Much of information presented here comes from my North Carolina Waterfalls book. I updated the content to reflect the transfer from film to digital photography. I also edited the text. If you want to read the original version, you'll need to see the book.
This page gives you a few ideas about how I approach waterfall photography. But what works for me might not work for you. Consider this information to help you think in a constructive manner. Once you've photographed for a while, you'll start to figure out what you need to pay attention to and what to ignore. If you like the photographs you take, then you're doing the right thing regardless of what I or anyone else says.
Keep in mind that the camera does not make a good photograph-the photographer does. Any camera that accepts interchangeable lenses and provides manual overrides to its settings will work great for waterfall photography. But you don't have to have interchangeable lenses. Even a point-and-shoot camera will occasionally produce a good shot, but the problem with using one is that you cannot produce consistent results.
Lenses For Photographing Waterfalls
The ultimate quality of your photographs depends largely upon the quality of the lens, so buy the best lenses you can afford. For waterfall photography, you’ll want focal length coverage from about 24mm to 300mm. Lenses in the 24mm range are great for including the entire waterfall, as well as an interesting foreground. In fact, the 24mm makes a great all-around lens for general outdoor and landscape photography. Telephoto lenses in the 300mm range work great for isolating sections of waterfalls. Lenses wider than 24mm and longer than 300mm are nice to have, but not essential for making waterfall photos.
Zoom lenses that cover several focal lengths are the best bet. When you consider how many fixed-focal-length lenses a zoom lens replaces, the weight, bulk, and cost savings are evident. But zoom lenses are also beneficial for compositional purposes. It’s often impossible to physically move closer to or further away from a waterfall to change the composition. A zoom lens solves this problem. I love zoom lenses so much that they are usually the only lenses I carry with me. My workhorse lenses are a 17-35, a 24-120, and a 70-300. Zoom lenses are perfect for travel photographers who need to watch the size of their carry-on bag.
A tripod is essential for most waterfall photography, or any photography for that matter. It is simply impossible to handhold the camera steady enough to achieve sharp pictures with the long exposures typically required. Tripods serve another useful purpose. They allow you to carefully study the composition and make minute changes. They force you to slow down and think about what you're doing, rather than just pulling out the camera and snapping away.
So, what is a good tripod? A good indicator is the tap test. Set up the tripod as high as it will go, mount a camera on it, and look through the camera while tapping a tripod leg. If the view in the viewfinder shakes wildly and takes awhile to settle down, consider a different tripod. Also, field tripods should not have center leg supports, as those invariably get in the way of setting up on rough terrain.
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For those of you who buy your photo equipment through mail order and don't have the option of trying it out beforehand, I'll tell you which tripods I normally use. My standard, day-in and day-out tripod is the Gitzo carbon fiber 1325. It's great for general landscape photography, and it sets up low to the ground for photographing wildflowers and closeups, or to include a foreground object in a wide-angle landscape scene. If I need to go light, such as on a backpacking photography trip or when rock climbing, I use the Gitzo 1228. I also own a half-dozen other tripods that I use for various purposes, but these two handle most of what I do. The Gitzo carbon fiber tripods are ridiculously expensive and the models I use are probably larger and heavier than what most people would choose. The best all-around tripod for the money may be the venerable Bogen 3221. At around $160, it's about the best buy you'll find for a solid tripod.
You'll need a tripod head to go with the tripod. The head is what allows you to position the camera in any configuration. There are two basic types, pan-tilt and ball. Pan-tilt heads require that you operate three separate knobs to achieve the desired composition and are so slow to use that I stopped using them years ago. Ball heads have only one control knob and are much simpler to operate.
You need one more accessory to use in conjunction with a tripod. A cable or electronic shutter release allows you to trip the shutter without shaking the camera, which would result in a blurred image.
If you need help deciding what to buy, contact www.reallyrightstuff.com. They'll get you set up. And in case you're wondering, they aren't sending me any free gear for promoting them. I just happen think they have the best quality products available for supporting your camera.
Filters For Waterfalls
The choices in filters are greater than that of lenses and choosing one can get confusing. If you like gaudy, surreal images, with unrealistic color or special effects, my advice won’t be useful. To me, nature doesn’t need that sort of “help.” Your camera sensor, however, does occasionally need help to record nature as realistically as possible. Yes, you can do a lot of correcting in post-processing, but it’s best to make the image as optimal as you can in the field, rather than try to correct everything in the computer.
Since I began shooting digitally, I regularly use only one two filters for waterfall photography: a polarizing filter and a Singh-Ray variable neutral density filter.
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In photography workshops, I tell students not to use a filter unless they can verbalize a good reason for doing so. When waterfalls are the subject, I change that to use a polarizing filter always unless you can verbalize a good reason not to. Polarizing filters remove the harsh glare and reflections from the water and they saturate the colors in foliage and blue skies. Put a polarizer on the lens, rotate the filter’s mount (which changes the intensity), and see what happens. Polarizers have a drawback, however. They cut the amount of light reaching the sensor from one to two stops, which corresponds to a longer shutter speed if the aperture and ISO are kept the same. This can cause problems, particularly if the scene includes vegetation blowing in the wind, in which case you want to use the fastest shutter speed possible.
The variable neutral density filter, while quite expensive, saves the day when the light is bright but you want to create a soft, blurry, slow-motion effect in moving water. I’m not talking about the typical cotton-candy effect we’re all familiar with. That’s easy enough to do by choosing a low ISO, small aperture, and shooting the waterfall on an overcast day when the light is less contrasty. Do all that and you’ll get the silky effect. With the filter, I’m talking about the effect you’d get by extending that few-second exposure to tens of seconds or even minutes. I really like to use this filter for beach photography on sunny days. It allows you to do some creative work with the waves.
Camera Packs For Hauling All That Photo Gear
An important consideration is how the heck are you going to carry all your stuff while hiking to waterfalls. The packs I use are made by Lowepro, and are in my opinion the best you can buy. I own an embarrassing number of them, in all shapes and sizes, each one dedicated for a particular purpose. I'll admit that I'm a little compulsive (some people would use other words), and I suggest that sensible people stick to one or two packs. Two great choices are the Pro Trekker, and the slightly smaller Nature Trekker, both from Lowe Pro.
Exposure For Waterfall Photographs
Exposure once was the hardest part of the photographic equation for most photographers, including me. It's also among the most important. Blow the exposure and you can throw away the pictures. Today's expensive cameras with the latest and greatest exposure systems help alleviate, but don't solve, the problem. I promise you that if you leave your camera set on automatic exposure, you won't be happy with many of your waterfall images. But with today's digital cameras, why would you ever do such a thing in the first place? With digital, photographic exposure is literally a piece of cake.
I'm going to give you two different exposure lessons. First, I'm going to include verbatim the text from my North Carolina Waterfalls book where I discuss exposure. When I wrote the book, I was still shooting film. After that excerpt, I'll tell you how I approach exposure today.
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The film approach:
All reflected light meters, like the one in your camera, measure the amount of light reaching the film or digital sensor after it has reflected off the subject. If the subject is average in tonality, all is well. Photograph a medium-toned rock or tree trunk and the meter will suggest the proper exposure because it is calibrated for medium tones. Meters aren't capable of determining tones (at least not yet) and so the calibration is for average tonality. If you shoot something that is much lighter or darker than average, you have to override the camera meter.
Suppose you meter a black bear. The meter thinks it is reading a medium-toned (average) subject that is receiving very little light, because dark objects absorb most of the light. Consequently, the meter thinks the subject needs much more light than necessary, and will suggest an exposure that will render the bear medium in tonality. You'll end up with a gray black bear.
The opposite is true for light subjects. Suppose you meter the white water on a waterfall. The meter thinks it is reading a medium-toned subject that is receiving a lot of light, since light objects reflect most of the light. The meter will suggest an exposure that will render that white water as a medium tone-gray.
This is the foundation for all exposure calculations. Light-toned subjects require more light than the meter suggests, dark-toned subjects require less. It doesn't matter what color the subject is; if it is lighter or darker than average, it requires compensation.
Some photographers use a special type of meter, called an incident meter, which measures the amount of light falling on the subject, as opposed to the amount of light reflecting off the subject. The idea is that this way you don't have to compensate for tones. But you end up having to compensate for a host of other variables including effective lens aperture and filters, and it is impossible to measure the light accurately in many circumstances. If you're standing at an overlook and shooting a waterfall across the gorge, how can you be sure that the light you're reading is the light that is actually falling on the waterfall? Stick with the meter in the camera.
Most higher-end film cameras have at least three metering patterns to choose from: spot, center weight, and matrix (or multi-segment). Spot metering allows you to meter a very small part of the scene and is useful for picking out a medium-toned object to meter. Be careful using it to meter the water, though. Spot meters are very sensitive and you'll see the readings fluctuate widely due to the moving water. Center-weight metering concentrates on the central portion of whatever you point the camera at and is better for metering the water. Matrix metering analyzes the entire scene and uses sophisticated algorithms to make exposure compensations automatically.
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Now the question is how much do you compensate when using these metering patterns? There is no exact formula to follow and only by experience will you be able to learn what to do at each scene. As a rule, for white water you'll need to open up (let more light reach the film) about two stops, and sometimes more. Make this compensation only when using spot or center-weight metering patterns and only when the meter is reading off the white water.
As I said, matrix metering analyzes the scene and automatically compensates for you. But since it is an automatic decision, you have no control over it, and worse still, since it is programmed to consider thousands of metering situations, you have no clue what the camera is factoring in to reach its decision. Therefore, you can't accurately make compensations to override that decision. Matrix metering does work well in most situations. But in scenes that have a predominance of very dark or very light tones (a close-up of a black bear, or a lot of white water) it's better to use spot or center-weight metering and compensate manually.
One way to avoid having to make compensations for tonality is to meter a medium-toned object and set the exposure for that. Gray rocks or medium green foliage are possibilities at waterfalls. Make sure that the object is in the same lighting as the waterfall, or the reading will be off. Also, if the water is very white you'll still need to make an additional compensation to keep it from appearing as a non-detailed blob of white. After taking the meter reading off the medium-toned object and setting the exposure for that, stop down an additional one-third or so (allow one-third less light to reach the film) to retain detail in the water.
And now, the digital approach:
I typically keep my digital cameras set on aperture-priority, matrix metering, and with no exposure compensation applied. With static subjects like waterfalls, I shoot an exposure and then look at the histogram. I want the mountain in the histogram's graph to peak in the right third section, without overly clipping the highlights. (Note that with the white water of waterfalls, some clipping is inevitable and, in fact, desirable). If the first shot I took is not correct, I delete it and shoot another one with a plus or minus exposure compensation. I keep trying until I get it right. Then, I purposely bracket exposures by about two-thirds of a stop in both directions. This gives me the ability to fine-pick the best exposure after evaluating them in the computer.
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That's it. No guesswork. No metering gray rocks or white water and guessing at the compensation. No wondering whether I got it right. The histogram lets me know. It is critically important that you indeed use the histogram and not the image preview. The preview is based upon a jpeg rendering and it is not an accurate representation of the correct exposure. For that matter, the histogram-also based on a jpeg rendering-is not truly accurate either, but it's plenty close enough, especially if you bracket a little bit.
Shutter Speed & Aperture For Waterfall Pictures
The shutter speed/aperture combination you choose dramatically affects how the waterfall image is rendered. If you're shooting a landscape image that has a lot of depth from near to far, you'll want to use a small aperture of f/16 or f/22 to have as much depth of field (sharp focus from near to far) as possible. In that case, shutter speed becomes secondary and you take what you get. But if you're shooting an isolation of the waterfall, you can often achieve complete focus at much smaller apertures of around f/8 or f/5.6. Now the choice becomes what shutter speed you want to use.
People seem divided on the matter of shutter speeds for waterfalls. Longer speeds blur the water, creating a silky, moving effect. Fast speeds freeze the water in motion, creating a bold, powerful effect. Despite arguments in both camps that their way looks the most natural, the fact is that neither method reproduces the waterfall exactly as we see it. The decision is one of simply choosing the effect you like the best.
Often that decision is made for you. Typical waterfall photography involves shooting in a low-light forest setting, using ISO settings of 100 or 200, using a polarizing filter, and a small aperture to achieve good depth-of-field. By default, this translates to shutter speeds from about one second up to eight seconds. That water is going to record silky whether you like it or not. Sometimes you can make the decision, such as when shooting out in the open on sunny days without a lot of depth in the scene. In this case, you can use the larger apertures that correspond to faster shutter speeds.
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The type of waterfall affects how shutter speeds record the water, but as a rule you can expect speeds from about ¼ second and longer to produce a silky effect. Speeds in the 1/30 second and 1/60 second range will produce an effect that most closely matches what our eyes and mind envision. Speeds from 1/125 second and faster will "freeze" the motion of the water, with 1/250 second being the best speed for this in most situations.
There is one situation to keep in mind always. If you're shooting a waterfall that has a large expanse of white water, long shutter speeds will record this as a non-detailed white blob. If you're not able to shoot with a faster shutter speed for whatever reason, you're out of luck. It's okay to have a little bit of the water without detail, but a large expanse is very distracting.
Composing Waterfall Photos
You’ve hiked long and hard to reach a gorgeous waterfall. Now, how do you record what you see with your eyes? Good question. Composition is very subjective, so much so that it is pointless to become overly critical. After all, they’re your photographs; if you like them, they're great. All I can do is offer compositional advice based upon my personal approach. You’ll have to decide for yourself if anything I say is applicable to you.
So you’re standing in front of a waterfall wondering what to do. The first thing is to ask yourself out loud what it is you like about the scene. You have to do it out loud or it doesn’t work. The idea is that if you can verbalize the content, then you can compose it. “I like the strong diagonal line of that particular rock.” “I like the tropical feel to that vegetation growing on the right bank.” “The overall delicate beauty of this waterfall has a calming effect.” “The tremendous power of this waterfall is intimidating.” Once you’ve determined what it is that attracted you to the scene, photograph that and that only. Anything else in the scene should be included only as a complement, otherwise it’s a distraction. I’m not suggesting that you zoom in on one particular element at the exclusion of all others. I’m just saying that every scene has some attraction to it and if we can emphasize that in our compositions, we’ll make the most satisfying images.
Let’s say you’ve come upon a pretty waterfall in a lush forest during early spring. Upon asking yourself out loud (this is best done in the absence of other people, by the way) what attracts you to the scene, you say, “I really like the tropical feeling I get in this lush forest, with the spring green and the delicate waterfall.” What you’ve done is defined your photograph. If you photograph a straight profile of the falls, you’ll lose the tropical feeling. If you shoot only a fern, you lose the delicate effect of the waterfall. The solution is to shoot the waterfall and include as much vegetation in the foreground and around the falls as possible.
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I know this sounds simplistic, but in a way, that’s the whole idea. You want to keep things as simple as possible. Beginning photographers try to include too much in the scene: the waterfall, the plunge pool, the hemlock trees on the left bank, the white-tailed deer browsing in the forest over to the right, the red-shouldered hawk soaring in the sky above. Just ask yourself what’s important, shoot that, and let anything else in the scene fall into a complementary role.
You might be thinking, “That’s all well and good, but often I can’t identify anything other than the whole waterfall that I like. After all, I’m out here to shoot waterfalls. Shouldn’t that be what attracts me to this scene?” Admittedly, this is often the case, but the advice still applies. Just shoot the whole waterfall and make sure that anything else in the scene acts is complementary.
A favorite approach of mine is to find an interesting element to compose as a foreground to the waterfall. Objects like moss-covered rocks or logs, a small cascade, a clump of wildflowers, or a pool of autumn leaves can enhance a waterfall composition. Using a wide-angle lens, I get as close as I can to the foreground to emphasize the effect.
Remember, the idea is to enhance the waterfall, not overpower it. It’s easy to include too much in the foreground, particularly if you’re using a large downstream cascade, or if you’re using tree and branches to frame the scene. That’s okay if you’ve identified your subject as “this section of forest” or “this stretch of stream.” In that case, the waterfall becomes the element that enhances the overall scene. But if you’ve identified your subject as the waterfall, anything else in the scene should be included in moderation as a complement.
After you’ve defined what it is you like about the scene, you have to decide where to set up the camera to shoot it. Don’t make the mistake of setting up the tripod at the first convenient spot you come to. Spend some time walking around looking through the camera and trying out all the compositions. Don’t set up the tripod until you’ve picked the best spot.
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What do you do if you think the best spot might be the middle of the creek? Shoot from the middle of the creek. In summer, you can slip off your boots and wade right in. In winter, it’s not a good idea to get your feet wet unless you are very close to the car. In that case, you could wear your boots without socks and make a few quick shots before bolting for the heater. Or you could bring waders. I use a pair of lightweight nylon over-the-boot waders that are easy to carry in my pack. Don’t worry about setting up your tripod in the water. It is made to get wet and muddy. Just rinse the legs off before retracting them. One thing you do need to be concerned about, however, is safety. Never wade into a creek above a waterfall, or even a small cascade. Stream currents are stronger than most people realize and a slip could take you over. Even in little creeks, you have to be extremely careful not to slip on loose rocks.
One compositional problem you’re sure to encounter is the convergence effect from pointing a wide-angle lens upward. You might do this to include all of a waterfall, particularly when shooting from near the base. But when you do this with a wide-angle lens, the near/far relationship is exaggerated, and any vertical elements in the scene appear to fall over backwards. You’ve seen photographs of buildings that look like the sides are leaning toward the middle of the frame. This is often referred to as “keystoning.” While a waterfall doesn’t have the vertical lines that a building does, the effect is still evident. The waterfall looks much shorter than it really is.
One solution is to back up so you don’t have to tilt the lens up as much. Of course, this usually changes the composition adversely. Another solution is not to tilt the lens up at all, but this means you’ll crop off the top of the waterfall. There is no practical field solution when using regular lenses. Just be aware of the situation and either accept it or look for a different composition that minimizes the effect. Both Nikon and Canon make special lenses that counteract keystoning, but they are heavy and very expensive. Once you’ve shot a lot of pictures and have become proficient with the standard gear in your pack, you’ll know whether these lenses are for you.
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You might be able to mitigate the keystoning effect with post processing. Photoshop (and most other photo software) has a perspective-control filter that does a great job in certain situations. The best advice for learning to use Photoshop is to use it. No amount of text instruction can replace hands-on experience. Keep in mind that if you plan to correct perspective distortion in Photoshop, you’ll need to shoot the scene with a wider view than you normally would. Photoshop’s filter requires you to crop a good bit into the photo after it fixes the keystoning. So don’t frame tightly on the waterfall.
Finally, be aware that you won’t be able to make a good photograph of every waterfall, even if the lighting conditions cooperate. Often, the waterfall is simply not photogenic. Before you give up, consider shooting isolations. Mount the longest lens you have and scan the waterfall. Waterfalls that have a lot of tiny ledges to break up the water flow work best for this type of shot.
Lighting The Waterfall Image
In photography, lighting is everything. Great lighting can transform an ordinary scene into a spectacular image. But many people don’t understand what is good lighting and what isn’t. I constantly meet people on the trail who see my tripod and photo pack and strike up a conversation. Invariably, if the day is sunny they’ll say something like, “Great day for photographs, isn’t it?” Or if it’s raining, they’ll say the opposite. Actually, the reverse is true.
Sunny days, with the harsh and contrasty lighting, usually produce the worst conditions for waterfall photography. If the waterfall is in the open and receives even illumination, it can work okay, but most waterfalls are in a forest setting, where sunshine creates shadows and highlights. Neither film nor digital sensors can handle this much contrast.
The key is to shoot on overcast days, when the cloud cover acts as a giant diffuser to produce even lighting. Just be careful to exclude the sky from the image if possible. An overcast sky records as a distracting washed-out blob of white. Some people do not object to having overcast skies show up in a photo, but I do everything I can to prevent it from happening. Many of the most successful waterfall images are made during a light rain or heavy fog, which eliminates all harshness and produces an ethereal mood.
One situation you’re sure to encounter is “the waterfall blues.” You’ve hiked to a falls early in the morning so you can get there before the sun comes up over the ridge and creates contrasty lighting. The problem is that the lighting at these times is very cool and records with a pronounced blue effect. Warming filters help, but don’t totally eliminate the problem. The problem exists even on overcast days if it’s early in the morning. The solution for film photographers is to shoot on overcast days after the sun has been up for a couple of hours. Digital photographers can adjust the white balance at the time of shooting or, like me, shoot in RAW format and adjust the color temperature during post processing.
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Rainbows In Waterfall Spray
Rainbows form when sunlight enters water droplets, is refracted, and reflects back toward the viewer. They always form at a radius of 42 degrees around an antisolar line, relative to the observer. Stand with your back to the sun. Now imagine a straight line extending from the sun, through your eyes, and beyond. That line is the antisolar direction, and if water droplets happen to occur along the line, a rainbow will form at a radius 42 degrees from it. Using that information, it’s easy to determine where a rainbow is likely to occur. Typical rainbows, therefore, are seen only early and late in day, when the sun is lower than 42 degrees in the sky, but rainbows formed in the spray of waterfalls can be seen at any time of day. Position yourself on that imaginary line between the sun and the spray, and you’ll see the rainbow. Waterfalls that have high vantage points provide the best opportunities to see these rainbows.
Polarizing filters intensify the colors in rainbows. Look through the lens while rotating the filter to the desired effect. Pay close attention, though. While the polarizer will intensify the colors to a point, beyond that point it will fade them. And if you rotate the filter too far, it will erase the color altogether.
Moonbows In Waterfall Spray
The only scientific difference between a rainbow and a moonbow is that with a moonbow the sunlight reflects off the moon before entering the water droplets. Of course, that one difference has several implications, the main one being that you see a moonbow only at night. That means hiking in the dark, so be careful. Moonbows are common at several waterfalls in North Carolina, but the conditions necessary to view and photograph them are not so common. The moon must be near full and at the right position in the sky, the waterfall must produce the right amount of spray, and the sky has to be clear.
To photograph the moonbow you'll want to use a wide-angle lens, a high ISO setting, and open the aperture as much as you can while retaining the depth of field you need. It's better not to include any foreground object that needs to be sharp, as any setting smaller than f/5.6 probably won't work. Remember, the moon is moving relative to the waterfall, which means the moonbow moves along with it. The shutter speed needs to be as short as possible to counteract the unavoidable blurring of the moonbow from this movement. That's why you should use a wide-angle lens. With a 24mm lens, you have about 30 seconds before a noticeable movement of the moon occurs. With a 300mm lens, this shortens to just a few seconds. Since the moonbow has non-defined edges anyway, you can get away with a much longer exposure. Using a 24mm lens set at f/2.8, start out at about 90 seconds. Check the camera's histogram to see how the exposure worked. Because you're shooting at night, you don't want the histogram to peak on the right two-thirds as you normally would. As long as there is a gap between the left side and the start of the peak, you'll be okay.
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Don't expect the moonbow to display bright colors like a rainbow. Our eyes cannot distinguish color well at night, so the moonbow might appear white. Photographs, however, do record the colors.
Clutter Distracting Your Waterfall Pictures
Waterfall photographers experience this problem often, and it drives most of us crazy. Imagine everything about the scene being perfect...except for that fallen tree lying over the falls. Particularly on the smaller streams, this is a common occurrence. Usually this spells doom for any hope of a good image, but there are things you can do to help.
One option is to use the widest-angle lens possible. The wider the lens, the smaller the clutter will appear in the photo, and the less distracting it will be. This works well if there's a good-sized pool you can use in the foreground.
Another trick is to carry a pruning saw in your pack. I'm adamantly against doing anything that has a negative impact on the environment. If that distraction is living matter, or if moving it out of the way will adversely impact the terrain, it stays put and the camera stays in the pack. Also, if it's been there awhile and has tenants (moss, lichens, insects, etc.), it isn't touched. But if it's recently fallen dead matter and can be moved without adverse effect, it's out of there. The pruning saw helps to do this easily and with the least amount of impact on the environment.
I've been ridiculed by photographers who feel that we should take what we get and that just because a few fallen trees happen to be on a waterfall it doesn't mean the scene is not photogenic or attractive. Remember, this page is about how I make waterfall pics. I'm not implying that you have to do what I do to make a good photo. A good waterfall picture is simply one that you like. If you don't mind having a lot of dead trees and sticks all over a waterfall, shoot away. Personally, while I can still appreciate the beauty of such a waterfall, I don't care anything about taking its picture when it looks like that.
Dry Rocks Creating Hot Spots In Your Waterfall Pics
Dry rocks can create distracting hot spots in your waterfall images. That's another reason to shoot on rainy days, when everything is wetted down. However, on dry days you can help by splashing the rocks yourself. Some photographers carry squirt guns for this purpose. Pay attention to what you're doing and make sure every hot-spotting rock in the scene is wetted or the image will look fake. One trick to wet rocks far out in pools is to keep throwing smaller rocks nearby until the dry rock is thoroughly splashed.
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Dealing With Rain & The Spray From Waterfalls
Anyone who has tried to photograph while being bombarded with blowing spray knows what a lesson in frustration it is. Light rain isn't nearly as bad since the water is falling from above and it's easy to keep off the lens with an umbrella setup. I cut the handle off a standard compact umbrella so it would fit into a homemade handle that has a ¼-20 thread on one end and a hole bored to fit the umbrella shaft on the other end. The handle screws onto a small ball head, which in turn screws onto a stainless-steel stud mounted onto the main body of the tripod. This arrangement allows me to orient the umbrella in any direction that the wind is blowing. If you use a similar setup, be sure the holder allows you to remove the umbrella easily and handhold it while tripping the shutter. Otherwise, it will act like a sail in the slightest breeze and cause vibrations in the camera.
That's fine and dandy for rain, but waterfall spray comes at you horizontally and you can't stop that with anything and still take a picture. So, what's the answer? I use a combination of the umbrella setup described above and a shower cap. The umbrella keeps water falling from above off the camera, and the shower cap protects the front element of the lens. I set up the camera and compose with the cap in place, then remove it to shoot. If the spray is not too bad you can fire off several frames before the spray covers the lens element and you have to wipe it. It's a good idea to use a skylight filter anytime you expose the front lens element to constant moisture. If the filter is scratched from the constant wiping, just buy another one. You should also keep an old hand towel in your pack to dry your gear after such a session.
Admittedly, if the spray is severe, none of these techniques will help. There's really nothing you can do except shoot from a different vantage point.