By Ian Terry
Photographing waterfalls can be intimidating. Balancing long exposures with tricky light conditions—while also managing composition—is a challenge for any photographer. Here’s how to get a great shot.
To achieve a silky smooth water look in your photograph, shoot with a longer shutter speed. Start with at least a few seconds and experiment with the exposure time until you like the way the water looks. A second or two will give the water a sense of motion, while minutes-long exposure times will make it look almost mist-like. Play around until you find what works well for the given scene.
A tripod is essential for long exposure. A tripod will keep your photos sharp and it will give you the most flexibility for composition. Neutral density filters (or “ND filters”) for your lens are also a useful tool. They significantly diminish the amount of light entering your camera and increase exposure times even in the brightest conditions. ND filters can help achieve a lower depth of field.
While smooth water is cool, composition really sets the best waterfall shots apart. Highlighting details like surrounding trees and plants creates a complete scene. Hike around and look for any pools of water that may create an interesting foreground. Anything from vivid green moss to bold rock textures can be used to amplify your photograph and give it a sense of depth. Great compositions draw viewers in and make them want to study your photo’s subtleties.
Photographing at a time of day when your chosen waterfall is completely shaded will give you the most flexibility. Early morning is often ideal—the cool blue hues typical at this time of day lend themselves well to photographing water. Also, darker shade makes it possible to use the longer exposure times necessary to properly expose the scene, if blurred water is what you’re after. A calm day with low wind is also helpful to prevent tree movement and blur.
Packing your bag
In addition to the photography techniques above, it's helpful to look over these tips for packing your bag for a successful outing:
- Shoes: A pair of high-top waterproof hiking boots or even rubber boots are great for photographing waterfalls. Besides the added comfort and grip, they also give you to access to more angles and increase the number of potential compositions.
- Bag: Backpack-style bags are preferable when hiking around looking for a waterfall shot— they’re more stable and allow you to use two hands to keep your balance as you search for the perfect angle.
- Towel: A small microfiber towel is useful to have on hand at a waterfall. Mist can slowly coat cameras and smudge up lenses. At big falls, consider draping the towel over the camera during long exposures.
- Camera: All you really need to photograph waterfalls is a camera capable of shooting in full manual. The flexibility to control depth of field and shutter speed is key to creating memorable images of water in motion.