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Guide for great waterfall photos

Chasing waterfalls is always an exciting quest, whether it is the challenge or the beauty of nature. You want to capture great photos to share the experience with friends and maybe even have as a screen wallpaper.

Most photographers attest that an epic photo involves planning, on-site technique, post-processing, and a bit of luck. In this article, you'll find great tips for planning and on-site technique. With these, you will surely be en-route to capture awesome photos at your next waterfall outing using the camera you have now.


Tip #1: Do your research.

It sounds basic yet often overlooked. Before hitting the road, look up what information is available about the waterfall and the route to get there. A simple google search can prove invaluable for the best experience.

Small seasonal waterfall

1.- Confirm there is water running. Some waterfalls are seasonal. It could be disappointing to hike, sometimes for miles, to find out the waterfall is [nearly] dry. For some, the best season is in the Spring when the snow is melting. For others, it is early Fall when rain is more abundant. Of course, there are some waterfalls that put on a show all year long though the conditions can dramatically change (i.e. frozen water);

2.- Identify visiting peak times. Parking/trail can get overcrowded at certain times which is also an indicator that you're likely to get people in your frame which could be a concern for many photographers;

Tip #2: Dress for the occasion.

Leave fashion for the runway, this is a time to be comfortable and safe. I honestly do not understand why people would punish themselves with restrictive clothing and footwear.

Prepare to get wet head to toe!

1. Wear proper shoes and comfy socks. Consider the type of trail (paved, dirt, rocky), the distance to walk, and how close will you get to the water. Rocks can be slippery and loose.

2. Stay dry/warm. Getting wet could be refreshing and enjoyable in a hot summer day, not so much fun during a cold day. Wearing wool socks and top are great options to stay warm even when wet.

3. Prepare for bugs. In the warmer months, the area can be infested with bugs, mosquitos and ticks.

Tip #3: Protect your gear.

When exploring the area around the waterfall, many things can happen leaving your camera exposed. Protect your investment by taking some precautions:

1. Get a water proof/resistant backpack. Carry the camera (and accessories) inside the backpack when not in use;

2. Keep the lens cap on. Do not remove the lens cap until needed and put it back on after using the camera. This is an environment where the lens can easily get scratched and hardly any photo is worth the cost of a new lens;

3. Protect your rig from water. Bring a rain cover for the camera to protect from the mist/fog and a cleaning lint-free cloth to wipe the mist and water drops from the lens.


Tip #1: Manage your light source

My personal preference is for soft light to avoid harsh highlights and unappealing shadows. Use natural light to your advantage!

1. Visit during an overcast day;

2. Be there at a time of the day when the sun rays are not directly hitting the waterfall, around sunrise/sunset is best;

3. Observe the clouds movement and anticipate a moment when the sun light will be filtered by the passing clouds;

4. Avoid having the sun right in front of you within your frame to minimize over exposure or dark shadows unless that's your desired composition.

Tip #2: Compose intentionally

Anyone can take a photo however composition is what distinguishes a blah photo from a photo that is memorable and you do not need a fancy camera to compose with a purpose. Here are a few ideas to consider; just remember, there's no fast/fixed rule on how to photograph a waterfall, it all depends on your own style so take these ideas, try them, and keep the ones that work for you.

1. Try different composition techniques and experiment. There are several techniques that work well 80% of the time, you might want to start with those (check out my article on "Starting with composition"). Two of my most frequently used techniques are the "Perspective" and the "Leading lines".

Before shooting, look around you. Which elements (flowers, rocks, people, clouds) do you want in your composition. Which elements are in your frame that you do not want (trash, water bottles, towels, people).

2. Control light reflections with a circular polarizer filter. This is a filter that goes over the lens. It has two key effects: a) control light reflections on the wet surfaces and b) make colors pop. The side effect is that it reduces the light coming through the lens (this is not necessarily bad.)

Here's a comparison of having vs not having a polarizer on. In one image you see the reflections while in the second image there's no reflection allowing a better appreciation for what is under the water. Which effect is better? it is up to you to decide. I personally think there are occasions where the mirror effect is neat however, I now use the polarizer 90% of the time.

Word of caution: The polarizer is most effective when the sun is at a 90 degree angle from your direction of shooting. It is also not recommended with wide-angle lenses as it can cause a not very good looking vignette.

3. Play with various shutter speeds. For this effect you need to get out of "auto-mode" and know the exposure triangle (check out my article on this topic here).

Capturing a smooth silky water flow requires a slow shutter speed, this means you'll need a) a camera that gives you control of the settings - this option is probably not available with a point-and-shoot camera, b) a support to keep your camera steady, commonly it is a tripod but I've seen very creative solutions on the spot and c) very likely, a filter. The circular polarizer filter can sufficient but depending on how smooth you want the water, you might need an additional neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light even further to your liking.

How long should the exposure be? there's no fixed rule, it depends on the water flow and your desired texture for the composition you want to achieve. Experimentation is the best approach to hit that sweet spot you are after.

On the other hand, you might want to capture the energy of the water with a faster shutter speed. These next images are both at the same waterfall in Iceland, one at 0.25" and the other one at 0.004". Now compare with the water flow and shutter speeds to those of the images above.

4. Find the better side. Some waterfalls are more photogenic than others, and most have a "better side". Do not automatically go for the obvious shot. Some look good from up close, others from the distance, sometimes a bottom-up is more interesting others a top-down perspective can be impactful. Sometimes it is even possible to get behind the water curtain! Use those legs!

Check out my waterfall gallery for more examples.

TIP #3: Have fun!

Do not forget to have fun! Take time to breath in the scene and relax. And please, be safe, for you and for those around you.


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Use the comments below to leave questions, comments, better yet, to tell us about your favorite waterfall!


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