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How to Photograph Stunning Waterfalls

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Read Time: 8 min

Twice a month we revisit some of our reader favorite posts from throughout the history of Phototuts+. This tutorial was first published in September, 2009.

Waterfalls are some of the most beautiful natural features you will ever get the opportunity to photograph. But though they can look simply stunning, photographing waterfalls is not easy to do well. How do you avoid your photos being too dark? How do you deal with clipping in the water? How do you compose your photos to capture the authentic beauty of the scene?

In this tutorial, nature photography expert Steve Berardi shares his best tips for photographing waterfalls.

Photographing waterfalls isn't hard, but it does involve a lot of little tricks and techniques. This tutorial will focus on how to get that silky water effect and how to get the balanced light that helps bring out the contrast you usually find around waterfalls.

The key to getting a silky water effect is to use a slow shutter speed, so most of the techniques described below revolve around this simple idea.

Step 1: Get the right equipment

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Required: wide angle zoom lens, polarizing filter, tripod

Recommended: 2-stop neutral density filter, remote shutter release, telephoto zoom lens

Waterfalls are usually found in tight canyons, so most of the time a wide angle zoom lens will be necessary. The polarizing filterwaterfall photography is good for at least three reasons: it eliminates reflections on the water/rocks, saturates the greens around the waterfall, and reduces the amount of light entering your lens. Most importantly though, you need a tripod to stabilize your camera for the long exposures.

Although not required, a 2-stop ND filterwaterfall photography can help you get a longer shutter speed too (useful for brighter lighting conditions). A remote shutter release can help you get sharper images by preventing you from shaking the camera. And finally, a telephoto zoom lenswaterfall photography is helpful for zooming in on a specific part of the waterfall.

Step 2: Find waterfalls to photograph

Regardless of where you live, there's a good chance you have a waterfall close by. You may not have hundreds in your area (unless you live in Oregon, USA), but if you do enough searching, you're sure to find at least one!

So, where do you look? Well, here are a few methods I've used with great success:

  • Do a simple Google search (e.g. "illinois waterfalls")
  • Search photos on Flickr
  • Look for a waterfall guidebook for your area
  • Go to any state park's visitor center and ask a ranger

My favorite method is searching Flickr because it gives you a good idea of what the waterfall looks like, and if there's enough shots of the waterfall it'll help you explore new compositions.

waterfall photography

Step 3: Visit the waterfall at the right time

Depending on the water source of the waterfall, it may look drastically different throughout the seasons. For example, waterfalls that are fed primarily by melted snow are often dried up or reduced to drizzles by the end of summer. These waterfalls are usually best in late spring or early summer (in early spring they're usually a little too strong). So, as part of scouting out waterfalls, it's a good idea to find out the source of the water and visit the fall when it's running strong enough.

It's also important to visit the waterfall when lighting conditions are ideal. Balanced and diffused light is great for waterfalls because it helps bring out details in the shadows and amplify the contrast. The best diffused light occurs on overcast days (the clouds act as natural diffusers), but if you can't wait for a cloudy day, then visit the waterfall at sunrise or sunset (as long as the entire fall is in the shade).

The worst time to photograph a waterfall is when half of it is in the shade and the other half is sunlit. Your camera won't be able to handle that kind of contrast.

Step 4: Compose your image

When you arrive at the waterfall, don't setup your tripod right away! Walk around the waterfall and look through the viewfinder to explore different angles and camera positions. Here are few tips for composing your image:

  • Shoot at an angle instead of directly in front of the falls
  • Zoom in closer with a telephoto lens and capture one small area instead of trying to capture the entire falls and surrounding area
  • Include foreground elements (e.g. rocks, flowers, etc)

As an example of the first tip, check out these two photos of the same waterfall (one shot was taken directly in front of the falls, and the other was taken from the side).

Notice the dramatic difference?

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Step 5: Adjust your polarizing filter

Once you've found a good composition, then it's time to carefully adjust your polarizing filter to maximize its effect. While looking through the viewfinder, just rotate the filter and watch for the reflections to disappear (at the same time the greens start to look a lot more saturated).

You might want to rotate it completely a few times just so you're sure that you've found the best position.

waterfall photography

Step 6: Setup your camera for the shot

In order to get that silky water effect you see in all the waterfall photographs, you'll need a long shutter speed. So, here are a few recommended settings to start with:

Set the camera to Manual mode. When I first started photographing waterfalls, I shot in shutter priority mode, but quickly switched to manual because the camera didn't always choose the aperture I needed to get the right depth of field. If you've never shot in manual mode before, don't worry. With waterfalls, shooting manual is especially easy.

Use a small aperture. This is necessary for two reasons: it helps you get a longer shutter and it helps keep everything in sharp focus. I recommend starting with f/16 and then going smaller if that doesn't give you a slow enough shutter. Some photographers will tell you to always use the smallest aperture possible on your lens, but I avoid this because lenses usually lose sharpness at their smallest (and largest) apertures.

Use the lowest ISO speed on your camera. This also helps you get a longer shutter, but it has another benefit too: lower ISO speeds will produce less noise and capture more dynamic range. Since you'll be using a long shutter speed, your image will be much more sensitive to noise, so a low ISO will help prevent that noise.

Start with a shutter speed of a few seconds. When photographing waterfalls, finding the right shutter speed involves a lot of experimentation, but a speed of 2 seconds is usually a good place to start. Be prepared to use shutter speeds ranging from 1 to 30 seconds.

Okay, enough with setting everything up, let's start snapping some photos!

Step 7: Take the shot and review

After you take your shot, review it on your LCD, making sure to turn on the histogram. Look at the edges of the histogram to determine if you're losing detail in the shadows/highlights. For example, take a look at the image below and its corresponding histogram on the right:

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Notice how the histogram shows this image is severely underexposed: nearly all the pixels are black.

If you're losing detail in shadows, then try a slower shutter speed and take another shot. And, if you're losing detail in highlights, then try a faster shutter speed.

This step is a lot of trial and error. You may need to change camera settings between shots to get that perfect image you're looking for.

If your shutter speed is proving too fast to create that silky water look, and you've already tried using a smaller aperture, then you might want to try popping on a neutral density filter to help you get a slower shutter speed.

Step 8: How to fix blown out highlights in Photoshop

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The most common problem you'll experience with waterfall photos is blown out highlights. Even with the balanced and diffused light, you'll probably still get a tiny blown-out spot on the waterfall somewhere: it'll look like a giant white blob in the middle of your beautiful waterfall--yuck!

Luckily, there's a simple way to get rid of this thing and give it texture like the rest of the waterfall. Here's how to do it:

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Select the "Burn" tool (see above) and set the diameter to 100 pixels or so, hardness to about 15%, range to "highlights", and exposure to about 8%. Then just hold down the mouse button and "draw" on the blown-out highlights.

Be careful not to go over the same spot twice, otherwise the effect of the burn will be doubled (usually resulting in dark gray water).

If the water turns too dark when doing this, then go back and try different settings (changing the "exposure" will have the most dramatic effect).

Here's an example of what happened when I used this technique on the photo above:

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This tutorial is by no means a complete guide to photographing waterfalls, but it should be a good start. So, go find some waterfalls and start shooting!

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