Photograph Waterfalls like a Pro

The sound and sight of water cascading down through a pristine forest is one of nature’s greatest gifts, and whether surrounded by lush spring foliage or the ice and snow of winter, waterfalls make for intriguing photography subjects. Coming away with unique and impactful photos can be a challenge, however, and this article will dive into several useful tips to help take your waterfall photographs to the next level.

1.       Use a Tripod

Using a tripod facilitates a technique that produces some of the most eye-catching and soothing waterfall photographs, which is utilizing a long exposure, anywhere from ¼ to multiple seconds depending on the water flow rate and the desired effect, to give the moving water a silky smooth and dreamy appearance. A tripod is essential for these longer exposures in order to achieve a sharp, in-focus image, and to possibly take multiple exposures to later blend in post-processing if the dynamic range of the scene is too broad to cover in a single exposure, as often is the case when bright white snow and water as well as dark rocks or trees are all found in the same composition.

Fragility: An iconic Pacific Northwest scene of Punchbowl Falls pouring into a rocky grotto lined with vibrant green mosses and ferns. Prints available.

2.       Use a Circular Polarizer

A circular polarizer is another critical piece of equipment when photographing waterfalls to give your photographs some extra pop. Just like the polarized sunglasses that you might wear while fishing or kayaking, a circular polarizer reduces glare. Cutting glare helps to bring out the color and saturation of reflective surfaces such as wet autumn foliage and colorful rocks, and also deepens the color of a blue sky. The effect that a circular polarizer has is dependent on the angle of the light source to the reflective surface, and can be tuned to the desired level by turning the circular polarizer.

Sol Duc Serenity: Sol Duc Falls surrounded by fresh spring greens. Olympic National Park, Washington. Prints available.

3.       Overcast days are Optimal

Cloudy days, especially after a fresh rain, are optimal for photographing waterfalls and provide a great alternative to hiking a mountain when the weather is subpar on exposed summits. The soft, even lighting on cloudy days allows for photos to be taken all day long, and the decreased amount of light as compared to a bright sunny day lends itself well to using longer exposures.

Red Raider: Douglas Falls, of West Virginia’s Blackwater River, resembles a scene more likely to be found in Utah’s red rock country than in West Virginia. The rocks in this section of the river have been stained red due to the past use of coke ovens on the bank of the river. Autumn foliage contrasting against the red rocks makes for a striking photo. Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia. Prints available.

4.       Know When to Use a Neutral Density Filter

Neutral density filters are filters that come in varying degrees of darkness that prevent a certain amount of light from reaching the camera sensor, thus requiring a longer exposure to be used. These filters are particularly useful in situations where a long exposure is desired but it’s too bright out to use the desired exposure time without overexposing the photo. These filters are great for turning nearly imperceptible motion, such as foam bubbles slowly turning in a river bend, into fascinating swirls that are revealed over the course of a multi-second exposure.

Spring Revelry: A long exposure captured the swirling motion of water and foam at the base of a small cascade tucked away in the forest near Lake George. Adirondack Mountains, New York. Prints available.

5.       Get Wet

One of the best ways to create dynamic photographs of waterfalls is to get right in the water, especially when using a wide-angle lens. This results in images that really draw the viewer into the photo, especially when the camera is placed close to a compelling foreground subject, such as rapids cascading over smooth rocks or rivulets acting as leading lines towards a waterfall in the background. Having an old pair of hiking boots or running shoes to wear into the water can be useful to provide better traction on slippery rocks and to protect your feet, and in colder water a pair of neoprene socks or even full-blown waders can help to keep you warm, comfortable, and focused on photography and not on how numb your feet are. It’s important to note, however, that common sense has to be used when deciding whether or not to get in the water (more on that in Tip 7), and while a shallow creek typically poses little danger, wading into a raging river swollen with spring snow-melt, for example, poses a significant risk.

Fingerprint: A long exposure revealed the gradual swirling motion of foam in an eddy in a pristine mountain brook. Adirondack Mountains, New York. Prints available.

6.       Utilize an Unlikely Accessory

An unlikely piece of gear that can come in handy when photographing waterfalls is a small travel umbrella. Depending on the size of the waterfall and how close the camera is placed to the moving water, spray from the waterfall can be nuisance, and can outright ruin a photo-shoot if it unknowingly accumulates on the front of the lens. Spray is especially a concern when using a wide-angle lens and getting close to moving water to emphasize water action as a foreground element, as described in Tip 5. After settling on a composition, if spray has accumulated on the lens front, a microfiber cloth can be used to wipe the water droplets away with one hand while shielding the camera with the umbrella, thereby preventing more spray from accumulating. The umbrella can then be lifted right before tripping the shutter (with a remote shutter release to minimize camera vibration caused by pressing the shutter button on the camera body) to ensure that the shot gets off before water droplets accumulate on the lens again.

Honey Hole: Golden autumn foliage surrounding Bash Bish Falls in the Taconic Mountains glows in the evening light after a rainstorm. Prints available.

7.       Resist “Photo Fever”

Just as the mountaineer can get “summit fever” and ignore dangerous warning signs on the push to a summit, it’s easy for the photographer to get caught up in “photo fever” in the pursuit of a desired photograph. We’ve all thought to ourselves at one point or another “if I can just get a little closer, this photo will be perfect” while chasing a photograph, but it’s important to consider the potential risk associated with any action, especially when getting “just a little closer” could mean slipping on mossy rocks and getting swept away by a raging torrent of water.

Haunting Beauty: Otherworldly ice formations adorn the boulders surrounding a waterfall on the Ausable River. Adirondacks, New York. Prints available.

8.       Experiment with Different Techniques and Conditions

Like any art form, one of the most fun aspects of photography is experimentation. Shooting under different conditions, different times of day (or even night) and using an unusual perspective are all ways to create unique photographs that will stand out from the crowd. Even though waterfalls are most commonly associated with the lush greenery and warm days of spring and summer, winter is an overlooked season for waterfall photography, and can often yield otherworldly results. Clear night skies also make for intriguing conditions where photographs can be made of stars twinkling above a cascading waterfall or winding river. These are just a few examples of atypical conditions that can yield exciting results, and I encourage you to get out there, experiment, and have fun!   

My Way is the Highway: stars twinkle over a granite dome and rapids on the Tuolumne River on a clear night in the beautiful backcountry of Yosemite National Park. Prints available.

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