Who doesn’t love an inspiring waterfall photo? And with waterfall season in full swing across Oregon and Washington, I wanted to share some tips on how to capture the most compelling photos possible. There are countless waterfalls out there just begging to be photographed, and each poses their own considerations depending on the water speed, weather conditions and composition. So here are a few of my top tips when it comes to gear, camera settings, conditions and composition for getting the shots you desire.
– Standing in water shooting for long periods of time can easily lead to hypothermia, but a pair of waders or even a wetsuit is the best way to prevent this from happening. Check out my article on photographing the Weeping Walls where I was wading through high current waters up to my neck!
– If you’re going to be wading through water, then wear rubber boots so that your feet stay dry.
– Trekking poles are great for navigating through water that may have a swift current as they’ll keep you upright.
– It’s really important to protect your camera from water damage, whether that be with a plastic bag or a rain cover.
– I always keep some kimwipes handy to clean the lens before I go to shoot, which is particularly necessary when you’re shooting directly up at large falls with lots of water spray and mist. Kimwipes are great because they don’t leave a film on the lens like cloths do.
– Bring some neutral density filters and a polarizer to remove the harsh glare and reflections from the water, while at the same time saturating the colors in the surrounding foliage and sky. I have a set of VU filters that I love which help to create a fast shutter speed if you are in sunny conditions.
– Perhaps the most essential gear item is a VERY sturdy tripod, and don’t be afraid to get down low and spread that tripod out!
– I typically like to use ISO 100 and a shutter speed between 1/3-1/5 of a second which creates more texture in the water. 1-8 seconds results in smooth, creamy water, but it all depends on how much water is flowing and how fast.
– Experiment at different shutter speeds to see which you like best – you can add a neutral density filter for more texture in your water and a 6-10 stop filter for a smoother, dreamier feel. There is no “correct” shutter speed to use, but to capture movement you will need something from 1/4 of a second up to multiple seconds.
– Don’t forget to check your histogram to make sure you aren’t clipped, especially in your highlights!
– Never focus on the water when shooting waterfalls and streams as your camera will expose for the water (and not the surroundings) and will result in washed out images that contain no water detail. Instead you can focus on something green (like the branches of a tree) or the natural brown color of a rock which are in direct line with the water. But just make sure that they are in the same light or the reading will be off!
– Strong sunshine which creates shadows and highlights in the water is not ideal for photographing waterfalls, so look for low light and no sun spots in the water. I like to photograph waterfalls in the early morning, late evening or during overcast days when the clouds act as a natural diffuser for even lighting.
– Remember that the darker the light, the longer the exposure and the more you can slow down the water movement.
– Many of the most successful waterfall images were shot during light rain or heavy fog which eliminates harshness and creates an ethereal mood.
– Seek out rainbows! Rainbows form when sunlight enters water droplets and is refracted, reflecting back toward the viewer. They always form at a radius of 42 degrees around an anti-solar line (relative to the observer), which is the line that extends from the sun, through your eyes and beyond (if you’re standing with your back to the sun). If water droplets happen to form along that line, then a rainbow will occur at a radius of 42 degrees from it. Using that information, it’s easy to determine when a rainbow will occur (typically early and late in the day when the sun is lower than 42 degrees in the sky). But rainbows formed on the spray of waterfalls can be seen at any time of the day (and those with high vantage points provide the best opportunity), so if you position yourself on that imaginary line, you might just be rewarded with a rainbow in your shot!
– If you do encounter a rainbow, then don’t forget to put on your polarizing filter as it will intensify the colors. Look through the lens while rotating the filter to the desired effect. But pay close attention as while it will intensify the colors to a point, it will fade them beyond that point (and if you rotate the filter too far it will erase the color altogether).
– Look for unique angles and vantage points, rather than just finding the most obvious position and shooting straight away. I like to walk around or behind without my tripod and take test shots, getting down low and exploring around the waterfall to find different aspect ratios.
– Work the scene! Whether that be putting rocks, ferns or logs in the foreground or framing the waterfall between trees or bushes, create a composition that is captivating and draws the viewer in.
– Look for flowing water patterns that help to lead the viewer’s eye through the image or wait for that beautiful moment when the sun is just high enough to create sunbeams and enhances the mist.
– Don’t be afraid to zoom in and get a tight shot with a telephoto lens of an area of the water flow that appeals to you.
I hope these tips help inspire you on your journey to becoming a better landscape photographer and capturing that wall hanging waterfall shot!
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