The one million dollar question is, how do you shoot stunning waterfall photographs? We can’t say the answer is simple but hopefully, at least, we can make it much easier for you to understand how to make better images of waterfalls in the future.
In this tutorial we will talk about all aspects of photographing waterfalls but will also try to make things simple to understand.
Time of year
We need to remember two simple things. First, it is pointless visiting a waterfall during freezing conditions as most likely it will be frozen solid, unless, of course, this is your intention. The second is that you do not want to visit a waterfall just after a very heavy rainfall: there will be too much water and the spray will cover your equipment. Apart from these provisos, any other time of year will do.
Time of day
When is the best time of day to photograph waterfalls? The answer to this is not so simple and we will explain why during this tutorial: please keep reading and you will understand.
The first thing to remember is that waterfalls and harsh light (sunshine) do not match because the dynamic range of the human eye is vast, but the dynamic range of a DSLR sensor is no more than a few stops in light difference. Now, imagine this scenario: the sun is out and the water’s highlights (white) are bathed in sunshine. The dark areas of the waterfall (rocks or ground) are in shadow. The difference in light between the two could be around 7-9 stops; the camera’s sensor will not be able to deal with such a high dynamic range and the final exposure will look dreadful.
One more thing to remember is that when we are faced with a waterfall in real life, we are faced with a source of power and majesty. However, what we should try to convey through our images when it comes to waterfalls is the essence of mood, grace and serenity; harsh light and shadows do not allow for this.
So, what is the solution? It is simple really. Photograph waterfalls during cloudy days when the light is diffused and the dynamic range is no more than 3-4 stops difference between highlights and shadows. This will make life much easier. Also, there will be plenty of mood to capture and the colours will look nicer.
Now that we know that we have to visit waterfalls during cloudy days, how should we expose and what metering technique should be used? A preferred method of exposing waterfalls is to use spot metering. Assuming you know how to take an exposure reading using your camera’s spot metering (download our Landscape Photography Guide), take a metering from the white (or brightest) part of the water; let’s assume f/11 and 1/250 second shutter speed. Switch the camera to manual mode and add f/11 as your aperture and 1/250 as your shutter speed (it doesn’t matter if the camera indicates that you have the wrong exposure). However, now you need to 'push' your shutter speed between 1 - 1.7 stops (depending on camera). So, your manual settings now should be aperture f/11 and shutter speed 1/90 second.
Here we need to explain about the 'push' part. When we take an evaluative reading, we calculate the exposure for an entire scene. When we take a spot reading, we only calculate the exposure for that part of the scene, usually around the camera’s focusing point. If we expose the waterfall for the white or brightest part of the water, the rest of the scene will be exposed too darkly. By 'pushing' the white to a point that it becomes brilliant white (without losing detail), we are 'pushing', or increasing, the exposure of the rest of the scene to a manageable level. By manageable level we mean that as much detail as possible is recorded in the RAW file and the exposure adjusted in software later. Only by trial and error with different exposures will you manage to get the needed experience to photograph waterfalls successfully.
We mentioned above a 'push' of between 1 and 1.7 stops, but how do we know which is best? Here is an example. The manufacturer of Velvia film used to give around 1.74 stops, so film users had to take a spot metering from the white of the water and 'push' the exposure around 1.74 stops. DSLR sensors are different and you need to try yours to find out what is the best push setting, i.e. trial and error. Our recommendation would be to increase the exposure gradually until highlights are 'blinking' on the preview screen (check your manual for this), then pull back slightly. This will be the 'push' point for your camera: it could be 1 stop, 1 and 1/3 stops, 1 and 1/2 stops, or whatever.
One last piece of advice is to bracket exposures if you are uncomfortable with the above suggestions. However, practice and you will get perfection.
Moving on to a question that is asked frequently. How is the milky effect achieved? The answer is, easily, very easily, by using a slow enough shutter speed. For instance, a shutter speed of 1/250 second will freeze the water and give no such effect, but, on the other hand, a shutter speed of 1/30 second or slower, will do so. We will not try to advise which is the best shutter speed for the effect; this is down to the volume of water and its running speed and, of course, personal choice and taste.
Now, remember the cloudy days we mentioned above? They are fantastic, not just for the resulting diffused light and reduced dynamic range, but also by being dark enough to achieve slow shutter speeds. So, what if the shutter speed is not as slow as we need it? In this case we have to use filters to block the light falling onto the lens and fool the camera into using slower shutter speeds. One of best filters to use in this case is the neutral density filter which comes in different strengths. After you have invested in your camera and lens selections, you will want to start building your inventory of filters. You need to remember that as is the same with the glass of your lens, it is the same with the glass in filters: quality matters. In fact, quality matters a lot. We have linked B+W filters for you throughout this article for ease because of the quality of the filters and their reliability.
Another filter we can use is the circular polarising filter. This usually slows down shutter speeds by around 1.5 stops. It also takes away unnecessary reflections from wet surfaces and boosts colour vibrancy. Needless to say, if you are going to use filters (any kind of filters), you will need to compensate your exposure time accordingly. If, for instance, your exposure is 1/15 second (after having gone through the above procedure) and you use a 3-stop neutral density filter, you will need to adjust your exposure to 1/2 second. This was calculated by looking at the chart below of shutter speeds in full stops of light. However, it needs to be remembered that most cameras allow for the adjustment of shutter speeds in 1/3 and 1/2 stops also.
Shutter speed in full stops
1/8000, 1/4000, 1/2000, 1/1000, 1/500, 1/250, 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 1sec, 2sec, 4sec, 8sec, 16sec and so on.
If you do not own any filters at all, then our best advice would be to consider your first filter purchase to be a circular polariser or a variable ND filter.
Do we need anything else? Most definitely a very sturdy tripod is essential. Whenever we talk about slow shutter speeds and great compositions, it is imperative to mention a good and sturdy tripod. Using one will slow you down and make you think about your compositions very carefully. Needless to say, you should be on location early and allow plenty of time for your compositions; rushing your preparation will not work here.
No matter what technique is used, always use the lowest ISO available for the best results in image quality.
Shutter release cable
In order to avoid touching the camera every time you take a picture (this causes camera shake), you will need to own a shutter release cable. If you don’t possess one, the second best thing is to use the camera’s two-second-delay timer.
Talking of camera shake (vibration), we need to mention also that you must use mirror lock-up, which means that the camera’s mirror is locked up before the picture is taken (read your camera’s manual about this). If, on the other hand, your camera has Live View and you are using it during exposure, there is no need to set mirror lock-up as the mirror is up already during the exposure. Obviously, you ignore this chapter if your camera is mirrorless.
If you are very familiar with this procedure, you will know that you can use it accurately to focus and expose and here is what you need to do in order to expose properly. Set the camera to AV (aperture priority) mode. Move the square focusing point onto the water’s white (brightest part) and check the exposure that your camera suggests. Now, add exposure compensation of around 1 - 1.7 stops and take the picture. Check and make sure everything looks fine. This should be a much easier method.
Assuming you are shooting RAW and not jpg, it is best to use auto white balance as this can be corrected later (if wrong) in software. If you shoot only jpg files, you should consider very seriously shooting RAW.
This depends entirely on the subject and the depth of field required.
Forget about your gear when you get to a waterfall, put your backpack down and start admiring. Take your time to absorb all the surrounding beauty and only when you are ready, should you start thinking about compositions and producing powerful images of that waterfall.
Every waterfall has its own unique angles. It is up to you to take your time to find the best ones. However, we have added some images throughout this tutorial which should be enough to inspire you.