How to Take Amazing Waterfall Photographs

Waterfalls provide endless amounts of fun and frustration for photographers. Once you get the hang of it, photographing waterfalls does become simpler. Take my advice for photographing waterfalls, and it will help get you past the frustrating part and on to the fun part!

Essential Waterfall Photography Gear

If you want amazing images, you are going to have to leave your iPhone in your pocket and use a camera that has a few more controls.

Camera

You will need a camera that is capable of shooting in manual mode for waterfalls. To get that silky smooth look you are going to need a long exposure; sometimes this exposure can be more than a second.

Tripod

The second most important piece of gear to photograph waterfalls is a sturdy waterproof tripod. Everyone new photographer gasps at the cost of a good tripod at least I know that I did, but it’s required. Remember we are going after amazing images and not snapshots.

A good sturdy tripod is one that has legs that have a diameter that is closer to the size of a quarter and not a dime. Carbon fiber is better than an aluminum one because they are more water resistant and lighter. I prefer to buy tripods that don’t have a center column so that I can get down lower to the ground and they are less prone to vibrations. Get a tripod that is tall enough that you don’t have to bend at the waist to use.

Wide Angle Lens

I find that lenses that can cover the range of 16-35mm are the best for photographing waterfalls. That is wide enough to get even the tallest waterfalls into the frame, and yet you can still zoom in to let your creativity guide you.

Speaking of creativity, I do like to use my 24-70mm or even a 70-200mm lens to zoom and catch bits and pieces of waterfalls.

Polarizing Filters

The polarizer is the last bit of my essential gear list for waterfall photography. Don’t even bother trying to get an amazing waterfall without a circular polarizer. Most people assume that this filter is to make the blue sky blue and even though it can do that you shouldn’t. What it does brilliantly is reducing that shine that you see on wet rocks in around the falls.

two waterfall images one showing the benefits of a polarizing filter - Waterfalls Photography Workshop
With a polarizer on the left and without on the right.

Non-Essential Gear for Waterfall Photography

Remote Shutter Release

A remote trigger is for sure nice to have, but you can use the self-timer on your camera and achieve the same thing. It is, however, essential that you use one or the other or you are going to have blurry and not amazing waterfall images.

ND Graduated Filter(s)

An ND filter is great if you are trying to tame the light by blocking out light that is too bright (sun peeking over the top) vs. the shadows in the image. If you can’t avoid bright light, then you do need a set of ND Grad filters. BTW, I don’t carry them.

Rain Gear

In general rain gear is a pain in the butt, so I try not to use it if at all possible. Most modern cameras have decent water protection, and so you don’t need a rain coat unless it’s miserable outside. If it is torrential, you should be asking, “Why am I out here?”

You do however have to keep water off of the front of the lens. Photoshop is amazing, but trust me, removing hundreds of out of focus blobs is no fun!

Camera Settings for Amazing Waterfall Photography

Now it’s time to get a picture, you’ve got your gear ready to go and your standing in front of a great waterfall. Let’s get your camera setup too.

Set the Camera to Manual Mode

I know it’s scary, but it’s OK. I rarely shoot in manual mode, but I always do for waterfalls. The simple reason for this type of shot I want to be making the decisions about settings rather than let the camera think for itself. After all, it’s your amazing photo and not the cameras.

Set the Aperture
This setting is where the creativity begins, and you are going to end playing with this a bit depending on all of the variables. I’ve found that F16 is the best starting point.

Set the ISO

You are going to want a slow shutter speed, and a low ISO of 100 will help with that. A low ISO will also keep the noise that can occur with long exposures to a minimum.

Set the Shutter Speed

The slower the shutter speed the more smooth the waterfalls cascade will become. You need to decide the level of “smooth” and adjust your speed. Start with a 30-second exposure and see how that works for you.

Shoot in RAW Mode

Shooting in RAW gives you many important options when you are editing your images. Ask yourself this, would you rather edit a print (jpg file) a negative (a RAW file)?

Before you Click
  • Did you turn the polarizer?
  • Did you check the edges in the viewfinder for bright spots?
  • Did you check to make sure you don’t have blurry things (like a low hanging branch) in the foreground?
Bridal Veil Falls in the Columbia River gorge, OR - Waterfalls photography workshop
With a nice “sky” you can leave the top of the falls in the image

Waterfall Photography Composition

It’s your art, and if you love what you’ve done, it’s perfect! Here are some ideas to help you get to amazing.

You Don’t Need All of the Falls

Unlike animals where I get crazy about feet being chopped off, waterfalls can and often should be chopped off. I’ll head out on a limb and say 80% of the time the very top of the falls is going to have a bright background. I choose to leave the top of the falls off rather than fight the inevitable blown out or boring background with settings or filters. On a blue sky day, it can be fine to leave the sky behind the falls. Why are you out there on a blue sky day?

Photograph When It’s Cloudy

See how I set this one up? The best times to head to the falls or the forest for that matter is when it is a misty, cloudy day. The main reason is you don’t have to fight the light. There is rarely a day when a photographer’s favorite golden light works for waterfalls. An overcast day acts as if you have a giant softbox diffusing the light for you.

What to Include in the Photo

The elements that you choose to include or not include make all of the difference between an amazing waterfall and a snapshot of a waterfall.

Include

  • Any foreground items that lead up to the falls. Rocks, tree limbs, flowers or the trail all work.
  • People! I know, I know, but including people give those big falls a sense of scale and people will better able to grasp the grandeur of the falls.

Don’t Include

  • Ugly boring gray skies.
  • Try to avoid adding anything bright around the edges of the images, like other cascades or streams.
Catarata del Toro Waterfall Costa Rica
Including people in the composition helps give scale to the photo

Final Thoughts for Amazing Waterfalls

Practice makes perfect and the more you get out there and photograph waterfalls the more comfortable you will be. Take a photography workshop and work side by side with a professional photographer. Of course, I would like that to be me, and of course, I do have an amazing waterfall photography workshop, but take any of them you like. And the amazing Brenda Berry is co-leading the workshop too! Workshops are the absolute best way to become a better photographer.

Take some amazing waterfall images, and you can even send them to me, and I’ll pat you on the back and offer some advice on your masterpiece.

Did I forget your favorite tip? Do you have a question? Want to thank me for the amazing waterfall photography tips? That is exactly why the comments form is up next!

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2 thoughts on “How to Take Amazing Waterfall Photographs”

  1. Jen Reply
    December 8, 2016

    Great tips! I hadn’t thought about the shutter speed, but that completely makes sense for capturing a smooth image.

    And it’s so important to choose what you’re including or not including in the shot — like those “ugly boring skies” hahahha.

    1. Jeff Reply
      December 8, 2016

      I know right who likes ugly sky in their pictures? And, Thank you!

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