It’s difficult to imagine landscape photography without waterfalls. Every professional landscape photographer has a number of high quality waterfall images in their portfolio. And honestly, if you’re new to photography these images often seem unachievable. The water is so smooth and the colors are so vibrant, among other things. I can’t take you through an entire waterfall workshop in a blog post, but I can give you these five tips that will dramatically improve your waterfall photography.
1. Slow down with a Tripod
Ever walked up to a waterfall, pulled out your camera (set on Auto of course), and taken a picture? Only to look at this picture on your camera playback and see and ugly, crunchy looking waterfall with the water frozen in time. This looks nothing like the beautiful, dreamy waterfalls you see in magazines and art galleries. That’s because it doesn’t quite look real. A waterfall is about movement, power, and most importantly “water falling.” When the water is crunchy and frozen in time, there’s no sense of movement in the water. You haven’t really accurately captured the waterfall.
To achieve this sense of movement in the waterfall you need to slow your shutter speed down. That means putting the camera in manual and adjusting the settings yourself (head over and check out some of my other posts if you need help with this). For me, it’s about creating movement and texture in the water. It’s not just about making the water as smooth and milky as I possibly can. For this reason, the shutter speed I use will change depending on the waterfall, but I often find myself with a shutter speed around 1/4th to 1/10th of a second.
I think the slower shutter speed has done a lot for the above image. It has allowed the movement in the water to create a dreamy, almost magical atmosphere, that I most definitely felt and wanted to capture standing at the base of the waterfall. Probably the most crucial element in being able to capture this image at a slow shutter speed is a good quality tripod. A quality tripod allows you to portray the moving water, while maintaining complete sharpness in the rocks and the leaves. The tripod that I have used for several years now, and has always been an absolute rock for me, is the Gitzo Traveller Series Tripod. Can’t recommend it enough, especially for landscape and waterfall photography.
2. Bad Weather is your Friend
This second tip is one that most people might not like to hear. Imagine, it’s a Saturday, it’s 70 degrees and the sun is out, a perfect day to be outside enjoying the fresh air. What’s a great activity to spend time outdoors? Maybe a hike and some waterfall photography? Sure, there’s nothing wrong with hiking and taking pictures of a waterfall in beautiful weather, but don’t expect to come away with any images worth talking about. Shooting a waterfall in sunlight, in my opinion, is one of the more challenging things to do in landscape photography. The glare of the sun off the water is so incredibly bright compared to the rest of the surrounding landscape that it makes it so challenging to come away with a useable exposure. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but to come away with a quality image it will take some fairly developed skills in bracketing and post processing. So what I’m really saying, is that the key to a great waterfall image is fairly even light. Usually the most even light occurs on an overcast or rainy day. If you can handle standing in the rain for a few hours it can make for some extra special images as the waterflow is usually stronger. The icing on the cake with these bad conditions is some fog, there’s nothing more magical and moody than a waterfall pouring over the ledge through the fog.
3. Bring Extra Shoes and Clothes
A magical waterfall image portraying the motion of the water is nice. The calming image of a river pouring over the bouldery landscape on a rainy day is great. But these two things are not life or death crucial. It’s possible to create a great image without them. It might be more difficult, but it’s possible. However, it’s not possible to create a great image with a poor composition. Composition is the single most important element of landscape photography. A strong composition makes the photo what it is, and the same goes for a weak composition. The same obviously applies when shooting waterfalls. The issue with waterfalls is that after they do the whole falling over the cliff thing, there is usually a stream or a river. So, I would say that 90% of photographers will stand on the edge of the stream and take pictures of the waterfall. They might think they have a strong composition. But the truth of the matter is that they have probably hunted around on the shore looking for a composition, and eventually arrived at the best they could. They will have found the best of mediocre to worse than mediocre compositions. By only standing on the shore, they have completely limited their creative ability to come up with a fantastic composition. So get in there! Get wet! Wear a swimsuit, wear rain boots, strip down to your underwear, it really doesn’t matter. Just don’t be afraid to get wet and get in the water, and don’t mention it to your insurance company. I stood in icy cold water for hours trying to photograph this waterfall before I found a composition I liked.
4. Stop Glaring
I’m sure one of the first things you did this morning was wake up and look in the mirror (if you’re a landscape photographer, you probably woke up in a tent at 4 AM to begin hiking for an epic sunrise — no mirror involved). You probably looked in the mirror while brushing your teeth, or maybe to brush your hair or put your makeup on. We don’t think about it much, but it’s amazing that we can see such a perfect reflection of ourselves. Aren’t reflective surfaces cool? Wrong. They aren’t cool with waterfalls. You won’t realize until you get home to edit your amazing waterfall images, but wet rock and leaves are incredibly reflective surfaces. These reflective surfaces are bright and shiny and they really detract from the composition that you worked so hard to create. And there’s really nothing you can do about it in post processing. You can fix a lot of things in photoshop, but the glare off rocks and leaves isn’t one of them. You’re in luck though because there is a surefire way to remove that glare, and it’s all done in camera and on location. This is done with the use of a circular polarizer or a CPL Filter. This filter threads onto the front of your lens, and you can rotate it to adjust the amount of polarization. This technique is so simple and can take your images from amateur to professional in a flash. Here is one of my favorite CPLs that I use on all my lenses.
5. Enjoy Yourself
For me, there is nothing more peaceful and calming than hiking to a waterfall in the dark and spending the entire morning shooting without seeing another soul. Waterfalls carry this impressive, powerful feeling that at the same time is soothing and calming. It’s absolutely magical. I understand that you are at this waterfall to capture a great image, but just remember the image isn’t everything. There will be more waterfalls and there will be more opportunities to photograph them. We can all use more peace and mindfulness in our lives, and I can think of no better opportunity than when enjoying a waterfall.
I hope you found these tips helpful. If you have any questions or want to chat further about any of this please reach out to me, I will get back to you. And if you do take any waterfall pictures please tag me in them on instagram @mattgashley. Thanks for taking the time to read, I genuinely appreciate it. Stay healthy, and I’ll talk to you all next Tuesday!