Waterfalls are one of nature's most awesome displays. They can range from a gentle, poetic trickle to an earth shaking deluge. With the right tools, and a little bit of know how, you can capture more dramatic waterfall shots during your next photo excursion.
1. Shoot in Good Light
This is advice that seems obvious, but the definition of "good" will vary based on your location. Ideally, you want to avoid having the sun high and directly behind you while you’re shooting. Mid-day, this kind of light angle will give you dappled lighting with harsh shadows and water with little depth or dimension.
Be prepared. Use a sun position planning tool like PhotoPills or the free suncalc.net. Figure out where the sun will be coming from and don’t forget to take the surrounding topography into consideration.
2. Don’t dis a dreary day
While not as exciting or dynamic, an overcast day is a waterfall photographer’s best friend. Why? Because not only do you get lower light levels that help with shutter speeds, you also get nice even light on your scene. Sunny days can make for exposure nightmares because of their wide tonal range, while overcast lighting makes your image much easier to capture.
3. USE a solid tripod
Having good support for long exposures is key to maintaining sharpness. You want a tripod that’s light and easy to carry, like the Induro CLT204. It has has legs that will spread to get your camera into lots of positions and its twist lock adjustments let you set up on uneven surfaces quickly.
For landscape work, ball clamp heads are best. They are compact and quick to adjust in any direction. We recommend the Induro BHD-1 for smaller DSLR and mirrorless cameras. For larger cameras or for shooting with a long lens, the Induro BHD-2 will give you extra holding power. If you have multiple cameras, don't forget to grab an extra Arca Swiss plate like the Induro PU-50 for your second body or telephoto lens. This makes for seamless transitions on and off the tripod.
4. Bring a Polarizing Filter
Circular Polarizing filters are awesome because they only allow through the light rays that are traveling straight into your lens. What does that mean? You can cut down on reflected light and glare.
This makes polarizing filters perfect for waterfall photography because they let you see through the surface of the water. You'll also get richer and deeper colors when you remove surface glare. Another benefit is that they give you roughly 2-stops of ND filtration and that will help to slow down your shutter speeds.
In the photo (left) without the circular polariazing filter there is glare on the water. With a polarizer (right) that glare is reduced and we can see the rocks below.
5. USE A Neutral Density Filter
There are a ton of reasons why you should always have neutral density filters when shooting waterfalls, and it's not just for making the water look smooth and glassy. Some will say that you can get by without ND filters, but you can end up limited by your exposure settings. For instance, in the photos below, the slowest shutter speed I could get without an ND filter was 1/10 sec at f/22 and ISO 50. With a combination of ND filters I was able to stretch that exposure out to 25 seconds.
ND filters are also great if you want to use shallow depth of field and a slow shutter speed in your compositions opposed to being stuck at f/16-f/22.
No ND (left) - 1/10 sec | f/22 | ISO 50 With Firecrest ND 3.0 + 0.6 (right) - 25 sec | f/13 | ISO 50
If you’re looking for the smallest and most portable way to add ND filters to your setup, a variable ND filter from Genus Tech is a great way to go. These filters are adjustable from 2-8 stops, and they are so convenient because you can keep them attached to your lens while you’re shooting. When you want to compose your shot or focus, simply dial the ND filter down to the two stop setting. When you’re ready to snap your photo, dial back the filtration to taste.
Genus variable ND-filters lets you adjust the density by twisting.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, when optical quality is your number one goal, the Formatt Hi-Tech Firecrest ND 4x5.65 filters are the ticket. Available in from 1 to 10 stops, there is a filter to suit just about any shutter speed or aperture combination. Made from ultra high-quality glass and paired with a unique coating, Firecrest filters are the most color neutral available, even at higher densities like in the ND 2.1-3.0 set as seen below. This means less work in post and more accurate colors.
6. Use Live View
Live view is great for composing shots when camera placement isn’t conducive to looking through a viewfinder. Zooming in to check focus is great, and you'll often be able to still compose your shot without having to remove your ND filters which saves time and hassle.
7. Get a remote timer
If you want to go beyond the 30 second limit of most camera’s shutter, you’re going to want a remote release timer. This will let you set exposures longer than 30" without having to keep your finger on your shutter button, compromising sharpness.
8. Shoot two exposures to avoid blur
If you’re using ND filters to get extremely long exposures, keep an eye on the areas surrounding your frame. Rocks should look nice and sharp, but pay close attention to trees which may sway in the wind. This will turn them into a blurry mush. If that’s happening, shoot a second exposure without the ND filters and a faster shutter speed so you can combine them later in Photoshop.
9. Watch your step
Anytime you mix water and rocks you have a recipe for slips and falls. Aside from the possibly of damaging or destroying your expensive equipment, there is a real risk you’ll hurt yourself. For that reason, it's a great idea to have your hands free while moving from spot to spot. This is where a lightweight backpack like the Tenba Shootout 18L comes in handy. With a place for your DSLR, 2-3 lenses, and a system to hold your tripod, the Tenba Shootout bag will keep you mobile when you have to hike or climb to the perfect spot.
Hopefully these tips show you how adding some simple tools to your bag will let you be more creative on your next waterfall shoot. Remember, the more you shoot, the better you'll get. If you're planning a special trip, practice ahead of time so you're comfortable and familiar with your gear. That way you can focus on capturing those once in a lifetime shots.