Controls shiny reflections on wet water (also reduces exposure by 1 2/3 stops for slower shutter speeds)
|1.0 Neutral density filter
||Increases exposure by 3 1/3 stops (2.0 increases by 6 2/3 stops)
|Plastic garbage bag
||Protects gear from heavy mist
||Use to dry gear
||Repels mosquitoes and black flies
|In the car: Dry shoes, socks, towel
||You’ll need these a comfortable ride home
The right light
Light greatly influences appearance. Theatergoers see the dramatic effects of light every time they attend a new play. You won’t have such control. Once you arrive at a waterfall, you may have little choice about the type of light—it’s simply there. Trees and cliffs may block sunlight from shining on waterfalls. Often the light reaching them is the indirect light reflected from the sky.
And that’s okay, because diffuse light flatters subjects. All-purpose diffuse lighting almost always lets you take good waterfall pictures. Nearly shadowless, it shows everything equally well.
Bright sunshine energizes a scene. But in gorges it adds shadows that can important details the scene. On sunny days, compose extra carefully so sunny and shaded areas work together.
The soft light of a cloudy day eliminates large deep shadows and reveals the entire scene.
As you study a waterfall for best composition, look both near and far. Consider the whole scene. Look for a foreground rock or log to add interest and depth to the photo.
Showing a person beside a big waterfall makes it seem even bigger.
Vary your composition. Change viewpoint, subject selection, and subject size. Look for the unusual patterns contained in the different segments of flowing water as it braids together and twists apart. Stoop to ground level and show the water rushing toward the camera, or scramble up (very carefully) the side of a slope so you are looking eye-to-eye at a waterfall. If it’s especially big, include a person or other object of known size to reveal its size and grandeur.
Don't always photograph it head-on. Look for side views. Seen from the side, a waterfall appears more three dimensional and more realistic as it leaps across the frame of the picture.
Show a waterfall off-center in a picture. Occasionally, show just a fragment of a waterfall, its lower half, or show it partially blocked by trees as if you are viewing it from the woods for the first time.
Try showing it small, as part of a bigger landscape, or move it to the far side of the picture. Vary your subject selection. You’ll find more than just waterfalls during your treks. Look for trees tilting precariously from the cliffs or logs spanning the creeks. Or use the rapids downstream from the waterfall as a foreground and leading line that directs the eye back to the waterfall.
As you contemplate the waterfall, think ahead to how you might create a small gallery display for a bathroom or stairwell wall. Most waterfalls offer lots of visual variety. Take advantage of them while you’re there by varying your shooting angles and distances and composition to give you the assets to work toward building that gallery.
And before you leave, if the day is warm, dip your feet into the stream and cool off.
© 2008 Adorama Camera, Inc.