8 Tips for Waterfall Photography

15 March 2020

For many fans of landscape photography, shooting a waterfall is a major photography goal. It’s not hard to see why: Waterfalls are striking natural features that are beautiful beyond compare, and make perfect photographic subjects.

In spite of this, the movement and colour that make waterfalls so beautiful also makes them difficult to capture in images. Below, we take a closer look at why waterfall photos appeal to so many landscape photographers, and explain how to take waterfall photos like a pro.

What makes a successful waterfall photo?

We’ll answer this question with another question: What do you love most about waterfall photos? For most people, it’s the dynamic, dreamy effect created by the spray of cascading water. For others, it’s the way light reflects off the water in a spectrum of colours ranging from pastel to vivid. In both cases, waterfalls are undeniably awe-inspiring and make you appreciate the beauty of nature.

The best waterfall photos also highlight the surrounding landscape and allow its beauty to shine through. For example, Katoomba Falls in the Blue Mountains are stunning — but the natural cliff face and lush greenery around the waterfall make photos of this Australian landscape photography hotspot even better.

8 Tips for Waterfall Photography8 Tips for Waterfall Photography

The essential guide to shooting waterfalls

On your next shoot, focus on composing pleasing, well-balanced pictures, and the beauty of the waterfall will shine through. Here’s your waterfall photography cheat sheet:

8 Tips for Waterfall Photography8 Tips for Waterfall Photography

1. Set your camera to a slow shutter speed

To achieve that dreamy, haze-like effect, you’ll need to switch your digital camera to a slow shutter speed. This blurs the moving water while making sure the items in the background (like trees and rocks) remain sharp. 

The “right” waterfall shutter speed comes down to personal preference, but 1-2 seconds is a good starting point. You can opt for a slower shutter speed, but if it’s too slow, leaves and other items that sway in the breeze will also end up blurry. It’s a delicate balance, and the only way to nail it is by experimenting!

2. Use a tripod

Since you’re shooting with a slow shutter speed (the best shutter speed for waterfalls), it’s important to mount your camera on a tripod. A tripod reduces camera shake for clearer, crisper photos, and frees up your hands so you can explore the waterfall from different angles and perspectives. If you don’t use a tripod, your entire image - not just the water - may end up blurry.

Your tripod should be sturdy and reliable, so that it doesn’t run the risk of tipping over into the water. Choose a tripod that can find its footing in a range of terrains, and which has a moveable head. This maneuverability makes it much easier to compose landscape photos.

3. Turn your ISO to the lowest setting

When you’re shooting waterfalls during the day and using a slow shutter speed, your images can easily become overexposed. To prevent that from happening, adjust your camera’s ISO so that it’s at its lowest setting. Then, switch your lens to a small aperture between f/11 and f/16.

4. Make the most of an ND filter

If you do a test shot and your shutter speed still isn’t slow enough, it’s time to call on a Neutral Density (ND) filter. These filters come in varying degrees, and their main purpose is to reduce the amount of light that enters the lens. To give you an idea of their strength, a 2x ND filter will let in 50% less light (equal to 1-stop), while a 4 x ND filter will let in 25% less light (2-stops), and so on. The best filter for your waterfall photo shoot depends on how bright your surroundings are. 

By manipulating the amount of light that comes in, ND filters require you to slow down the shutter speed on your digital camera to get good exposure — and this is the secret to snapping beautiful waterfall photos!

8 Tips for Waterfall Photography8 Tips for Waterfall Photography

ND filters also smooth and blur any movement, and enhance the texture and tonal contrast of your photo. When you use one, you can expect to end up with crisp, vibrantly coloured shots that aren’t washed out.

Browse our ND Filter range

8 Tips for Waterfall Photography8 Tips for Waterfall Photography

5. Take time with the composition

Landscape photography is all about showcasing the details that other people may miss, and the landscapes surrounding waterfalls are often full of these!

Approach your shoot like an adventure. When you get to the scene, walk around to try and find the most interesting angle. While waterfalls are incredibly beautiful, many of them look somewhat alike. So, your mission is to uncover what makes this particular waterfall stand out and compose your photo accordingly.

If you’re new to composition, you can rely on one of the tried-and-tested techniques, such as the Rule of Thirds or Leading Lines. These techniques will leave you with aesthetically pleasing photos that draw the viewer’s eye to the waterfall.

6. Pick a focal point

The best waterfall photos require a smaller aperture, which also means your image will have a greater depth of field. This means you can focus on an item in the foreground, such as a rock or log, and the rest of your photo will stay sharp and in focus. 

Experiment with choosing different focal points to see which one has the most memorable effect.

7. Wait for the right light

Lighting can make or break a photo, especially when you’re working with nature. If you can, wait to shoot in the “golden hours”, the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset. During these times, the light is soft and glowy, and the low angle of the sun creates a more natural-looking landscape image. 

On the other hand, if you shoot in the middle of the day, you might struggle to edit harsh shadows out of your photos. Plus, the beauty of the moving water may get lost in the bright light.

8. Consider using a remote

With slow shutter speeds, the aim is to avoid any movements that may lead to blurry photos. Even pressing the shutter button on your camera can cause shakes, so it’s worth using a remote control on your shoot.

If your camera has WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, you might even be able to connect the remote to your smartphone and control it from there.

8 Tips for Waterfall Photography8 Tips for Waterfall Photography

Get the gear you need for waterfall photography

Once you’ve got the right camera settings, a tripod, and an ND filter on your lens, you’re ready to take your first waterfall photo. Follow our tips for waterfall photography today and start taking stunning landscape photos to add to your portfolio or share with loved ones.

Need help choosing a weather-sealed digital camera to take on your waterfall adventure? Pop into your local Ted’s Camera store for advice from a friendly member of our team today!

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