Mastering the art of photographing falling water requires using the right equipment along with creative techniques. Although it may seem like an art best reserved for the professionals, photographing waterfalls can actually be quite simple to learn, and improvement can be immediate. After shooting thousands of photographs in just about every waterfall condition, we have come up with some straightforward guidelines for beginner and advanced photographers alike.

CAMERA & LENSES

A camera with manual aperture and shutter-speed adjustments is essential for above-average quality pictures. Although some still use film or slide-based cameras, digital cameras have become the equipment of choice for most professional photographers who wish to capture water in motion. Medium-format and large-format cameras have taken many of the highest-quality pictures of falling water we have seen, but are not practical for many shutterbugs. This is attributable to the added costs of these cameras, both for the camera itself and for developing costs. The added weight and size of the larger-format cameras makes backpacking more of a challenge. Point-and-shoot cameras (generally $100-$400) are inexpensive, reliable pieces of equipment, but do not allow much manual control. Digital single-lens reflex-type cameras (DSLR's), on the other hand, allow you the flexibility you will need to change shutter speed, aperture, and lenses. For all these reasons, we suggest purchasing and carrying a DSLR-type camera on all waterfall expeditions for those seeking outstanding photographs.

You may want to carry several different lenses to cover every shooting situation. Many waterfalls are located in gorges and narrow ravines, where a wide-angle lens (such as a 20mm one) is needed to encapsulate the entire falls into your picture. On the other hand, a telephoto zoom lens (such as a 100–300mm lens) is helpful to capture waterfalls located off in the distance. If carrying multiple lenses seems impractical or unjustifiable to you, a zoom lens such as a 28–90mm model—which begin at around $100—will suffice for the majority of waterfall situations. There are more expensive professional lenses (up to $2,500/each) available that can significantly add to your quality as well. These professional lenses are sharper and do produce better images. For the highest quality prints above 11x14 inches in size, professional lenses are highly recommended.

Enders Falls

Our Favorite Professional CAMERAS for Waterfall Photography

These are the ultimate DSLR cameras for waterfall photography that are currently on the market. Click on any one of the cameras to see additional information and to read reviews.


Canon EOS 1D-X


Canon EOS 5D Mark iii


Canon EOS 7D

Nikon D3X

Nikon D4S

Nikon D800E

Our Favorite Professional LENSES for Waterfall Photography


These are the ultimate DSLR lenses for waterfall photography that are currently on the market. Click on any one of the lens to see additional information and to read reviews.


Canon EF 16-35MM f/2.8L II USM


Canon EF 17-40MM f/4L USM


Canon EF 24-70MM f/2.8L II USM

Canon 24-105MM f/4L IS USM

Canon EF 24MM f/1.4L II USM

Nikon AF-S 14-24MM f/2.8G ED

Nikon 17-35MM f/2.8D IF-ED

Nikon 24-70MM f/2.8G ED

Nikon 24MM f/1.4G ED

SHUTTER SPEED & TRIPODS

One of the best tips we can offer a waterfall photographer is always carry a tripod. A tripod is essential for maintaining long shutter speeds (to eliminate camera shake, which can blur your picture). Also, tripods come in quite handy when you want to photograph yourself with these natural treasures and no one is around to snap the picture.

Long shutter speeds are essential to create the soft “angel-hair” or “silky” look so common to waterfall photographs. Generally, speeds of 1/15 second or longer (i.e. 1/2 second, 1 second, 2 second, etc.) will blur the water to create this artistic effect. Long shutter speeds are also essential if you are photographing in gorges or chasms, where, even on the sunniest days, the area around the falls receives little light. Shutter speed will also be longer if you are shooting at or around sunrise or sunset.

Long shutter speeds are not always the top choice for falls, though. With the traditional block-type waterfall, we suggest using shorter shutter speeds, such as 1/60 second, because longer shutter speeds on such falls often create a portrait of pure white water that lacks detail. You will find that long shutter speeds work much better for thin plunges or other weak-powered waterfalls. Most of the shots in this book were taken at shutter speeds between 1/15 of a second and 2 seconds using a DSLR set at a 100 ISO film equivalent. The trick with aperture and shutter speed is to keep experimenting.

Trap Falls

SMALL APERTURE

Equally as important as shutter speed is proper exposure; aperture is often neglected in waterfall photography instructions. A small aperture is needed if you want to capture an entire waterfall landscape, including the wildflowers, trees, rocks, and any people around the falling water. We suggest experimenting with apertures between f/6.3 and f/13. Apertures of f/11 or f/13, for example, should capture everything in focus for most shots, from a boulder 6 feet in front of you to the trees and leaves that frame the waterfall. Many photographers focus on the shutter speed alone; do not forget to take aperture into account when composing pictures. Be aware that as you decrease the aperture (from f/13 to f/11, for example), you are decreasing the shutter speed (from 1/15 to 1/30 for example).

It will take some trial and error to become familiar with this relationship and to figure out which apertures and shutter speeds provide you with the results you desire.

Honey Hollow Falls

FILM SPEED

To create the soft, angel-hair water effect while keeping the foreground and background of the frame focused and sharp, slow-speed film (or the digital equivalent) is essential. Our personal favorite for waterfall film photography is Fuji Velvia, which is rated ISO 50. Most D-SLR's will allow you to select an ISO equivalent of 100. As you decrease the film speed, your camera requires more light for proper exposure, which means you can use the longer shutter speeds that you will need to achieve most of your desired effects. For enlarging your pictures, slow-speed films are also ideal, because they are typically very sharp. This translates into bigger enlargements as compared to “faster” film, such as those rated ISO 200 or ISO 400.

On sunny days, however, even the slowest films may not be able to get the long shutter speed you desire. For this, a circular polarizer filter can be very useful in extending the shutter speed to your desired level. These filters generally provide you with between one and a half to two stops of extra light. For example, if you are set up with an aperture of f/13 and a shutter speed of 1/30 second, a polarizer will allow you to lengthen the shutter speed to 1/10 second or 1/8 second. Circular polarizers, which were used in nearly all the photographs contained in this guide, also reduce the glare that is reflected off water and wet rocks.

Arethusa Falls

BRACKETING

Bracketing is a waterfall photographer’s best friend. The meters inside your camera are affected by gleaming water and the dark walls of the gorges where many falls are found. To combat this problem, manually adjust the aperture or shutter speed around the suggested exposure from your camera’s meter. We suggest taking exposures up to two stops in each direction to maximize your chance for a perfectly exposed picture. Although film and developing costs will increase, bracketing is often necessary in photographing falls. Very often, the correct exposure can be a full two stops away from the suggested exposure from your camera’s meter. With a digital camera, the only cost of bracketing is of course the storage of data.

An alternative to bracketing is using cheap “gray cards” or partial metering to find a suggested exposure. With partial metering, compare your camera’s suggested exposures of different parts of the scene, such as the falling water, the underlying rock, trees, or even the sky.

Bash Bish Falls

FOREGROUND & COMPOSITION

By making minor changes in the composition of your picture, you can turn an average shot into a professional one. Just try incorporating some natural features positioned around the waterfall into the photograph. Boulders in a streambed, hikers climbing the rock wall of a waterfall, or wildflowers along the trail are three suggestions that can add quality to your photos.

Finding foreground objects becomes necessary with waterfalls that have abnormally large pools at their base. Take the time to observe the entire landscape around the falls, searching for anything else that can help fill your camera’s frame. This will enhance the quality of your pictures and more accurately reflect the actual size of the waterfall.

Dry River Falls

WEATHER & WATERFALL PHOTOGRAPHY

Mother Nature is very difficult to predict, but some facts are certain. The melting snow of early spring powers most waterfalls in New England well into June. After June, however, an understanding of the relationships among weather, waterfalls, and photography takes on great importance.

You can expect the waterfalls throughout all of New England to be at some of their highest volumes of the year in spring. You are not likely to find the thin veils of water you may see during summer. In spring months you can expect to photograph chaotic crashes of whitewater at most falls. Some waterfalls are yet to be obstructed by overhanging tree coverage, which will begin to occur as summer rolls around.

During summer, the greens of the trees and mosses surrounding the falls will add color to your pictures. Unfortunately, at many falls water flow is greatly reduced or even eliminated; photographs can look empty. Yet for some cataracts, this is the best time to compose a picture. Photos of waterfalls such as Bridal Veil Falls of New Hampshire and March Cataract Falls of Massachusetts radiate romantic feelings, as they capture thin veils of cascading water.

A true waterfall photographer will also return during foliage and the winter season for new shots. If you want a typical postcard shot, capture the falls of northern New England during peak foliage. Two of the best waterfalls to shoot during this season are Arethusa Falls and Silver Cascade. Both of these are located in the White Mountain National Forest, and just about every color of foliage is represented within yards of the falling water.

Peak times for New England vary by state, with foliage usually near or at peak during the first two weeks of October for the northern states. The southern states often peak during the second and third weeks of the month.

Winter is the most difficult to photograph. The vibrant colors of spring and autumn are long gone, and your camera’s meter is often fooled by the reflecting white of the snow. You will find that many waterfalls are closed for the season simply because they are too dangerous to visit. If the falls are reachable, be sure to bracket your exposures over a greater range to ensure that at least one photograph can make the scrapbook. A circular polarizer can be very helpful to reduce glare during this season.

For any season, it is a good idea to carry a trash bag or two in your backpack in case the weather turns bad. Cameras are easily damaged by water, and the combined protection of a backpack and a trash bag may save your equipment from the elements.


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