Waterfalls in nature are places of serene, peaceful reflection.  They make for especially versatile subjects in photography.  Long exposures can give the viewer the impression of motion, while faster shots can freeze water droplets in time.  Rocks and other elements in the landscape can produce intricate patterns, shapes and textures over the water creating foaming swirls or dramatic “bear claws” to pull the viewer in.  It’s no wonder waterfalls are an endless source of material for nature photographers.  In the part of the world where I’m from, West Virginia, we have perhaps hundreds of waterfalls in our state alone, many of which are well hidden and off the beaten path.  So chasing them has become almost a sport in and of itself and provides a great sense of accomplishment for those of us adventurous enough to seek them out.

This post will provide some helpful tips for photographing waterfalls once you reach them!

1. Take Control of the Shutter Speed

Photographing anything in motion provides the opportunity to blur or freeze the subject in time.  The motion of water is no exception!  Learn to operate the camera in manual mode and experiment with shutter speed to produce different results.  A faster shutter speed will yield droplets of falling water and crashing turbulence, while slower shutter speeds will yield smoother, silky water.  I like to keep a balance the two extremes.  Slow enough that you can visualize the motion of water, but still fast enough to see all the texture created by the motion.  For me, as a rule of thumb, the perfect shutter speed exists around half a second.  Anything longer than that tends to produce water that looks overly milky and details that tend to become smoothed over.  Of course, a tripod will be required for anything slower than about 1/30s, even with shake reduction.

It’s all a matter of preference, so experiment to find the look that you prefer!

Dunloup Creek Falls A Moment in Time
Short exposure times reveal water droplets in air. ISO 2200, f/6.7, 1/500s
Dunloup Creek Falls In Color
Longer shutter times smooth the motion of water. ISO 100, f/8, 1/8s

2. Find the Right Filters

A circular polarizer (CP) for your lens is an absolute necessity when photographing anything wet.  A CP filter will remove glare on wet rocks and reflections from water, allowing you to peer below the surface.  Look for the filter thread size on your lens to determine what size filter is needed.

A set of Neutral Density (ND) filters, while not necessary but are often useful for pulling off longer exposures, usually beyond 1 second.   ND filters simply darken and limit the amount of light reaching the camera sensor. An ND filter does not polarize light, so a CP should be stacked with an ND filter to remove reflections.  I often get by using a CP alone, which darkens the exposure by about 1 stop, but sometimes I will stack an ND filter along with it to draw out a longer exposure, especially when capturing water swirls. I find that a 4 or 6 stop ND filter (ND4/ND6), which allows one to increase the exposure time equivalent to 4 stops, is more than enough for the job.  ND9 filters, Big Stoppers, etc are usually overkill on waterfalls and can result in unnecessarily dark images that contain a lot of shadow detail.

Controlling shutter speed is key and learning to use the right combination of filters is the way to get there!

Shays Run in Winter
This was shot with an ND stacked with a CP filter to reveal the rocks below and gain a long enough exposure to capture the swirl in the lower right.  This is a blend of two exposures, taken at 10 seconds and 3 seconds in order to tame the highlights in the snow.

3. Watch the Weather

Another general rule of thumb to follow is to shoot on cloudy days, or early in the morning/evening when the sun is low.  Sunny days will produce harsh highlights on the water and will not give you much control over the shutter speed, although there are exceptions to every rule.  Sometimes a little light through a forest canopy can provide some interesting highlights.  Additionally, many waterfalls are seasonal and only flow during periods of heavy rain.  Don’t be afraid to get out and shoot in the rain either…while wearing appropriate gear to keep everything dry!

I don’t know if the nomenclature is consistent across the board, but I have learned in the Appalachian region that the names of streams that end in “branch” or “run”, such as ‘Falls Branch’ or ‘Falls Run’, typically dry up the soonest and in many cases only have water during very long and heavy periods of rain.  Named creeks, such as ‘Laurel Creek’, which are fed by the smaller seasonal streams take much longer to dry up, and rivers which are fed by the creeks, rarely ever run dry.  This is not universal but I can usually judge if a waterfall is going to be flowing well based on current weather patterns, time of year and the name of the waterway.

To Top a Cathedral
Here, the middle of the day sun worked to my advantage.  Highlighting only the areas in the photo that are most interesting, while the forest canopy still allowed for a drawn out exposure.  ISO 100, f/11, 1/2s + Circular Polarizer
Blackwater Falls Morning Fog
Small pockets of fog sweep in and out, hanging over the iconic Blackwater Falls of West Virginia on an early summer morning.  This was taken before the sunlight had a chance to reach the lower falls. ISO 100, f/8, 1/13s

4. Varied Angles for Composition


Get low, get high and experiment with angles!  The temptation is to always get as low as possible to get that unique angle, but often higher vantage points can be more interesting.  The higher you get, the more foreground you can include.  I will opt to extend my tripod higher if there’s a lot of interesting things happening further away from the falls.  Lower angles will compress the foreground and can create a forced perspective with further objects appearing closer.  I employ low angle shots where the foreground isn’t all that interesting and when I want to “stack” elements in a picture.

Regardless, always try to encompass some foreground in the shot.  It helps anchor the picture and draw the viewer in from front to back.  Keep in mind the rule of thirds when positioning the camera!

Arbuckle Creek 2
Extending my tripod to its full length allowed me to get this shot of the “bear claws” over the rocks while maintaining a view of the creek to the main falls.  Notice the rule of thirds in this composition. ISO 100, f/11, 1/3s + Circular Polarizer
Kate's Falls
This was shot at a lower angle, an example of “stacking” the elements.  The stream leading to the falls behind this small cascade was not worth including the composition in my mind.  ISO 100, f/8, 1/2s + Circular Polarizer

5. Have Fun and Experiment!

This one is pretty straight forward.  Just try lots of stuff and see what happens, have fun!

Glade Creek Tight Rope
I set my camera super low on this long for a long 53 second exposure with an ND9 filter to capture the swirling leaves at the end of it.
Turbulent Waters
I decided to forego the massive main section of Sandstone Falls of West Virginia, and instead get behind one of the drops and get higher to focus on the foreground, with a faster shutter speed to capture the dynamic flow. ISO 100, f/8, 1/8s + Circular Polarizer
Donloup Creek Abstract
An isolated and close up abstract detail shot of a waterfall’s flow.

6. Shoot and Edit in RAW

Always shoot in RAW in order to have the greatest editing flexibility.  Getting the shot is only half of the work.  Learn to properly edit RAW files and how to read the histogram.

Photo editing is a whole topic that I cover for $10/month subscribers to my Patreon where you can learn everything I know!  Subscribe now to see this month’s (March 2018) video where I go through my entire editing process using one of my recent waterfall photos utilizing both Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.  Here is a preview!

2 thoughts

  1. Fantastic tutorial, Jesse! Your instructions and suggestions are super-clear, and your images are downright inspiring. Thank you!

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