Waterfalls are some of the most majestic earthly features photographers of all skill levels can capture. Getting the shot that tells the best story and that offers something different can be a bit of a challenge even for the most experienced. As a waterfall chaser myself I’ve had the opportunity to photograph all caliber of waterfall, from innocent drops in Ontario trails, to gigantic beasts like La Paz in Costa Rica. I regularly get asked, "how do you approach your waterfall shots?" Let’s dive in ...
Shoot When It’s Overcast
Try shooting on overcast and rainy days. This way you have the freedom to shoot all day (you’re not having to wait for sunrise/sunset) with light that isn’t harsh. You’ll also get much more vibrant colour on cloudy days especially with your greens. Moss, leaves, and trees will all turn out very pleasing and rocks will have more organic texture.
One thing to look out for on cloudy days is rain or excess moisture on your lens. Depending on the power of waterfall and the weather things can get quite misty leaving water droplets on your lens. Always have a cleaning rag ready and your settings figured out so you can take your shots quickly without having them botched by droplets.
2. Characterize the Waterfall
I like to immediately give a waterfall one of two kinds of personalities. "Raging Monster" or "Delicate & Soft". Some waterfalls pour with power while others trickle innocently. How you capture each of these types of falls is entirely up to taste. When I’m shooting, I want to amplify the personality I’ve assigned. This can be done by modifying your camera settings.
For a huge and powerful waterfall, I want to capture the texture and details of the water frozen in time. I do this usually with a quicker shutter speed. This will avoid losing detail to blur from the falls and also slightly underexpose the image to bring out the black and darker parts of water.
For more gentle falling waterfalls, slowing down the shutter speed can work wonders to give off that nice white glow accenting the water’s motion. In both kinds of shots try if you can to have your f-value set to a higher number. We want make sure we catch the sharpness and entirety of the image. Lastly, I can’t stress this enough… there is no right or wrong way to take a photograph, but do go in to the shot prepared and committed to what effect you want and how it will characterize the waterfall in the end.
3. Try a Different Approach
We’ve all done it. You get in front of one of the most beautiful waterfalls you’ve ever seen and you instantly take out your camera and start firing away. The shots are probably pretty good too. The only thing is… they’re just like everybody else’s. If you’re okay with that and enjoy simply capturing a marvellous spectacle of nature, that’s quite alright and you can skip to #4. However, if you’re looking to set yourself apart and up your game, keep reading.
The first thing you should do when you find yourself in front of an awe-inspiring waterfall is SLOW DOWN. Take your time and observe your surroundings while you look for ways to make your shot more original. Are there leaves that you can use as foreground framing? Would a prop or subject add positively to the image? In the shot below I felt that only capturing part of the waterfall in frame and adding a subject for sizing reference would give a sense of infinite water and add to the feeling of immense power.
With a bit of pre production work and attempting a different approach, you’ll soon find your shots will start to gain character that defines them in style. As you keep doing it and practicing seeking out unusual vantage points and composition techniques, you’ll find it begins to come more naturally. Practice makes perfect, and excellence is what you do repeatedly.
4. Master Your Camera Settings
Modifying your settings will entirely depend on what you’re going for. A longer exposure is going to create that silky smooth motion. Always try to keep your ISO low to avoid "noise". If you’re up close to a waterfall, set an aperture of around f/9-f/13 to get the most sharpness while still allowing a slower shutter speed on a cloudy day.
Shooting at a small focal length with other features in the foreground besides the waterfall will require an aperture of f/16 or higher. This will ensure everything is in focus. This will also require a longer shutter speed, just make sure to not overexpose the shot.
If you aren’t concerned with capturing that silky smooth shot and want something more natural and organic (I prefer this) a quicker shutter speed is the way to go. If you do want that "silk" slow down your shutter speed to usually longer than 1 sec. Never be afraid to experiment. It will aid you in better understanding your camera’s features.