Mastering the art of photographing falling water requires using the right equipment along with proper 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 and drastic. After shooting thousands of photographs in just about every weather condition, we have come up with some straightforward guidelines for beginner and advanced waterfall photographers alike.
CAMERAS FOR WATERFALL PHOTOGRAPHY
A camera that allows for manual aperture and shutter-speed control is essential for high quality waterfall pictures. Although some photographers still use film and/or transparency/slide-based camera systems, digital cameras have become the equipment of choice for most professional photographers. Medium-format and large-format cameras have taken many (most?) of the highest-quality pictures of falling water we have seen, but these are just not practical for many shutterbugs. This is attributable to the extensive costs of these cameras, both for the camera itself and for the hefty cost of developing. The added weight and size of the medium and larger-format cameras makes longer hikes and backpacking much more of a challenge as well.
Point-and-shoot cameras (generally $100-$400) are inexpensive, reliable pieces of equipment, but most do not allow much manual control in terms of apertures and shutter-speeds (these concepts are discussed later). Digital single-lens reflex-type cameras (DSLR's), such as the Canon Rebel SL1 , Canon Rebel T3i, Nikon D5300, or the Nikon D3300, on the other hand, allow you the flexibility you will need to change shutter speed, aperture, and also lenses. For all these reasons, we suggest carrying a DSLR-type camera on all waterfall expeditions for those seeking outstanding photographs.
In our opinion, the cameras we are presenting below are the ultimate DSLR cameras for waterfall photography that are currently on the market. These cameras will likely be prohibitively expensive for many readers of this website, but we include them here for those that want to take their photography to a higher level. Click on any one of the cameras to learn more and to read reviews on amazon.com.
LENSES FOR WATERFALL PHOTOGRAPHY
Lenses come in two major formats:
Many waterfalls are located in gorges and narrow ravines, where a 'wide-angle' zoom lens, such as the new Canon 16-35mm L f/4.0 or the Nikon 17-35MM f/2.8D IF-ED, will come in very handy in order to encapsulate the entire falls into your picture. Wide-angle zooms typically cover focal ranges from 10mm-35mm. Standard zoom lenses typically cover from 35mm to 70mm. For our waterfall photography, we use a variety of wide-angle and standard zoom lenss. We typically stay within the focal lengths of 16mm to 50mm for the vast majority of our photographs.
Wide-angle zooms aren't always the answer, though. A telephoto zoom lens (such as the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM) is helpful to capture waterfalls located far off in the distance, such as a water cascading off a distant rock face.
Wide-angle and standard-zoom lenses that are recommended for waterfall photography can range in price from very cheap ($100) to absurdly expensive ($2,500 or more). Canon, Nikon and other lens companies offer lenses of various quality and various degrees of toughness/resistence to weather and abuse. The professional-level lenses of these manufacturers are typically "faster" (meaning they focus more quickly), sharper (espicially in the corners), and they can produce better images. However, it is often hard to justify the huge increase in price versus the inexpensive lenses. However, for the highest quality prints that are above 16x20 inches in size, the expensive professional-level lenses are highly recommended.
Before buying a lens, make sure that it is comparable with your camera. Canon lenses can only work with Canon cameras, and Nikon lenses can only work with Nikon cameras. There are a lot of third-party companies that sell lenses that will work with your camera, but always do your research on the photo-quality and build-quality of these lenses before purchasing. Also take note that EF-S Canon lenses will only work with select digital camera models.
A lot of photographers will rent lenses in order to test how well certain lenses fit their needs. Two very popular companies that offer rentals are lensrentals.com and borrowlenses.com (these companies also rent cameras as well). This can be a great way to try a lens before you make a major investment (especially on the professional-level quality lenses). If you do rent a lens, we highly, highly recommend that you purchase the optional damage-waiver insurance. Shooting around waterfalls can be slippery and wet, and the risk of damaging a lens with a fall or from the spray of water is not something you want to ignore (we once learned this the hard way).
We currenly use two of Canon's professional-level lenses: the wide-angle Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM and the standard-zoom Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L.
In our opinion, the lenses below are the ultimate DSLR lenses that are currently on the market in terms of waterfall photography. Just like the professional cameras we listed above, these lenses will likely be prohibitively expensive for many readers. Again, we include them here for those that want to take their photography to the next level. Click on any one of the lens to see additional information and to read reviews on amazon.com.
One of the best tips we can offer an aspiring waterfall photographer is to always carry a tripod - every single time you shoot! A tripod is essential for using 'longer' or 'slower' shutter speeds (discussed below). A tripod will eliminate the camera shake (aka blurry pictures) that occurs if you do not use a tripod. For cameras and/or lenses that have 'image stabilization' features, the longest shutter speed you can typically do without seeing the effects of camera shake is 1/20 or perhaps 1/15 of a second. For cameras and/or lenses that do not have 'image stabilization' features, the longest shutter speed we recommend is 1/60 of a second. A tripod will allow you to have as long of a shutter speed as possible (sometimes people have shutter speeds of 30 seconds or more!)
Tripods also come in quite handy when you want to photograph yourself in waterfall scenes, but nobody else is around to take the photo. In other words, they came in handy for selfies!
We currently use the Mefoto A1350Q1K Roadtrip Travel Tripod for all of our waterfall, hiking, and travel photography. It is a bit heavy, but it folds up really nicely/small, and it is sturdy enough to hold heavy cameras and lenses. This tripod also won't budge when you are using it in the middle of a river or stream like some of the cheaper, lighter-weight tripods will. It is not uncommon for us to take this tripod on extended backpacking trips even despite its bulk and weight.
If you want an inexpensive tripod, something like the Vista Explorer 60-Inch Lightweight Tripod will work fairly well. Just be aware that these types of inexpensive tripods will not be nearly as rugged and will likely cause some photo blurr if you put them in rivers with moderate or strong currents.
SHUTTER SPEEDS FOR WATERFALL PHOTOGRAPHY
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 seconds, etc.) will blur the water to create this artistic effect. Long shutter speeds are also essential if you are photographing in deep gorges or chasms, where, even on the sunniest days, the area around the falls receives little light. Shutter speed must also be longer if you are shooting at or around sunrise or sunset since scenes will naturally be darker than they are during the height of the day.
Long shutter speeds are not always the top choice for shooting waterfalls, though. With the traditional block waterfalls, we suggest using 'shorter' or 'faster' shutter speeds (such as 1/45 second or 1/60 second), Longer shutter speeds on 'block' waterfalls often create a portrait of pure white water that lacks fine detail. You will find that long shutter speeds work much better for thin plunges, horsetails, or other low or moderate water-level waterfalls. Most of the photographs in our guidebook, New England Waterfalls: A Guide to More Than 400 Cascades & Waterfalls, were taken at shutter speeds between 1/15th of a second and 2 seconds. Our favorite shutter speeds are usually in the realm of 1/2 to 1 second long, but each waterfall scene is different.
Most advanced point-and-shoot cameras and DSLRs will have a "shutter speed priority" mode that allows you to choose a shutter speed, and the camera will automatically select some of the other shooting options (aperture, ISO film speed, etc.). This mode can be useful, but a more effective mode is by using full manual control. Full manual control allows you to also play around with aperture, shutter speed and ISO film speed at the same time.
Shutter speeds can also be extended through the use of neutral density filters or circular polarizers (discussed later).
If you want to get the most out of the concept of shutter speed, you also absolutely need to understand 'aperture'. Keep reading...
APERTURE FOR WATERFALL PHOTOGRAPHY
Equally as important as shutter speed is the concept of 'aperture'. Aperture refers to how much of the lens is 'opened' when you are taking a photograph.
A small/narrow aperture (such as f/11, f/13, or f/16) is helpful if you want to capture an entire waterfall scene, including the wildflowers, trees, rocks, and any person subjects in or around the falling water. In other words, a small/narrow aperture will allow you to include more of the foreground and background than a large/wide aperture.
A large/wide aperture (such as f/3.5 or f/4.6) is infrequently used for waterfall photography because you typically want to include a lot of the foreground and background in your photograph. A small/narrow aperture will do this more successfully.
When using a DSLR, 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 a short distance in front of your feet to the trees and leaves that frame the waterfall. Every now and then, we will experiment and go to the far end of the small/narrow aperture range (i.e. f/16, f/19 or f/22) in order to try to make an entire waterfall scene sharp in all corners and regions of the photograph.
Many photographers make a mistake of trying to focus on the shutter speed alone; do not forget to take aperture into account when composing pictures. Be aware that as you 'widen' the aperture (from f/13 to f/11, for example), you are lengthening the shutter speed (from 1/15 to 1/30, for example), which allows in more light to the photograph. Remember that if you will want at least 1/15 of a second for a shutter speed in order to obtain that silky-smooth waterfall look (1/2 or even 1 or more seconds is often even better).
Some advanced point-and-shoot digital cameras have a smaller range of aperture that you can select from. For example, the Canon S120 is our recently-purchased secondary/backup camera, and it has an aperture range of f/1.8 to f/5.7. With a camera like this, we suggest experimenting with apertures between f/3.5 and f/4.5. The point is this: aperture of f/3.5 on one camera may not be equivalent to aperture of f/3.5 on another camera.
Most advanced point-and-shoot cameras and DSLRs will have a "aperture priority" mode that allows you to choose a aperture, and the camera will automatically select some of the other shooting options (shutter speed, ISO film speed, etc.). This mode can be useful, but a more useful mode is using full manual control. Full manual control allows you to also play around with shutter speed and ISO film speed at the same time.
It will take a fair amount trial and error to become familiar with the aperture to shutter speed relationship. Just be patient, and if you need more help, I would read this article.
FILM SPEED FOR WATERFALL PHOTOGRAPHY
To create the soft, angel-hair water effect while keeping the foreground and background of the frame both focused and sharp, slow-speed film (or its digital equivalent) is essential.
Our personal favorite slide/transparency film for waterfall photography is Fuji Velvia, which is available in ISO 50 and ISO 100 formats. The detail obtained from the this film is incredible. It also highlights blues and greens very nicely. It does not work well, however, in sunny conditions. You will want to use this film either early or late in the day, or on overcast days.
Most DSLR's will allow you to select a film-speed all the way down to ISO 100 (some even go down to ISO 64 or ISO 50). As you decrease the film speed (for example, from ISO 200 to ISO 100), your camera requires more light for proper exposure. This is what will allow you to achieve the length of shutter speed necessary to achieve desired silky-look effects. Slow-speed films are also sharper, which ultimately lends itself to higher-quality (and larger) photo enlargements. In other words, a 16x20 inch print that was taken at ISO 50 will look sharper than one taken at ISO 200.
On sunny days, even the slowest-speed films and digital ISO settings may not be able to achieve the long shutter speeds you desire. For this, a circular polarizer filter, such as the B+W 77mm Kaesemann Circular Polarizer, 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 circular polarizer will allow you to lengthen the shutter speed to 1/10 second or 1/8 second while still using f/13 as the aperture. Circular polarizers, which were used in nearly all the photographs contained on this website, can also reduce the glare that is reflected off water and wet rocks.
It will take some practice to get good with a circular polarizer. Rotate the polarizer while looking through your viewfinder or the LCD screen on the back of your camera. Notice what the polarizer does as you rotate it - it will either lighten or darken the scene, and it will also reduce or increase the amount of shine coming from the waterfall and the rocks around it.
When purchasing a circular polarizer, make sure that the size of the filter will fit the 'filter thread' on your actual lens (i.e. a 77mm circular polarizer will only fit on a lens that has a 77mm filter thread).
LENS CLEANER & CLOTH
You should always bring lens cleaner and a lens cloth with you when you are doing waterfall photography. The mist from many waterfalls can accumulate on your lens (or filters) very, very quickly!
Never try to wipe a lens clean with your fingers or a piece of clothing - you could easily scratch the lens or filter.
Bracketing is a waterfall photographer’s best friend. Every serious photographer has a deep understanding of bracketing. Bracketing is the process by which you take several photographs of the same subject using different camera settings. In terms of waterfall photography, this typically means adjusting the aperture and/or shutter speed.
You will most likely need to be in 'manual' mode on your camera in order to take advantage of bracketing. General and default point-and-shoot settings on most cameras generally do not allow this.
For example, assume you want to use a shutter speed of 1/30 of a second because you want that bridal-veil look for your waterfall. When you select this shutter speed, assume your camera suggests that you need to use f/8 as an aperture for proper exposure. In order to 'bracket', take one photo at the suggested shutter speed/aperture mix (1/30 of a second @ f/8), but also take some further away from the suggested options, and on both ends (1/30 of a second at f/5.6 and 1/30 of a second at f/11, for example).
When bracketing, you can eithe rmodify the shutter speed or the aperture. We recommend trying both at separate times. We also recommend bracketing both close and far from the proper exposure that your camera is recommending (for example, if you are adamant about using 1/30 as a shutter speed, try shooting at all these apertures: f/3.5, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/13, etc.). This will result in pictures that range from too dark to too light. Hopefully one of the photographs in the middle of the range will be what you were expecting.
Although film and developing costs will increase with bracketing, it is almost always required when photographing waterfalls. With a digital camera, the only cost of bracketing is of course the cost of data storage and backup.
Most digital cameras will allow you to modify or edi the "white balance" in photographs. Modifying the white balance can remove (or enhance) some of the blue, orange, or even green color tones in your photographs.
The "manual" functions of your camera are typically where you will be able to change the white balance (in other words, the automatic picture modes usually don't let you edit this). We like to change this setting a few times at each scene to see what the results will be. Typically, a camera will have at least a "sunny", "shade" and "cloudy" mode. Try them all, even if you are not thinking the situation calls for it (for example, try the "shade" setting even though it is cloudy out).
Some cameras will also let you edit the degree of white balance correction as well on a green-versus-magenta scale
Here is an excellent source of information on white-balance if you want to learn more about this very important feature of your digital camera.
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 standing beside a waterfall, or wildflowers along the approach trail are three suggestions that can add another level of 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.
Sometimes, you have to get dirty and/or wet in order to get the best shot! Spend time scouting locations when you arrive at the scene, but also do not forget about personal safety (be careful in the rivers and ravines!). Many of our favorite shots were taken from angles that normally people do not usually seek out (we get wet just about every time).
Every serious photographer that I know uses Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Photoshop Elements, or one of dozens of other pieces of photo-editing software. There is no denying that every picture can be improved (in one way or multiple ways) through digital enhancements, even if it is just a minor improvement.
We personally try to manipulate our photographs the least amount possible. We believe in the natural beauty of places, and feel that landscape scenes should not be exaggerated with dramatic effects and colors.
Here are the most common adjustments we make to our photographs:
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 season to photograph in our opinion. 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.
Want more help with waterfall photography? There is a great book available on Amazon Kindle called How to Photograph Waterfalls like a Pro. Additionally, many, if not most, of the waterfall guidebooks currently on the market also have a chapter dedicated to waterfall photography.
TOP 10 WATERFALL PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS
Here are our top ten waterfall photography tips. Remember these tips to become a master waterfall photographer!
(1) Use a DSLR style camera instead of a point-and-shoot camera
(2) Use a wide-angle zoom lens
(3) Get a tripod (and use it every time)
(4) Get a circular polarizer (and use it most of the time) and perhaps also a neutral density filter
(5) Visit waterfalls on cloudy/overcast days, or early in the morning or late in the afternoon on sunny days
(6) Learn how to use digital photography software enhancement tools, especially the 'unsharp mask' tool.
(7) Experiment using shutter speeds of 1/15 second to 2 seconds long
(8) Experiment using various apertures of f/7.1 to f/22
(9) Master the art of 'bracketing'!
(10) Revisit and shoot each waterfall several times to take advantage of various water, lighting, and foliage conditions.
THE NEXT STEPS TO BECOMING A PROFESSIONAL WATERFALL PHOTOGRAPHER
Want to take your waterfall photography to a whole new level? Here are some tips:
(1) Get a "tilt-shift" lens and then buy this book to learn how to use it properly (it can be very difficult to master)
(2) Experiment with graduated neutral density filters
(3) Upgrade to a "full frame" digital camera, such as the Canon EOS 5d Mark iii
(4) Dive into the expensive but rewarding world of medium-format or large-format photography
WANT ADDITIONAL INSTRUCTION?
We are deeply considering offering one-day waterfall photography on-location workshops in the near future. If you would be interested in purchasing a guided tour to several waterfalls (anywhere in New England), please send Greg Parsons an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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