How to Photograph a Waterfall

Moving water is a favourite subject for landscape photographers. You’ll see it used to creative effect in coastal scenes and of course in images of waterfalls and cascades. A big part of the attraction is the creative possibilities that moving water opens up for a photographer – by simply lengthening or shortening the shutter speed, a scene can be interpreted and presented to viewers in a range of different ways. In this article, I’ll concentrate on waterfalls to describe how I approach the theme of moving water.

Macintyre River, New South Wales (shutterspeed 13 seconds)

To blur or not to blur
One of the biggest choices a photographer has to make when photographing a waterfall scene is which shutterspeed to use. The prevailing light conditions will place constraints on the range of shutterspeeds that are readily available to produce a good exposure, but there is always some room for choice. A very slow shutterspeed, resulting in complete blurring of the water, is a popular approach but isn’t to everyone’s taste. A very fast shutterspeed can completely remove the sense of motion from an image, and again is avoided by a lot of photographers. Somewhere in between lies a compromise that will allow some blurring of the moving water to indicate motion, but will also retain a level of detail and texture that many find appealing and more natural looking than either extreme.

As a general guide, an exposure time of more than about ½ a second will result in a very blurred, silky look to the water in your images. My preference is to aim for an exposure of somewhere between about 1/10th of a second and 1 second, but the speed of water flow will obviously have some bearing on how the final image appears.

The same cascade photographed at six different shutterspeeds. (Macintyre Falls, New South Wales)

The important thing to remember is that there is no ‘correct’ shutterspeed for any particular scene – it’s up to your discretion. I’ve heard lengthy arguments from people who don’t like the blurred water effect complaining how it looks completely unnatural and is just a photographic cliché. I say bollocks! There is no shutterspeed that gives a completely natural look to a waterfall because we don’t see falling water as individual frames. If we want a close approximation of reality, then we need to take a video rather than a photograph. Images where motion is frozen by a short exposure look just as natural and unnatural to me as images with blurred motion.

If we can ignore this idea that any given shutterspeed is right or wrong, then we’re free to experiment and capture an image that we like, rather than one that conforms to someone else’s narrow opinion. Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with forming your own opinion of what you like and sticking to that approach. But most good photographers will vary their approach depending on the circumstances and the mood they want to present in the final image.

How to achieve a slow shutterspeed
In order to achieve a slow shutterspeed to blur the motion of moving water, you need to limit the amount of light falling on your camera’s sensor. One very good way to do this is to capture your image around sunrise or sunset when light levels are naturally low. Cloudy days can also give good results especially if there is a tree canopy above to help filter and diffuse the incoming light. In fact, as long as they aren’t lit by full sunlight, a lot of waterfall scenes lend themselves to relatively long exposures at any time of day – you just need to pay attention to your histograms to make sure that the white water isn’t overexposed.

Duffer Falls, New South Wales (shutterspeed 0.2 seconds)

A common way to lengthen your exposure times is to use a neutral density (ND) filter. These filters come in various strengths (densities) that will reduce the amount of light reaching your sensor by 1, 2, 3 or up to 10 stops. Even in bright sunlight, an ND filter can allow a long enough exposure to blur the motion of water. However, an ND filter won’t overcome the problem of high contrast that you get in sunlit conditions – highlight and shadow areas of a scene will be darkened equally by the filter, so I still prefer to try and photograph waterfall and creek scenes around dawn and dusk when possible. A polarising filter will also reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor and can have other advantages as well – more on this later.

In-camera, you have the options of selecting a very small aperture (eg. f22) and a low ISO setting (eg. ISO 100) to achieve a slow shutterspeed. A small aperture will also produce a wide depth-of-field and help to keep the whole scene in sharp focus from foreground to background. A downside of this approach is that image quality is reduced at very small apertures due to diffraction effects – most DSLR lenses produce the sharpest, highest quality images at around f8 to f11. This might not be a problem if you only intend to produce a small print or web-shot, but it will become increasingly noticeable as the image is enlarged, say for a large wall-mounted print. A lot of my wide-angle landscape shots are taken between f11 and f16 to maintain a good depth-of-field without sacrificing too much image quality.

It’s generally good practice to use low ISOs to minimise noise in your landscape images, and the lower the ISO you choose, the slower the shutterspeed you will be able to use and still achieve a good exposure. Newer DSLR cameras, especially high-end models, are getting better and better at producing low-noise images at relatively high ISO settings, but for most of us who don’t own brand new top-of-the-line cameras, low ISOs will produce noticeably cleaner images. I try and keep the ISO set at 100 for most of my photography, but sometimes push it up to 200 and higher when necessary (eg. to achieve a faster shutterspeed).

Keeping your camera stable
If you’re photographing moving water using a slow shutterspeed, then a good tripod is a necessity to avoid blurred images. I would recommend using a tripod for most landscape photography regardless of the length of exposure – it makes you slow down and really scrutinise your compositions, and it allows you to take identically framed multiple exposures of a scene so that they can later be combined on a computer to capture the full dynamic range of the scene.

Even when using a tripod, you need to take things carefully to avoid camera shake. The higher a tripod is set, the more prone it is to vibration that can ruin an otherwise great image. This becomes even more critical if it’s windy or your tripod is standing in flowing water. It is generally best to avoid raising the centre column of your tripod to gain extra height, but with care and in calm conditions, this can still produce sharp results. You can hang a weight off your tripod to help keep it stable, and use your body to shield it against wind gusts. I sometimes take duplicate images of a scene if there is a potential that the tripod was not completely still during the exposure – minor movements might not be apparent until you view the image at home on your computer.

A remote or cable release is a very good investment so there’s no need to touch your camera to fire the shutter. Alternatively, you can use the self-timer on your camera so that any vibrations die down before the shutter is opened. Using the mirror lock-up function of your camera will reduce the risk of vibration due to the mirror flipping up when your press the shutter release. The risk is fairly small, but it’s an extra precaution against blurred images.

Other accessories
If I could carry only one filter with me for landscape photography, it would be a polariser. And the type of landscape photography where my polariser gets most use is when photographing waterfalls and streams. A polarising filter allows you to see through surface reflections on water and into the details of rocks, weed and logs on the stream bed. It also cuts glare on wet vegetation and deepens the greens to give that lush, luscious look to a forest waterfall scene. The other useful effect of a polarising filter when photographing moving water is that it reduces the amount of light reaching your camera’s sensor by 1-2 stops – this allows you to select a slower shutterspeed to add some motion blur to your images.

A polarising filter has removed glare from the wet log and rocks, and added saturation to the vegetation (Gheerulla Falls, Queensland - shutterspeed 15 seconds)

When working around waterfalls, you need to be prepared for the possibility of airborne moisture settling on your lens and camera. Always carry a couple of clean, dry microfibre cloths and regularly check your front lens element for misting or drops of water that can ruin an otherwise good image – I say this from experience! A waterproof bag or cover of some sort is also a good investment so you can slip it over your camera to keep it dry in between photos.

Camera settings
In order to have control over your shutterspeeds, it’s best to avoid fully automatic settings. Choose manual, aperture priority or shutter priority modes. I use aperture priority a lot so I can control the depth-of-field, and then vary the ISO setting and/or add a filter to achieve the desired exposure time.

It’s a good idea to capture your waterfall images (and any landscape images) as RAW files. It can be tricky to find the best exposure and white balance settings when you’re photographing white water in heavily shaded conditions. A RAW file will give you the greatest latitude to adjust these settings later on the computer if you don’t get it quite right on location. If you capture an image as a JPG, exposure, white balance and other factors are permanently recorded in the image – you can adjust these on a computer up to a point but not with as good results as you can with a RAW file. Without going into technical details, JPGs are by default compressed 8-bit image files, whereas RAW files are uncompressed 12 or 14 bit files – this means that RAW files contain far more information (ie. detail and shades of colour) than JPGs and can be more readily adjusted in software without degrading the image.

Another wise move is to bracket your exposures. Your camera’s default metering mode will try and guess the best ‘average’ settings for a scene, but average is often not best. If you’re in a dark forest photographing a waterfall, it’s likely that your camera will compensate by overexposing the image so that all the dark logs, rocks, and shadows retain some detail – this is great, except that the white water of the waterfall can easily become overexposed and turn into a white, burnt out, featureless mess. This is a common problem with waterfall shots, and it looks awful. Bracketed exposures give you the option of choosing the best overall exposure, and even better, of blending your exposures on the computer so that you can combine well-exposed white water with well-exposed shaded areas. I describe how I do this here, but it’s also possible to do it automatically in programs like Photoshop and Photomatix.

There are lots of rules of thumb that can help guide you towards achieving pleasing compositions in your landscape photography – I won’t go into them here – but there are a couple of specific things I’d like to mention about composing waterfall images.

In most waterfall scenes, the waterfall itself is the main subject and centre of attention so it needs to be treated with respect. This doesn’t necessarily mean framing your shot so that you include the waterfall and nothing else – this can be quite boring. It’s usually more appealing to see some of the surrounding vegetation, rocks and water so the viewer can imagine sitting there and feeling the whole atmosphere of the location. Try and find a position where the waterfall, and the pool it plunges into, are unobstructed by branches or other clutter. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but an image where the top and base of the falls aren’t clearly visible can look incomplete.

Often, the best photographic vantage points to get an unobstructed view are in the stream below the falls, so be prepared to take your shoes and socks off and get your feet wet. This can be pretty painful in winter and cold climates, so either work quickly or bring a pair of waterproof waders with you.

You’ll often be confronted with the decision of whether to include any sky in your image, or to frame it out. In a lot of cases, it’s best to try and keep the sky out of the image. This has the effect of producing a more intimate looking landscape that focuses attention on the waterfall, and also avoids potential exposure problems where the highlights in the sky are burnt out. But it’s not always that simple – sometimes framing out the sky also means cutting off the top of the waterfall which might not be what your want to do. If you are going to include sky in your image, I’d suggest bracketing exposures and being prepared to blend them later on the computer to overcome any exposure issues. It might be possible to use a graduated neutral density filter to hold back the exposure of the sky, but in a lot of cases the line between sky and land is so convoluted that you end up with a very obvious graduation line in your image (eg. trees that are well exposed at the bottom but overly dark at the top).

By framing out the sky, the image is simple and intimate (compared to the same falls photographed with sky included, below) (Boundary Falls, New South Wales - shutterspeed 10 seconds)

As with all landscape photography, strong foreground interest can really enhance a waterfall image and help put the viewer on the spot. Search around for wet rocks, logs, ferns, or even a swirling back eddy or riffle – these features are directly related to the waterfall and help put it in context. Also, look for natural lines that lead the eye from the foreground to the waterfall – these can be real lines, like a log or the curving bank of the stream, or implied lines like a series of exposed rocks in the stream.

I liked the blue sky above the falls, but the huge difference in light intensity between the foreground and sky required bracketing of exposures and careful blending in Photoshop to produce the final image. (Boundary Falls, New South Wales - waterfall shutterspeed 10 seconds)

More intimate, abstract images of flowing water can also be very appealing. Look for patterns in the water where it flows around rocks or down the face of the falls and move or zoom in close to exclude any distractions. These sorts of images often work best when you select a slightly faster shutterspeed that retains the detail of the flowing water rather than blurs it.

Get out and do it for yourself
You can spend weeks reading about how to take better waterfall photographs – the internet is full of these articles – but there’s no better way to learn than to head out to the nearest waterfall and start experimenting. Try it at different times of day, vary your shutterspeeds, play around with your compositions and then come home and work on your processing to get the best results. People love a good waterfall image and it only takes a little thought and practice to come up with great results.

Coombadjha Creek, New South Wales

Anvil Rock
Norfolk Creek, Bribie Island


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Sunday, 26 March 2023

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