Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pro-Tip #20: Waterfall Photography

The Whole Enchilada, Burney Falls -- © Greg Clure

This year in my Pro-Tip Section I am writing about ways to get creative so your images will standout from the other 880 billion photos that are expected to be taken in 2014. Waterfalls do present themselves as a wonderful and challenging subject matter to photographers. Firstly they’re beautiful places, secondly they are often in tricky lighting situations and thirdly they’re a dynamic subject as they’re moving (and of course movement means a challenge but also a real opportunity for a more dynamic shot).

Here are some tips to help you bring home some creative waterfall shots:
  1. Go during the best season - Since waterfalls require water, you'll want to go photograph them  when it is plentiful. That typically means spring or early summer when the flow is at its peak.  Some waterfalls dry up in drought years not to be seen again until the rains return. Spring also has the add benefit of spring wildflowers for your foreground.  There is one exception to the springtime rule and that is waterfalls fed by underground springs or other flows of water that do not run out.  These give you the best of every season from the wildflowers in the spring to lush greenery of ferns and trees in the summer to the turning color of fall leaves in autumn and right on into winter for ice cycles and frosty coatings.
  2. Shoot in soft even light - We often find waterfalls in deep canyons so taming the dynamic range of your location should be top-of-mind. Step cliffs and plunge pools surrounded by trees and heavy undergrowth will often be in dark shadow while the open plunge pool, waterfall and sky above may be brightly light. That's why overcast days are the perfect choice in which to shoot waterfalls as they provide the soft even light needed to produce a dynamic range our cameras a capable of recording. Short of finding an overcast day to shoot on, like most things shot in nature, the early morning or late afternoon golden hour can help with high dynamic range issues or by this time of day your subject waterfall could be thrown into complete shadow which has all the benefits of soft even light.
  3. Use a tripod for a more dynamic shot  - Anytime you’re presented with a moving subject a photographer really has two options. Firstly they can freeze the motion by using a fast shutter speed and secondly they can capture and enhance the motion by using a longer shutter speed that blurs the moving element in the shot (in this case – water). Most photographers take the second option and allow the water to blur. How much blur is up to you, but you don't want so much blur that it is void of detail so there is often a sweet spot that straddles the line between enough blur and freeze action. In all cases, the shutter speed required will be to slow for handle holding.
  4. Choose the right shutter speed - The right shutter speed is the one that looks best to you. But generally large fast moving volumes of water look good in the eighth to full second range while low volume flows that bounce off the rocks before reaching the plunge pool could require some much longer times. The great thing about digital cameras is they have a LCD screen which allows us to check our results and get into the approximate area (shutter speed-wise) where the water looks best.
  5. Bracket your shutter speeds - It can be hard to see the fine detail on your 3 inch LCD screen and what could look best on it may not look best on your 27" monitor at home. So give yourself some cushion and bracket by a couple of stops on each side of normal exposure with a few slower that optimal shots and a few faster than optimal shots.  This will give you a choice back home to make rather than tiring to do it in the field on your LCD. You will also be able to use one of the faster shutter speed shots to freeze the movement of plants and tree leaves that surround the water and blend it together with one of the slower shutter speeds for which the water looks best giving you the best of both worlds.
  6. Useful filters for waterfalls - I always carry these three filters with me to every shoot as they can help you get close to the final shot in camera. a) Circular Polarizer, this filter will be useful in reducing glare from shiny wet surfaces, deepen color contrast and dropping your exposure a stop or two for longer shutter speeds. b) Neutral Density (ND) Filters - these are are used to lengthen your exposure times when your camera is already set at its lowest ISO and smallest aperture the ND filter will allow you to go slower. c) The Graduated ND filter, this filter is used to reduce the dynamic range of a scene, for those waterfall shots where you want to include a portion of the sky this filter will help knock down the bright sky to a more manageable range.
  7. Shoot the details -In addition to the grand scenic overview shot we must all capture don't forget to shoot the details. Isolate a portion of the falls or smaller tributary next to the main falls. Do some close up work on interesting sections of the falls and shoot many different preservatives if possible, high overviews from above, mid-way down the falls and at plunge pool level, each will provide a different look and feel to the same subject.  You should also work your way around the falls shooting from both left and right sides as well as some choice spots in between.
  8. Cover your lens when not shooting - The larger the the waterfall the more problem you'll have with mist and wind as these gushers tend to create their own micro climate and can kick-up bands of heavy mist and wind in certain areas around the plunge pool so always cover the lens when you are not shooting and have a micro-fiber lens cloth handy to remove any droplets of water that do find there way onto the surface of your lens. You might also bring a jacket for yourself, even on a hot summer's day the temperatures next to waterfall can be 20 degrees cooler and down right chilli if you find yourself in the spray of the water and wind vortex as the sun drops below the ridge-line.
  9. Correct your white balance - More often than not the water in the waterfall will pick-up a blue cast from the blue sky overhead.  Hopefully you are shooting RAW and will be able to naturalize the white water in your waterfall to be white, not blue. There are many tools to help you accomplish this but the one I like to use is the white-balance eye-dropper tool found in most all editors that will remove the color cast with the single click of the mouse.
Use these tips the next time you find yourself in front of one of nature's most beautiful arrangements of falling water.  I shot a lot of waterfalls, and water in general is a favorite subject I often find myself capturing, you'll find a lot of examples at

Burney Falls Detail -- © Greg Clure


  1. Funny thing...I am not a photographer, I'm am musician who studied architecture, and I do not see one comment here about composition. The general public doesn't care about how technically proficient you are with your photographic equipment, all they care about is that your photograph either expresses something in an artistic sense or that your photograph serves its purpose

  2. Breath taking and mythical .A superb environmental space for creativity to be explored and nurtured.
    clipping path