There’s not a whole lot in this world that compares to the natural beauty of a waterfall. Seeing one up close and personal is a liberating and almost magical experience. Feeling the power of the rushing water, seeing the harsh contrast between the falls and the rocks against the moss and delicate plants…it’s a spectacular sight. And it can also be a difficult thing to capture. In this post, we’ll be discussing some tips and tricks to capture the best waterfall pictures with whatever camera you’re wielding!
The first thing to consider when photographing a waterfall is composition. It doesn’t matter what type of camera you use (a DSLR, a little point and shoot, or a smartphone), if the composition is bad, the picture will be bad. There have been entire books and extensive series written solely about composition and what makes it such a fundamental aspect of taking good pictures…and for good reason. Having good composition can take a so-so subject and turn it into a great picture opportunity. With a waterfall as your main subject, you don’t have to worry so much about turning a bland subject into something awesome (waterfalls are already awesome!), but it’s still a good idea to take the picture with good composition in mind.
What do I mean by composition? In photography, it’s everything that falls within the viewfinder of the camera…the main subject, as well as the foreground and background…and everything in between. It’s a way to guide the viewers eyes to what you want them to see. Include elements that showcase how big the waterfall is (trees, rocks, people, etc.). Also include elements that make the waterfall unique in some way (bridges, windmills, cool looking rocks, whether the waterfall is wide or long…all of that should be portrayed in the picture). If you see a cool looking rock or cascade in front of the waterfall, include it in the picture. Obviously, if you see a tire or beer can, crop it out of the picture (or better yet, pick it up and throw it away)…nobody wants to see that.
*Some tips on waterfall composition:
- I like to get a lot of the stream or river flowing away from the bottom of the waterfall in my pictures. It helps lead the viewers eyes up to the waterfall, while also giving a good perspective of the size of the falls. I try to put the waterfall in the upper third of the viewfinder on the camera, and reserve the bottom two thirds for everything below it. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it does provide a nice starting point for good composition.
- I also like to get down low (in the club as well as when photographing waterfalls). Having a low camera angle near the water will help convey how fast the water is flowing. It also brings the viewer closer into the scene…and the closer your viewer is, the more they’ll feel ‘involved’ in the scene.
- If there’s a lot going on above the waterfall (like a nice forest or large rock outcroppings), include that in the shot. It’ll help the viewers understand the full scope of the surroundings.
- On the other hand, if there isn’t much going on outside of the waterfall itself, isolate it. Zoom in on a cascade, or a part where there’s a nice contrast with some rocks or some moss.
- The biggest tip is to try different angles and positions. I always live by the mantra of ‘you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take’…that’s especially true today with digital cameras, where anything can be deleted if it doesn’t work or look good.
The next thing to consider when photographing waterfalls is the time of day and time of year. Water is a highly reflective element, and when the sun is shining directly on the waterfall, it can create exposure problems for every type of camera…and if your camera isn’t reading the right exposure, then your chances of getting a decent picture are pretty low.
*Some tips on the best time to visit waterfalls:
- By far the best time to visit a waterfall is early in the morning. The sun hasn’t yet made it up high enough to effect exposure, making everything evenly lit. The other added benefit is that not as many people will be there, meaning the potential to have the waterfall all to yourself is pretty high…and having a waterfall all to yourself is an awesome experience.
- The second best time is later in the evening, about an hour or so before the sun sets, for the same exposure reasons as above. The only downside is the limited window of time to take the pictures. Unless you’ve got a tripod, any picture you take once it gets dark is going to look ungood. Flash only lights up a certain amount of area, and the light that it does use is extremely harsh…which is why it’s not really a good idea to use it on waterfalls.
- Aside from the time of day to go, the other thing to take into consideration is the time of year. Most waterfalls have decent views year-round, but some offer breathtaking views when visited during the right season…and spring and fall are usually the best seasons. Most waterfalls are going to look great during the fall…the beautiful colored leaves offers a great contrast to the rushing water. Spring will offer opportunities for blooming plants and flowers to make their way into your pictures.
- Try to photograph during cloudy days. The clouds act as a great filter against the sun…which helps with exposure!
- One last tip is to try and time your visit after a decent rain. Most waterfalls won’t go completely dry if it hasn’t rained, but most do look the best after a good downpour.
Let’s talk about equipment. If you’re using a DSLR, you’ve already got a leg up on somebody with a just a smartphone. That’s not to say that someone without a DSLR can’t take remarkable pictures…they most certainly can. It’s just that they are limited in the amount of options available to them. Options like complete shutter and aperture control, which play a huge role in how a waterfall picture turns out. A longer shutter speed will give the water that lacy, smooth texture, whereas a faster shutter speed will ‘stop’ the motion of the water, giving it a more powerful and real feel. There is no right or wrong way, it’s purely an aesthetic opinion on what you think looks best. Personally, I love the long shutter speed look. I think it gives the picture a more ‘dreamlike’ feel…but that’s just me. Everyone has different tastes. It also depends on the particular waterfall. If it has a heavy flow of water, then most fast shutter speed pictures will look better than a slow shutter speed picture. And vice versa for smaller amounts of water…a longer shutter speed picture tends to look better than a faster one. Here’s some examples below…fast shutter speed first, then a slower shutter speed of the same scene.
And now for some basic tips for taking pictures with whatever type of camera you own.
*Some tips for shooting with a DSLR:
- Bring a tripod. If you want to achieve the silky smooth and crisp look, you need a tripod. I use the MeFOTO Roadtrip (which can be found here). It’s light and folds down to a pretty small size for easy carrying…and I never leave home without it.
- Buy a neutral density filter or a polarizing filter. They can be found for fairly cheap online, and they are a lifesaver when shooting during the middle of the day. Their main purpose is to block light from entering the lens and to reduce reflections, resulting in longer shutter speeds.
- Try shooting in aperture priority mode. Start somewhere around f/8 to f/10…and move up from there to see what looks best. (Aperture priority mode is usually indicated by an ‘A’ or ‘Av’ on most camera models.)
- Shoot in manual mode. Experiment with what shutter speed looks best with what aperture.
- Set the ISO to the lowest it will go. The higher the ISO, the more noise and artifacts that will be present in the picture…so always make sure it’s low. (Most cameras will go down to ISO 100, with some going down as far as ISO 80, and others only ISO 120.)
- Get a remote shutter release. Some are remote control, and others have a cord that plugs into the camera. This will help with eliminating camera shake. You want the picture to be as crisp as possible, and the remote shutter release will snap the picture for you…so there’s no need to touch the camera once you have the shot lined up. And there’s no risk in accidentally shaking the camera.
- Shoot with the widest lens you have. It’s always better to have too much of a scene as opposed to not enough. You can always crop out what doesn’t look good, but you can’t add something that wasn’t captured to begin with (well, aside from long hours working with the picture in photoshop…).
*Some tips for shooting with a point and shoot camera:
- Read the manual. Most point and shoot style cameras are popular for their ease of use…you pick it up and start shooting. But a lot of these cameras have features that most people don’t even bother to learn about. Trust me, a lot of the stuff you’ll learn will come in handy down the road.
- Shoot in landscape mode. Most cameras have an icon of mountains to distinguish landscape mode. What this mode does is open up the depth of field, which brings everything in the shot into focus…so, you don’t have to worry about the camera focusing on some nearby rock or tree instead of the waterfall. It’s also a great mode to keep the camera in while traveling.
- Shoot in night mode. This is usually indicated on the camera by a person with a moon or star above their head. What this does is the opposite of landscape mode…it narrows the depth of field. This results in objects closer to the camera being in focus, and things further away being blurred. In the right circumstances, it can make for a cool, creative shot.
- A lot of newer point and shoots have creative modes where you can adjust the shutter speed and the aperture. If your camera has this option, use it. The higher the aperture, the longer the shutter speed, so be sure to also have a tripod handy as well. If you don’t have a tripod, set the camera on something sturdy and flat, and use the self timer.
- If you can, set the ISO to the lowest it will go. Most new point and shoots have a menu option for this. If yours doesn’t, turn the noise reduction setting on. This will help keep pictures from looking grainy and old.
- Be flexible. Don’t just stand in one position and take pictures, move around. Get low to the ground. Hold the camera up over your head. Whatever works to get a unique shot.
- But be sure to keep your hands and arms as still as possible when taking the picture. Any slight movement will cause the picture to be blurry. (And a blurry waterfall, is a sad waterfall.)
*Some tips for shooting with a smartphone:
- Turn the flash off. The built in flash is only good for a small radius up to a few feet, and most waterfalls are usually a lot larger than a few feet.
- Don’t zoom in. Most smartphones use digital zoom, which reduces quality by a wide margin once you start zooming in. It’s much better to keep the camera zoomed all the way out, and to crop later. Plus, you want as wide a view as you can get.
- Turn on the HDR setting. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, which basically means that colors and darker areas will be illuminated better. And that will in turn create better exposed waterfalls.
- Download a separate camera app. Most decent apps will let you set the exposure and the light balance, and will also allow for better focusing options. There’s also settings that allow you to take several pictures in quick succession at different exposure levels, then you can pick which shot looks the best afterwards. There’s also settings for shutter speed on some apps, allowing you to get that sweet lacy water look…as long as the camera is still…and the light is just right. *If you have an iPhone, download and use the app, Camera+. It’s $2.99, and it will give you many more options than the regular iPhone camera app. For Android users, Camera FV-5 is a great alternative.
- Use apps to edit your pictures. Most camera apps also feature editing options. Try to bring out shadows and lighten dark spaces, up the contrast just a bit, warm the picture just a smidgen. Play around with the settings. All these things will go a long way in making your waterfalls pop.
- Shoot in portrait mode. If your phone has a portrait mode, try it out. Like night mode from the point and shoot above, it brings objects that are closest to the camera in focus, while blurring everything else that’s further away. Make sure you find an interesting subject to focus on (a cool rock or log makes for some unique pictures).
- Move around the scene. Find a unique angle. And keep snapping off pictures. You can always delete what you don’t like.
If you use these tips, and practice good composition, you’re bound to see improved waterfall pictures. It really doesn’t matter what type of camera you use; as long as you know about the features, you can create some really fun looking shots. The key is to practice and experiment, and to come up with a style that you enjoy. But most importantly, it’s about getting out there and exploring these beautiful, natural wonders…and appreciating the power and force each waterfall has to offer.