11 Tips For Making Beautiful Waterfall Photos
I see lots of waterfall photos every day. The good ones share similar traits, regardless of who the photographer is or the particular waterfall they shot. The following list will get you started on the right track for creating images that have these traits. If you follow these basic “rules” for photographing waterfalls, I promise your images will improve.
Of course, there’s no such thing as a rigid rule for anything in photography, hence the quotes. Try out these ideas, but don’t hesitate to ignore one if you find it doesn’t work for you.
These tips are for photographing waterfalls in the daytime. Shooting at night is another proposition entire, as Gomer would say.
1) Use Sunscreen
Nothing ruins a waterfall photo quicker than having too much contrast. If you’re shooting a falls that’s out in the open and receiving even illumination, you can make it work on a sunny day. But most waterfalls are tucked in the forest where sunlight causes harsh shadows and highlights. The solution is simply to shoot on an overcast day. Next best option is to shoot early or late in the day, when the sun is low and blocked by trees or mountains.
2) A Polarizing Personality
I’ve seen some waterfall photography guides that suggest you consider using a polarizing filter. I’ll be blunt. Get a polarizing filter and use the dang thing! Don’t consider it, do it. It will improve your waterfall photos dramatically. A polarizing filter removes glare from rocks, leaves, and water, and it saturates the lighting on the foliage. In some scenes, it can literally make the difference between a great photo and one you don’t want to show anybody.
A polarizing filter has a rotating ring. You screw it onto the lens and rotate the filter to the desired intensity. Typically, you’ll want maximum polarization, but in some cases, such as when you want to retain reflections in the water, you would choose a lesser degree.
There are few absolutes in photography, but the advantage of using a polarizing filter is one of them. And folks, there is no polarizing filter in Photoshop. You simply can’t duplicate the effect in post processing.
3) Just Hold It Right There
Nobody likes lugging a tripod, but you gotta do it if you want sharp, precisely composed photos. You might think you can handhold a shot and get it just as sharp as if you shot it on a tripod. You might make an acceptably sharp photo this way if there’s plenty of light, but if you compare a handheld shot against one shot on a tripod, the tripod shot always wins, even at fast shutter speeds. Besides, with most waterfall photos, you’re not shooting at fast shutter speeds. No one can handhold the camera and get sharp photos at the slow shutter speeds often needed for waterfalls.
Tripods offer another huge advantage. They force you to slow down. They give you the opportunity to scrutinize the composition, making sure the composition is just right. You can run your eyes all the way around the frame making sure there are no distracting elements jutting in. In changing light, you can set up the camera and wait for just the right moment before clicking the shutter, so you don’t miss the shot. When it’s raining, you can hold an umbrella over the camera as you’re shooting. (Try doing that handheld!)
4) Keep It Simple, Stupendously
The K.I.S.S. rule is a good one for any type of photography. While composition is very subjective, the most effective photos are often the simplest ones. Identify your subject, what made you stop and want to take a picture, the features in the scene that you like. Now, photograph that and that only. If you include anything else, it needs to be an enhancement for the subject or else it very likely will be a distraction. If you shoot the waterfall along with the surrounding trees, the trout jumping out of the pool, the black bear trying to catch the trout, the hawk soaring overhead, the family having a picnic on the rock beside the falls, the kids splashing in the pool, and the salamander lying on the rock at the edge of the pool, well, you’re gonna have a very distracting photo.
5) Enough Sense To Get Out In The Rain
If there’s such a thing as a magic formula for making the best waterfall photos, shooting in the rain is it. An overcast day removes the harsh contrast, but a rainy or foggy day offers a far greater benefit. Those gazillion water droplets act as tiny diffusers and reflectors, filling in all the shadows and providing beautiful, soft lighting. It’s true that even lighting isn’t always a good thing in photography, but for waterfalls, it’s hard to beat the soft light of a rainy day.
Rain offers other benefits besides lighting. Foliage often looks much better when wet. And water prevents the rocks from hot spotting. In fact, I’ll often splash water on dry rocks so they don’t record as harshly in the photo.
I know, hiking to and photographing a waterfall when it’s raining isn’t the most pleasant experience, and there are safety issues involved with muddy trails and wet rocks. But when you can do it safely, I encourage you to suffer through a little unpleasantness and work with the magic of a rainy day.
6) Just Look At That Mess!
I’ve been ridiculed by those who say that every waterfall is beautiful and should be photographed just as it is, even if it’s covered in fallen trees. While I can still see the beauty in such a waterfall, it’s not something I want to photograph. Tree trunks and branches can create serious distractions in waterfall photos. If it’s small enough to remove, I’ll spend as much time it takes to do so. I carry a foldable saw in my pack, so I can cut larger branches into sizes small enough to remove. I also carry string for tying back distracting branches that jut into the scene. I never cut live trees and I don’t remove anything that has been there long enough to have moss on it. A mossy log likely has a host of critters living on it. I don’t want to disturb them. I’ve literally spent hours at some waterfalls cleaning up the clutter.
7) The Four Seasons, Sans Frankie Valli
The most successful photographers return to their subjects throughout the year. A waterfall can look different from one day to the next, extremely so from one season to the next. Winter offers snow and ice. The emerging foliage in spring has a vibrancy that rivals the best autumn color. Rhododendron blooms in the summer and the warm weather makes it possible to get in the water for shooting different vantage points. And, of course, autumn has its own special traits. The idea here is simply not to settle, even after you get a good shot. Keep returning every chance you get, in all lighting conditions and seasons.
8) Make Sure The Spigot Is In Just The Right Spot
Many people assume that waterfalls look best with lots of water, but that’s not true for all of them. Waterfalls that aren’t free falling and have lots of little ledges, look much better when the flow is low enough to reveal the breaks in the action. Sliding waterfalls typically do need a good flow to look their best. In very low water, they can turn into little more than big wet rocks. The key is making notes about the best times to visit each waterfall so you can return in the best conditions.
9) Every Which Way
With many waterfalls, you don’t have a lot of compositional options. You have to take what you can get. But whenever it’s safe and environmentally sound to do so, I recommend checking out all the possible vantage points. For any subject, there are 7 potential vantage points, what I call the “7 Point Rule of Composition.” You can shoot from the front or back, left or right, from above or below, or from the inside out. Very few waterfalls allow you to shoot from all 7 vantage points, but you should try as many as you can. The “inside out” vantage point is for those situations when you can get behind a waterfall and shoot through the water.
It’s important that you take your camera to each of these vantage points and try out the compositions. Don’t just stand in front of the falls and try to guess what the photo will look like if you shoot from the side. Go to the side and see. Trust me, you’ll miss a lot of good shots if you don’t.
It’s even more important that you pay attention to the environment around the waterfalls and to your own safety. Rarely is it safe to get close to the top of waterfall, for instance. And very often, it’s impossible to climb around the banks at a waterfall without seriously disturbing the soil and vegetation. No shot is worth that.
10) Big Bad Photoshop
Some of you won’t like this one. I’m sorry, but it’s just the way it is. You need to learn the basics of post processing.
Ideally, you’ll shoot in RAW format so you’ll have the most file information to work with. With JPEG, you’re losing a lot of pixels that might be helpful in optimizing the image. Nearly all RAW captures need a certain amount of post processing just to get them to square one. I’m not talking about super saturating the colors or adding a cloud to the sky kinds of things. Image sharpening, basic contrast and adjustments, and image cleanup for noise, dust spots, vignetting, and the like are just basic, simple adjustments that need to be applied to all photos to make them look their best. After that, you can decide for yourself if you want to push the saturation slider to 100.
You might think that because you shoot in JPEG, you don’t need to know any of this stuff. It’s true that with JPEG the camera is doing all of the processing for you. But the problem with that approach is that the camera is doing all of the processing for you. I don’t want to turn over creative control to the computer in my camera. Why go to all the trouble of following these guidelines if you’re going to let the camera decide how your photos should look? Might as well stick to shooting handheld snapshots and be done with it.
With that said, I know a lot of waterfallers who aren’t serious photographers but who enjoy taking photos of waterfalls. They don’t print or sell their photos and have no desire whatsoever to do any post processing to them. For them, JPEG is the best way to go. But if the goal is to make the best possible waterfall photos, you need to shoot RAW and you need to learn how to do basic image processing. You don’t have to have Photoshop. Lightroom is terrific, and pretty much any software that offers basic photo controls will work fine.
I know this is a sore subject for some people. They think people like me put too much emphasis on post processing and not enough on enjoying the moment and “getting the shot right in the camera.” Well, I’m here to tell ya that I do enjoy the moment and I do get the shot as right as possible at the time of capture. I just know that my job as a photographer is not over once I click the shutter.
11) Sir, Step Away From The Waterfall
Wouldn’t it be great if the shooting conditions were perfect every time you go out to photograph? I keep extensive notes to help me plan the best waterfalls to shoot at the best times, but invariably, luck plays a big role in my success. Very often, I’ll get to a falls and know immediately that there’s no way to make a decent photo. Beginning photographers have a hard time grasping this. They assume that a good photographer can always make a good photo. But in fact, one of the traits of the best photographers is that they know when to walk away.
Follow these guidelines as much as possible, but after you’ve exhausted all the options and you still can’t make it work, don’t let it get you down. Not all waterfalls are photogenic. Some will be totally covered in downfall. A drought might leave you with nothing but a big wet rock. The pool might be full of frolickers. A gazillion things can ruin the photo. If the situation is one that could change, make notes so you’ll know when to return. If there’s a huge tree lying over the falls and you know it’s going to be there long after you put up the camera for good, make a note reminding you not to waste any time returning to that one.
I have to say, this is a hard one for me. Unfortunately, as a professional photographer, sometimes I’m tasked with having to get a shot no matter what. The new waterfall book I’m working on requires me to get a photo for every waterfall in the book that has a full profile. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to return to every waterfall that doesn’t have the best shooting conditions when I visit. I have to get the best shot I can and go with it. I’m not crazy about it, but it’s the reality of not being able to take 30 years to finish the book. On a positive note, it forces me to pay very close attention to all the other rules, which in turn helps me make the best photos possible.
If you follow these guidelines, I promise you’ll be able to make the best photos possible, as well.