In this article, I will share what I know about waterfall photography to try to help you take more meaningful photographs of waterfalls – you know, the ones that can better tell the story behind them or create that “wish I was there” longing.
While you can argue that there’s no real science behind pointing a camera and shooting something as captivating as waterfalls, experience has told us that the vast majority of photos in our collection of captured moments are not very interesting, especially to other people not as familiar with the backstory behind them.
That said, I’d like to think that after over 15 years of waterfalling, I’ve learned a thing or two that you might find useful. This includes the following topics:
Composition: What Story Are You Trying To Tell Through Your Photographs?
When it comes to waterfall photography (or any kind of photography in general), the most important question you have to ask yourself is what kind of message or story are you trying to convey in your photographs? How would you want people to react to your pictures?
While in the act of shooting, we normally don’t think about composition or visual impact. After all, we don’t want to miss critical moments as they happen, or we don’t want to overthink too much when taking a picture. You just point, shoot, and keep doing it, right?
However, once you go through the exercise of picking through all the photos you’ve taken (perhaps to share or admire at a later time), you’ll realize that the vast majority of those shots aren’t interesting. And if they’re not interesting to yourself, are other people likely to find them interesting, too?
You might get lucky with a few keepers, but I’ve learned that by and large, most of the photos retained typically would have personal meaning only because of your familiarity with the circumstances behind those shots. However, to other random people looking at that picture, unless they’re personally familiar with the place or subject in the picture, it’s just another random photograph.
That’s where answering the question about how to tell your story or convey your visual impact helps a lot. That’s because the answer will determine how you shoot the waterfall. Actually, this applies to anything you photograph but we’ll just focus on waterfalls here.
Are you trying to communicate the waterfall’s sheer power? If so, you might want to make the water look like they’re frozen in time to convey that power.
Are you trying to convey the waterfall’s graceful beauty or meditative qualities? Then, you might want to take that silky smooth shot where the motion from the water blurs in the photo.
Are you trying to show the scale of the waterfall or show people having fun around it? Then, you might want to allow people in your photos frolicking in the pool fronting a waterfall. If the waterfall happens to be huge, then having people near it will certainly convey to the viewer that sense of scale.
Are you trying to convey the beautiful settings in which the waterfall is located? Then, you might want to show the waterfall’s surroundings in addition to the waterfall itself.
Indeed, it pays to experiment with how you compose your photo. Sometimes, you may find after the fact that your photo can be used to convey some message or meaning that you didn’t even intend for when you took the photo in the first place.
In any case, I just wanted to impart to you that being aware of how you take your pictures can help improve the likelihood that you keep more of your photos or at least ignore fewer of them (hopefully without missing out completely on a moment or scene that’s hard to get back), which might save you both money and time in the long run.
While a lot has been written about composition in photographs discussing things like the rule of thirds (where your photographic subjects occupy a third of the photo’s frame), how to utilize lines (to draw the viewer’s gaze towards something interesting to minimize ignored photo-real estate), or the golden ratio (a rectangular ratio that can give rise to many phenomena in Nature like the pattern of a nautilus shell), I’ll just summarize my understanding of it here.
Basically, composition pertains to how you position your photo subject in your frame.
If you’re photographing a waterfall, do you want that waterfall square in the middle of the frame?
Or do you want this waterfall off to a side to show what else was nearby?
Indeed, how you compose the picture can completely change the meaning or message that is being conveyed.
Consider the following example depicting just how a change in the composition tells a different story…
Obviously with a bit of practice and experimenting, you’ll soon be telling your own stories or captivating viewers through your photography.
While I’m well aware that composing photographs is a much deeper topic than I’m devoting in this article, I’ve been turned onto this topic by a colleague who recommended that I read the book Mountain Light by Galen Rowell, which has pretty much been my introduction to the world of landscape photography through meaningful composition.
Basic Camera Techniques: Managing Light and Exposure
Now that we’ve discussed the aspect of composing photographs, we’re now in a position to go over the mechanics of doing things with the camera. But in order to do that, we have to understand how to control the amount of light that reaches the camera, which is also referred to as exposure.
Perhaps this is best summarized by the famous exposure triangle diagram. The following is my feeble attempt at illustrating it.
I know there are better and more illustrative exposure triangles out in the literature (essentially capturing all the aspects of it in a single diagram), but I’m going to go more in depth with each of the three parameters using my various waterfall photographs down below…
Making Waterfalls Look Silky With Controlling The Shutter Speed
Perhaps the one aspect of waterfall photography that most casual observers notice the most is how many photographs of waterfalls tend to have that silky effect. In fact, even though I consider myself an amateur photographer, I’ve been complimented at how “professional” some of my waterfall shots look simply because I made the falls look smooth and silky.
So how does one accomplish this?
The critical concept employed to make the waterfall smooth and silky is what is called a long exposure (also more accurately known as slow shutter speed).
What this means is that when you’re capturing a scene onto film or a sensor (CCD or charged coupled device for the digital camera photobuffs), you leave the film or sensor exposed for a time longer than if you normally took a photo and “froze” the moment.
In essence, with each passing time the photo is exposed, you’re “drawing” on top of the previous image until the shutter is closed and the final image is “captured” onto film or memory.
It’s kind of hard for me to describe this in words without getting too technical and confusing so let’s look at the following examples to illustrate the difference between a waterfall photograph in using a short exposure (or fast shutter speed) versus one employing a long exposure (or slow shutter speed).
Notice how in the left photograph, the water looks like it was “frozen” in the air due to the fast shutter speed. Then, in the right photograph, notice how the water looks like a series of lines added together (as well as brighter due to all the added light from the longer exposure).
The latter photograph essentially took advantage of the movement of the water to get that silky smooth look. Because of the increased exposure in this mode, you’ll really need to hold the camera still or else other aspects of the photograph will be undesirably blurry. This is where a tripod would be useful.
So now that you see the principle behind long exposure photography, you’re probably wondering, “So, how do I do it?”
In the case of my Canon digital SLR cameras, I have a “Shutter Priority” mode that allows me to tweak the shutter speed (typically the “Tv” on the mode knob on Canon camera bodies; check the manual for your camera on how to control the shutter). The number that is controlled by this knob is basically the time it takes to close the shutter in units of seconds. It shows up on the bottom left of the view finder in my Canon cameras.
If the number is a whole integer N, then the shutter will be open for 1/N seconds. If the number is followed by double quotes like 2″ then it means the shutter will be open for 2 seconds (a pretty long time to keep the camera still).
I’ve found that you can get pretty decent silky effects if the shutter speed is at 4 (or 1/4 second) and sometimes at 5 (or 1/5 second). If you can get away with it, 0″3 (or 0.3 seconds) can also be satisfying as long as it’s not blurry.
So there’s a tradeoff between holding the camera steady for longer to keep the photo from being blurry while at the same time making silkier waterfalls or coping with low-light environments.
Having longer exposures are more difficult to perform given this tendency for camera shake and blur. The typical default shooting modes in most cameras have the shutter speed (along with the ISO, which I’ll get to later) set high enough for faster exposures that allow you to point-and-shoot as you please without worrying too much about blur.
While I know just about every DSLR camera has knobs to control the shutter, the proliferation of point-and-shoot cameras (which includes camera phones) may not have the ability to control the shutter speed like this out-of-the-box unless by accident (like in a low-light no-flash setting).
That said, there are always new apps being developed to extend the functionality of mobile phones so there could already be a way to get the iPhone to do some of the things an DSLR can do. But the bottom line is as long as you know how the principles behind shutter speed, it doesn’t really matter which camera you’re using as long as such controls are available to you.
Trading Off Color Saturation Versus Noise
In the last photographic example above, you can see how having a long exposure means you need to also control the amount of light that gets into the lens. In fact, being able to control how much light you allow onto the sensor is a pretty important technique to ensure your photos are neither too dark nor too bright.
While the shutter speed is one way to control the lighting, another parameter to control is the so-called ISO. ISO is an acronym for International Standards Organization, which is basically a governing body that sets common rules or values to avoid the inevitable misunderstandings when too many different conventions are being used. An example of such confusion can be seen when you have to convert between metric versus statute units for measurements.
However, in the context of photography, it’s analog film jargon that made its way to the digital photography world essentially quantifying light sensitivity.
So the higher the ISO, the more sensitive your camera is to the light it receives. And the lower the ISO, the more light that needs to reach the camera to make it brighter as the camera would be less sensitive to the light received.
In high ISO (like say ISO 3200 or 6400), the camera doesn’t need much light to turn out a pretty bright image. At night time without a tripod or for a sports shot, I might crank up the ISO (as well as the shutter speed) to ensure I don’t miss fleeting moments like a dolphin jumping out of the water, for example. The color (or color saturation) in the photos also tends to be richer with the increased light. However, the price paid for this is a noisier (i.e. grainier) photograph, which you can see particularly in the dark regions of a high ISO image.
In low ISO (like say ISO 100), the camera needs more light to turn out a fairly bright image. This is particularly handy if you’re taking a long exposure shot like those silky waterfalls since you don’t want it to be washed out by overexposure. The drawbacks for this decreased light sensitivity is duller colors in the photos as well as the need to increase the exposure or lower the shutter speed to bring in more light (thereby making it prone to camera shake and blurriness).
On a bright, sunny day, an ISO of 100 can allow you to take fast shutter speed shots while still having some pretty decent color saturation. On cloudier days, it might be necessary to increase the ISO to 200 or even 400. And in low light (like in shadows or twilight), it might be necessary to increase the ISO even more to like 800 or 1600 to keep the shutter speed high enough to not require a tripod.
While the camera typically can automatically adjust the ISO, sometimes, I often find myself needing to override the auto ISO settings in favor of my own custom setting.
Aperture and Depth-of-Field
The last parameter in terms of controlling the exposure of light onto your photo is the aperture. It basically describes how wide or small the circular “window” is set to let light onto the sensor. Often times, this aperture is described in terms of an f-stop.
The f-stop is shown in the LCD Panel of my camera in “Aperture Priority” mode (labeled as “Av” on my camera) with an “f/” in front of a number (it may be different for other cameras). Typical values range from f/3.5, f/5.6, … , f/7.1, f/8.0, or even as high as f/22. The lower the number, the wider the aperture or “window”. The higher the number, the narrower the aperture or “window”. So the f/22 setting would almost be like looking through a pinhole.
All this has consequences in terms of how much of your photo you want to be in focus or sharp. Conversely, how much you may want to single out a subject by only bringing it in focus while blurring everything else.
This generally doesn’t figure into too much waterfall photography in my experiences. That’s because when I tend to take pictures of waterfalls, it’s basically some distance away. Therefore, I’d want the focal point of the image out to where the waterfall is, and that would mean I have to set a small aperture size.
I can do this by setting the “Aperture Priority” setting of my camera to something like f/6.3, f/7.1, f/8.0, or higher.
What this means is that everything in the field of view tends to be sharp or in focus, which is typical of landscape photographs.
I don’t normally set wide aperture like f/3.5, f/4.0, or even as high as f/5.6 unless I’m trying to focus on a subject while blurring everything else around it. This is good for portrait shots of food and people, but doesn’t work all that well for waterfalls.
Managing Or Responding To Situations
Often times in the field, there are things you can do to take advantage of situations or opportunities as they present themselves. Other times, you have to make the most of a non-ideal situation. So in this section, we’ll talk about some of these situations as they pertain to waterfall photography.
Recognizing And Responding To The Lighting Conditions
One of the most important things to consider when taking pictures is the lighting.
Is it sunny? Which way is the sun shining? Or is it cloudy? Dark? Shady?
When it’s sunny, one of the things I try to do is to maximize backlighting. In other words, I’d prefer to have the sun behind me so the subject (in this case a waterfall, but it could be anything else) would get the benefit of good colors and light without the glare from looking against the sun.
An added bonus is that if the sun is striking the water droplets at the correct angle (around 44 degrees relative to my line of sight), then I might be seeing rainbows along with the waterfall itself!
Unfortunately, sometimes timing or circumstances beyond your control are such that backlighting from the sun would not be possible at the moment.
If the sun happens to still be out but I’m looking against it, I might try to position myself such that the waterfall is side-lit by the sun. So the spray might look like it’s glowing and would have that ghostly effect while other things around the waterfall might appear like shadowy silhouettes.
If the timing is real cruel and the sun is pretty much in the line of sight, the best thing you can do there is to try to shield the lens from the sun to minimize the annoyingly unwanted glare that can show up on a photo.
Sometimes, there are shadows cast on the scene resulting in very high contrast light and dark zones. In such circumstances, the stuff in the shade could be too dark while the stuff in the sun could be too bright. Typically such situtations call for the graduated neutral density filter, which is a type of gradient filter that professional photographers use to darken the light zones to even out the contrast in shadowy scenes like sunrise and sunset.
Since I’m not equipped with such a beefy filter in my travel arsenal, when I’m faced with shadows, there’s not a whole lot I could do except to try to be patient and wait a bit in the hopes that one of two things happen. Either I wait for the shadows to engulf the subject entirely so the camera can hone in on lighting conditions of the shade, or I can wait for enough of the shade to retreat to reveal the subject entirely in the sunlight.
Then, there are other times when I’d rather not have the sun at all because of the shadows and the extra brightness that sunlight tends to cause. In fact, when I photograph waterfalls, I often prefer cloudy skies as the light would be more evenly distributed and I can take better long exposure shots. I could even experiment more with the ISO settings to really try to amp up the color saturation and bring out the greens of the vegetation that would typically accompany waterfalls.
Below are some examples of the various lighting conditions that I had been faced with when photographing waterfalls.
Misty Situation Or Lots Of Water Droplets
Imagine this scenario. You manage to reach the base of this gorgeous waterfall and you eagerly snap several photos of it to capture the beauty of the moment.
When you finally get home and put the photo on your computer, your heart sinks as you see each of your photos were ruined by waterspots from the waterfall’s mist spraying your camera lens.
And you wondered why this was not visible through your view finder or your LCD at the time you photographed the waterfalls.
Believe it or not, I’ve had this happen to me too many times to count. So what do you do in such situations?
Well there’s really nothing magical about how to remedy this problem. Basically come prepared with a lens cloth or soft tissue and a filter you don’t mind getting wet (unless you don’t mind wiping the camera lens directly – risking a scratch in the process).
Then in the course of your waterfall photography, frequently double check the camera lens or filter to ensure waterspots are not on it.
Of course there are some cases where getting sprayed as you point the camera at the falls is inevitable. So to counter act this, I try to employ the following technique:
- Point the camera at the falls and press the shutter button half-way to lock in the current exposure and focus settings (don’t worry about water getting on the lens at this point)
- Turn away from the mist with one finger still on the camera trigger pressed half-way down, and use the free hand to wipe the waterspots from the lens
- Cover the lens with your free hand and turn around in the direction of the mist
- When you feel less spray on the hand covering the lens, quickly remove that hand and push the camera trigger the rest of the way down to take the picture before waterspots get all over the lens again
This waterfall photography method is crude and it does have its limitations (i.e. if there’s too much mist, then sometimes there’s nothing you can do), but it at least gives me a chance to capture a waterfall in otherwise difficult conditions that might have denied me the opportunity to take a decent photograph.
Photography Equipment: iPhone Versus The DSLR
Perhaps the most obvious equipment that is required to capture the moments we experience abroad (or in the case of waterfall photography, we care about the waterfalls we’re capturing), we of course need the camera.
Let’s face it. The mobile phone is getting more and more powerful. This is especially the case with apps that can extend phone’s functionality to essentially make the performance gap between it and the DSLR seem narrower and narrower.
So it’s natural to ask if the bulk, weight, and cost of lugging around the DSLR (and associated camera gear) justified if a single iPhone can do a lot of the things the DSLR can do?
I personally know people who used to swear by the DSLR and have ditched it for the mobile phone. If you’re out backpacking or hiking, shedding over 5-10 pounds or more of camera gear would be a welcome trade for slightly less perceived image quality.
While it can be debatable that image quality has more to do with the skill of the photographer managing light and composition, there are limitations that he/she has to deal with when it comes with the tools being used.
The limitations of the iPhone that can’t compete with the DSLR at the moment pretty much have to do with the physical limitations.
So if there’s a difference in the image quality because the iPhone have smaller sensors compared to the big bulkier DSLR camera, there’s not a whole lot the iPhone can do to compete. This would affect things like color saturation, graininess, or other aspects of light control on the sensor capturing the scene into memory.
The same thing goes for the size of the lens which can affect things like optical zoom, which the iPhone would have trouble with simply because it doesn’t have the physical aspects to provide that optical zoom. So there will definitely be a performance hit if you’re trying to bring say a distant waterfall into view without digitally cropping the frame to make it appear “zoomed in”.
But are these differences so pronounced that the average person can tell the difference? That’s debatable.
In fact, it’s also fair to ask whether such image quality factors matter if the only intent is to share them on the web and not to blow them up for a wall poster or perhaps for some kind of commercial purpose.
The following photographic examples try to illustrate the differences I’ve observed in taking the same picture using the different tools.
Finally, the last major difference that I’ve observed between the iPhone and the DSLR is the speed at which the camera can capture the photograph.
While this isn’t particularly important for waterfall photography, it does have implications when trying to capture fleeting moments in general.
For example, have you tried to capture a dolphin doing a backflip out of the air? Such a moment happens so quickly that it’s difficult for the iPhone user to react soon enough and capture the dolphin in mid-flight. This is even more exacerbated by the slowness in which the image makes it through the small sensor and onto the camera’s memory.
However, I’ve been able to capture such moments pretty easily with the DSLR because of its speed. Granted, this depends on the zoom lens you’re using, but with the iPhone, you don’t even have the choice of which lens to use nor do you have any physical mechanics (like the physical shutter and aperture) to help capture the scene in a timely manner in the way a DSLR can.
Indeed, there’s a reason why the DSLR is big and bulky, and this speed factor along with the sensor and lens sizes for image quality are the primary differences I’ve noticed. They’re basically the main reasons why I still stick with my DSLR and associated camera gear and haven’t gone exclusively with the camera phone yet.
But as I’m getting older and less tolerant of carrying extra weight, I’m sure that day I finally go exclusively with the camera phone will come sooner rather than later.
Photography Equipment: The Gear I Bring Along In My Travels
Up until now, we discussed mostly the concepts and techniques behind waterfall photography. We went over how to compose waterfall photographs to make them more interesting as well as basic techniques with the camera to do things like make waterfalls look silky or taking advantage of the lighting situations to best bring out the colors and the photo subjects.
We’ve only alluded to the fact that most of the concepts discussed will involve some degree of photography equipment, but we haven’t really discussed in greater detail what this equipment is besides the camera itself.
Again, I’m not claiming that I’m a pro at this, but in engaging in over 15 years of waterfalling, there are quite a few things I’ve learned about our equipment.
I’ll only focus on the tools for photography and assume that other electronics like a mobile phone, memory, laptop, etc. are a given. However, the following is the gear that I tend to bring wherever I go, especially on my waterfalling endeavors.
Ever since I took a plunge and invested in a digital single lens reflex camera (or DSLR) back in early 2006, I’ve never looked back to the point-and-shoot camera again (though this may change as I’m discovering new ways to extend the functionality of my iPhone to do more of the things that DSLRs can do).
That said, in addition to the bulk and weight of lugging this thing around, there’s also a steep learning curve to truly understanding how to use it to take good photos.
In any case, all the principles of controlling the shutter speed, the ISO, and the aperture are all straightforward in DSLR cameras.
I tend to prefer the Canon EOS cameras mostly since I’m used to them. I know other photographers swear by their Nikon DSLRs. Whatever the case may be, I’m sure for most users, it’s really a matter of preference which leading brand to go with.
Different-sized zoom lenses can be attached to the camera body so I’d be able to quickly zoom in on a waterfall that’s far away (or even an animal in motion at a safe distance). I could also have wide angle lenses to better capture a panorama. Usually a camera body and the lens are sold separately.
The zoom lens I find to be the most flexible is the Canon image-stabilizing EF f/3.5-f/5.6 18-200mm lens. I like it because it doesn’t require me to switch out the zoom lens in my travels as it can do a reasonably good job both letting me zoom in on a distant subject or go wide angle.
While the drawback is that they’re pretty fragile (I’ve broken at least 3 or 4 during the course of my adventures) and that they’re slower and less optically precise compared to their more dedicated lens counterparts (it’s hard to blow glass that can have the desired transfer functions for all the different situtations in one go), it does a good enough job for an amateur like myself.
As you’ve seen earlier in this article, you’ll need a steady camera in order to take long exposure shots or do something that even approaches the kind of fine art or stock photography you see plenty of in the interwebs.
And while improvising with railings or tables or other solid objects to steady the camera may be possible, it’s often not the case that they’re there. So that’s where the tripod comes in.
The tripod allows you to mount the camera on its steady three-legged stand so that it can steady the camera for you in almost any situation you’re willing to lug the tripod along. Thus, long exposure photos can be accomplished wherever you’re willing to take the tripod.
Heck, I can even set up and take better selfies than the luck of other people taking hit-or-miss photos of you or trying to do it yourself with that awkward selfie pose with one arm reached out pointing the camera back at you.
The heavier the tripod, the sturdier and more stable the stand will be (i.e. less prone to camera shake). However, that weight comes at a cost of having to carry that extra burden, which can be especially taxing on longer hikes.
I carry around the Giotto GB1140 with Manfrotto ball mount. For me, this was the most affordable solution as it was small enough to fit into my carry on luggage diagonally while sturdy enough to still keep the camera still in most situations.
While there are much more expensive carbon fiber tripods of similar size, I’ve been using my Giotto-Manfrotto combo for the better part of 10 years or more.
The Circular Polarizer
The zoom lenses typically also have the ability to add filter attachments. And for that, the one I use the most is the B + W circular polarizer (sometimes with warming) to cut the glare from the sun and amplify the color contrast in the photos.
I can even turn the polarization such that some glare is allowed through to increase the boldness of rainbows that might appear.
If you’ve worn polarized sunglasses and notice the difference in what you see when you look through them on a sunny day versus without them, then you already have a sense of what this circular polarizer can do for your photos.
Last but not least, the lens cloth is a humble little tool that has made possible the ability to photograph waterfalls or other subjects in wet conditions. I’ve been using a small sponge that I picked up at a camera shop nearly a decade ago, and I still use it to this day!
The key thing about this sponge (or cloth) is that it should be gentle enough to not scratch the lens or filters. However, it should be absorbent enough to keep the lens dry while still being able to handle a few more rounds of wiping water off the lens before it saturates.
While it’s quite cheap compared to the other equipment I’ve listed above, there’s no denying its importance to waterfall photography.
So there you have it. If you’ve read this far, you now know pretty much everything I know about waterfall photography (or just photography in general). If you like this content, let me know what other aspects of waterfall photography you’d like me to cover, and I’ll see if I can accommodate by coming up with another article like this one.
Thanks for checking this out!