Tip of the Month: 7 Tips For Beautiful Waterfall Photos!

Cathedral Falls, West Virginia

Cathedral Falls, West Virginia, Nikon D90, 18-200mm lens, 18mm, f/22, 1.6 seconds.  West Virginia has at least 3500 waterfalls.

Is there anyone who doesn’t love waterfalls?  Okay, maybe besides that one cranky great-uncle?  By request, I’m going to cover the best tips for getting gorgeous waterfall photos!

1.  Slow Shutter Speed. This is up to you and your tastes.  If you want to “freeze-frame” the spray, the specific waves, the droplets of water, you want a really fast shutter speed.  Once in a while, I like this to capture the power or drama of the falls.

Or do you prefer a soft, silky, ethereal feel of the water?  This is usually my preference.  If so, you want a slow shutter speed.  I shoot waterfalls, depending on the light, anywhere from 1/2 second to 1.6 seconds, using a low ISO.  But how can you shoot this slowly?

Upper Yosemite Falls

The Mighty Upper Yosemite Falls.  Although I generally prefer to shoot waterfalls using a slow shutter speed, there are sometimes in which I prefer a fast shutter speed to capture the individual waves and spray of the water, which can sometimes add more drama.

2.  Use a tripod.  You knew that, didn’t you?  This’ll keep everything sharp – except for everything that’s moving, of course. I like to use a Nikon MC-DC2 Remote Release Cord to further minimize camera shake, which can be introduced if you are touching the shutter button on your camera.

If you are hiking, use either a lightweight carbon fiber tripod or, like I did for the Cathedral Falls photo, a Joby Gorillapod.  It lightens the load and allows you to take photos of beautiful waterfalls, even if they are miles along the trail.

3.  Filters.  If the light is bright, you may not be able to slow down the shutter speed to 1/2 second or more. So, what to do?  You can screw on a neutral density filter or a polarizing filter to let in less light.  Cool, huh? For this photo, I used a polarizing filter because I left the neutral density filters at home.  Using a combination of the polarizing filter and a really small aperture allowed me to get a shutter speed as slow as 1/6 seconds.

4.  Figure Out The Best Time To Shoot!  When’s the best season?  When does the foliage look the best?  When does the water flow?  Might it look really cool in winter? Often, spring or fall is the best time for water flow, while the winter or summer may hardly have anything at all.

The time of day matters too.  The harsh light of day may not be the most flattering.  but certain times of the day may not be so great either if there’s strong contrast from trees or foliage overhead, with “hot spots” from the sun mixed with shade form the leaves and branches or trees. Most of the time, early morning or late afternoon is best.  Cloudy, foggy, or misty days can also provide good light for photographing waterfalls. But talking to people, checking out the falls, and otherwise doing research is best, particularly if you’re visiting.  Figure out when the light looks the best, or the most dramatic. Popular places like Yosemite often have a lot of information online or in photography books.

5.  Take Photos at Different Exposures and Shutter Speeds.  You never know what you might really like when you get home.  Experiment.  I mess with the shutter speeds, taking them from very fast shutter speeds to as long as 5 seconds or more, although for slow shutter speeds, I usually end up going for somewhere around 1/2 second to 1.6 seconds.  But not always.

6.  Small Apertures.  Consider using small aperture settings when shooting waterfalls.  Why?  As I mentioned, it lights in less light, handy if you are trying to achieve that silky smooth look of the water.  But more than that, what it allows you to do is keep more of the waterfall and surrounding landscape in focus.  This allows you to have a greater depth of field and keep the foreground elements as well as the leaves and trees around the waterfall, as well as the top of the waterfall, in focus.  My very small aperture of f/22 is a little smaller than most people do, but I did that because it was relatively bright and I wanted to get the shutter speed slower.  But experimenting with apertures between f6.3-f/13 in most cases will do the trick.

7.  Bring Microfiber Cloths and Plastic Bags.  Indispensable when you’re shooting around spraying water. You can use a plastic bag to cover the camera until you are ready to shoot. Using your lens hood can sometimes keep some of the water droplets (or sun) off the lens as well.

When I was shooting Cathedral Falls, most of the water on my lens came from a little boy who suddenly chose to throw rocks in the water pools right in front of my camera while his mother looked on and did nothing.  Because I’m helpful, I gave her some tips on parenting.

Equipment:  Nikon D90, Nikon 18-200mm VR II Nikkor Telephoto Zoom Lens, Nikon SB-600 Speedlight, Sto-Fen Flash Diffuser.

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