How To Photograph Waterfalls – The Complete Guide
Learning how to photograph waterfalls is one of the easiest ways to learn your camera settings and practice long exposure photography. There are so many different ways a waterfall can be captured making it easy to get extra creative with your images.
To help you get started with waterfall photography, this guide will break down exactly how to photograph waterfalls in any situation. From the best camera settings, how to capture silky waterfalls, useful filters, and more, this guide is the perfect reference for your next waterfall adventure.
The Best Gear For Waterfall Photography
Before you can get started with photographing waterfalls, it’s important you have the right gear with you. Let’s go over a few pieces of gear that will serve useful both creatively and functionally in the field.
A tripod is one of the most important creative tools in waterfall photography. Without one, it would be extremely difficult to create that silky waterfall look we all know and love.
As you already know, tripods are a tool to keep your camera perfectly still. When your camera is perfectly still, you can use a slow shutter speed to capture long exposure effects.
There are a number of useful reasons to use a tripod in your photography, and they are exceptionally useful when photographing waterfalls. If you want to have the creative option of capturing a long exposure, make sure to pack a tripod along with you!
#2. Wide-Angle Lens
More often than not, waterfalls are in a relatively tight area. Along the narrow shores of the rivers below, there are only so many places you can safely set up. To make your life easier, a wide-angle lens will be an incredibly valuable tool.
Using a lens that’s 35mm or wider will give you the best chance of fitting everything you want into your frame. All waterfalls vary in size and it can be a challenge to fit all of it into your photo on a tighter lens. My personal favorite focal lengths for waterfalls are between 14 – 20mm.
#3. Neutral Density Filters
An ND filter (Neutral Density Filter) is a dark lens filter that acts like sunglasses for your camera. They darken your photo by a certain number of stops, allowing you to use a slower shutter speed. When you use a slower shutter speed, it brightens the overall exposure of your photo. This can make it challenging to capture that silky waterfall look you’re aiming for if the lighting conditions are too bright. By using an ND filter, you don’t have to be limited by lighting conditions and can let your creativity run free.
There are a few different density options you have when looking into ND filters. For waterfall photography, using a 6 or 10 stop ND filter will serve most useful. These densities are great all-rounders for capturing long exposures, even in the brightest conditions. You can learn more about ND filters and how they work here.
Now it is possible to capture that silky waterfall look without any filters. ND filters just make it easier to utilize a slow shutter at any time of day!
#4. A Small Towel And Lens Cloth
Depending on the time of year you’re visiting a waterfall, they can get quite misty! It’s going to be super frustrating to try to keep your lens clear of water if you don’t have something to wipe it with. I like to keep a small microfiber towel with me any time I am photographing a waterfall. They dry very easily and fold up extremely small compared to a regular towel.
After wiping your lens free from water, it’s not uncommon to have streaking across the glass. With the help of a lens cloth, you can buff out the streaks and make your lens look good as new. This one-two duo is an absolute must any time you’re taking pictures of waterfalls.
The Best Camera Settings For Waterfall Photography
Once you have the right gear, it’s important to get your camera settings right. Unfortunately, there isn’t necessarily a ‘secret formula’ that can be applied to all waterfall images. Your settings will constantly change depending on the time of day, location, and size of the waterfall. Rather than giving you a definitive answer (that doesn’t exist), this section will share a few useful settings to get more creative with your waterfall photography.
#1. Choosing The Right Camera Mode
Depending on your ability levels and confidence with your camera, there are two primary camera modes for great waterfall images.
– Manual Mode (M)
Manual mode gives you complete control of your camera. You’re in charge of choosing all your primary settings like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. By being able to get really specific with your camera settings, you maintain the most creative control possible. The trouble with this camera mode is it’s more challenging for beginners who aren’t quite familiar with their settings. Luckily, if you’ve been wanting to learn manual mode, my free Photography Essentials ebook will be the perfect resource you’ve been looking for.
– Shutter Priority (Tv)
Shutter priority is a semi-automatic camera mode that lets you manually set the shutter speed, while your camera takes care of the rest. This is an amazing mode to use for beginners since you don’t have to think about anything besides your shutter speed. The downside to this setting is that you can’t manually control your depth of field (aperture). What you slightly lose in creative control, you make up for with ease of use for all skill levels!
#2. Choosing The Best Shutter Speed
The most important part of learning how to photograph waterfalls is to master your shutter speed. Knowing exactly what shutter speeds will create silky waterfalls and which will freeze them in place. These are important creative decisions to make before you take a waterfall photo.
– For Silky Waterfalls
A good starting ground for silky looking waterfalls is a shutter speed of 1/5 or slower. At 1/5 you’ll start to notice a bit of motion blur in both the falls and river. As you slow down the shutter even further, you create additional motion blur for an even smoother look. The ‘falling water’ section of a waterfall will blur the most at 1/5 since it’s where the water is moving the fastest. The area beneath the waterfall will need a slower shutter speed like 1″ or longer to get an adequate blur. Using this shutter speed as your base for capturing silky waterfalls, you can experiment further with slower shutter speeds that may suit the scene better.
– To Freeze Water In Place
If you want to freeze water in place, you need to use a much faster shutter speed. 1/250 or above is a great starting ground to completely freeze any waterfall. Depending on how crisp you want the water to look, you may need to use something even faster like 1/500.
Faster shutter speeds tend to look the best with larger waterfalls. With a slow shutter, large waterfalls can look like an uninteresting plume of white with no details. Using a faster shutter can capture the textures and draw more attention to the waterfall itself.
#3. Choosing The Best Aperture
If you’re shooting in manual mode, you’ll want to use an aperture that best suits that scene you’re shooting. Since waterfall images are typically showcasing an entire scene, you’ll want to use a smaller aperture to utilize the most depth of field. By increasing the DOF, you can make sure everything is perfectly sharp. Using an aperture like F/8 or F/11 is a great aperture for all-around use.
If you have branches in the foreground, F/8 may suit the image better. Being a slightly wider aperture, you can create a bit of blur to draw less attention to any ‘distractions’ in your frame. If the scene is of a more open space, using a smaller aperture like F/11 or above will make sure everything looks crystal clear in your frame!
#4. Choosing The Best ISO
Just like with any style of photo, it’s best to keep your ISO setting as low as possible. Keep your ISO set to 100 as a base, and only increase it when necessary. For example, if you try to use a faster shutter in a low light situation you’ll likely need to increase the ISO. If your lens filter darkens your image a little too much, you’ll need to increase the ISO once again. Use ISO as a tool to fill the gaps in your exposure once you’ve decided on a shutter speed and aperture setting.
Using a lower ISO setting is important to reduce the amount of noise in your photo. The less noise, the higher quality, and sharper your image will appear when zoomed in or printed!
#5. How To Choose Your Settings With ND Filters
If you will be using an ND filter for your waterfall photography, it’s important to know how to compensate your base settings. After you’ve figured the proper settings for your scene without a filter, you’ll realize they get completely skewed once you add the ND filter. Luckily there is an easy way to adjust your settings to find the perfect exposure once again.
After you’ve set your base settings, it’s time to add your ND filter. In this example let’s use a 6 stop ND filter. When I first set my camera settings without a filter they were 1/100 F/11 ISO 100. The trouble is, once I add my 6 stop ND, my photo looks completely black. To make the adjustment, I need to lighten my image by 6 stops. That means I need to half my shutter speed 6 times.
1/100 > 1/50 > 1/25 > 1/13 > 1/6 > 1/3 > 0″6
After halving 1/100 6 times, my new shutter speed with the ND filter will be 0″6. This new shutter speed will give me the same exposure as before, but now I can make the waterfall look like silk! Depending on the density of your ND filter, that’s the number of times you half your shutter speed.
Shutter Speed / Filter Density = Compensated shutter speed
The Best Time Of Day For Waterfall Photography
The next big component to consider with waterfall photography is the time of day you capture it. Typically waterfalls are surrounded by trees that diffuse a lot of the sunlight coming in. However, on particularly sunny days, these tree branches can leave spotty and distracting shadows on parts of your scene. To get the most even light possible, the best time to photograph waterfalls is early or late in the day, before the sun is highest. This will ensure you avoid any distracting shadows and help to make your waterfall image look as clean as possible.
If the waterfall you’re looking to shoot has a more open vista, golden hour can be a great opportunity to capture more color and vibrance. It’s important to do a bit of planning ahead of time to see where the sun will rise/set. This way you’ll know whether or not there will be golden light on the waterfall and if it’s worth your time.
An underrated time of day to take pictures of a waterfall is during blue hour. Blue hour is the period of time just before the sunrise or after the sunset. It’s when the colors of golden hour have faded and everything takes on a blueish hue. This is a great opportunity for an even light and moody colors unlike any other time of day!
If you’re not using an ND filter, you’ll struggle to capture long exposures of waterfalls in midday. It’s often too bright to work your settings around, so you need to be more selective about when you’re shooting. If you aren’t using lens filters, stick to early/late in the day, or get out when it’s gloomy and dark!
How To Capture Long Exposure Waterfalls Without Lens Filters
Although ND filters make life a lot easier, you don’t need to have one to capture long exposures of waterfalls. There are a few easy tricks to adjust your settings to compensate for a slower shutter speed. The video below assumes you’re using manual mode and are shooting in a shaded area. If you are in direct sunlight, it will still be too bright for this technique to apply.
Step 1: Set your ISO to the lowest setting. This will be ISO 100 on most cameras.
Step 2: Adjust your aperture to the smallest setting. In this example, I’ll be using F/22. This aperture will let the least amount of light in and darken my photo as much as possible.
Step 3: Slow down your shutter speed. Depending on how bright it is around you, this will vary. Ideally, you want to use a shutter speed of at least 1/5 to get that long exposure look in your waterfalls
By limiting the ISO and aperture as much as possible, you allow room to slow down your shutter speed. This is an easy and effective technique to use if you don’t own ND filters or are just looking to experiment with long exposure photography. It’s important to keep in mind that this will only work in shaded situations. If you were shooting in direct sunlight, the scene would be too bright to compensate your exposure settings.
How To Find New Waterfalls To Photograph
Sure it’s useful to know how to photograph waterfalls, but what if you can’t find any? Maybe you’ve exhausted your list of local spots or are just looking for something more exciting. Fortunately, there are a few easy ways to find new waterfalls to photograph!
– World Waterfall Database
The World Waterfall Database is an absolute powerhouse to help you seek out new waterfalls. From the most popular through to the most obscure, this website seriously has every waterfall you could want to know about. This is by far the best tool to help you discover new waterfalls in your area!
– Trail Finding Apps
Depending on where you live, there are a variety of different trail apps available for free. These mobile apps allow you to see all the trails near you and show example images of each. Since a lot of trails either lead to or pass by a waterfall, browsing through these images makes it easy to find new waterfalls to check out. The app I like to use for this is called AllTrails. It’s completely free and definitely worth checking out.
– Google Search
Another easy way to find waterfalls in your area is with a quick google search. Search for something like “waterfalls in __________(your area)” and there are countless blogs and articles sharing spots you’ve never heard of. Keep in mind that this method often shows you the most searched for and sought after waterfalls. This method is great for finding waterfalls if you’re new to the scene, but won’t help much to find obscure hidden gems.
– Instagram Location Tags
Instagrams location tags can be a handy place to find waterfalls within a specific location. For example, you could search for the tag of a national park and see what waterfall images you find. If there’s one that piques your interest, send that person a DM asking if they’d be willing to share info on it. This method can be hit or miss depending on who you ask, but still worth a shot!
The Best Angle To Photograph Waterfalls
Choosing the best angle to photograph a waterfall can be a tricky decision. There are often a variety of accessible areas that you could set up to get the perfect shot… but which one should you choose? Let’s go over a few of the best compositions for waterfall photography.
#1. Low Angle In The River
This is one of the most dynamic and engaging angles to photograph waterfalls from. From this perspective, you not only capture the waterfall, but also the river flowing past the camera. This creates an extra point of interest in your frame and can really draw in the viewers’ attention.
When setting up in the river it’s extremely important to gauge the water levels and current. If the water is moving extremely fast and has deep water, it’s probably best to give up on this angle. If the water is shallow and there is a safe area to stand, then definitely go for it!
When using this angle make sure to set everything up before you head out into the water. It can be a little awkward and tedious to adjust your camera while you’re standing in a flowing river. Be extra cautious about where your tripod is set up and ensure it’s on solid ground beneath the surface of the water. The last thing you’d want is for your camera to tip over because of a precarious tripod!
Depending on how adventurous you feel, hip waders or rubber boots are useful for this. Otherwise, you’ll just have to brave the cold river in your bare feet!
#2. Top Down Angle
Getting to the top of a waterfall can create a really unique perspective in your images. From this angle, you can see the waterfall, and the area it’s flowing into. This angle is most useful for taller waterfalls that flow into some kind of canyon or open area. There are some places with walkways that pass along the top of a waterfall. This presents the perfect opportunity to safely capture this angle!
This angle is never worth accessing if the approach is unstable, fenced off, or wet. Always try to keep an adequate distance from the edge and never stand in the water above a waterfall. Use your common sense and only seek this angle out if it’s safe to do so.
#3. Incorporating The Waterfall Into A Larger Scene
Yes waterfalls are beautiful, but what about everything else around them? Get further away from the waterfall and see what types of compositions you can find to showcase the overall environment. Photographing a waterfall with the surrounding area can give more context to the frame and create more of a wow factor. Rather than just a waterfall in a random river, showing the entire scene gives it a sense of place.
#4. Use A Longer Focal Length
Obviously, it’s pretty hard to get physically close to a waterfall without getting soaked, but that’s what zoom lenses are for! Using a longer focal length can be a great way to give a unique minimalist look to your waterfall photography. Try to focus on any unique rock formations or foliage along the waterfall. Using a tighter lens helps to cut out the distractions and create a stunning fine-art feel to your waterfalls images.
The Best Time Of Year To Photograph Waterfalls
Waterfalls won’t look the same at all times of the year. As the seasons change the amount of rainfall or snowmelt plays a huge role in the flow of a waterfall. In the fall and winter, as precipitation starts to ramp up, the size of waterfalls can increase dramatically. Waterfalls that were once a trickle in the summer become overwhelmed by water.
During the fall and winter when there is more water flowing, it can be challenging to get the photo you’re looking for. More water equals more mist that will immediately cover your lens making it difficult to get a good shot.
The best time of year to photograph waterfalls is during the spring or early summer when there’s a moderate amount of runoff, but it’s not as overwhelming. Of course, you can photograph a waterfall at any time of year, but the amount of water/mist will change the types of shots you can capture.
Once you learn how to photograph waterfalls, the opportunities are endless! There are so many waterfalls to choose from and each one has it’s own unique beauty. By using the tips outlined in this guide, you have all the skills you need to capture amazing waterfall photos.
Waterfalls are one of the best ways to begin practicing long exposure photography as well. The best part of all, you don’t need a lens filter to try it! I encourage you to experiment with different shutter speeds at the same waterfall to see how your image changes. Once you see these outcomes for yourself, you’ll begin to find your own taste as your skills progress.
If you know someone who wants to capture better waterfall photos, make sure to share this post with them!
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