• Sam Wilson

Waterfall Photography

A guide for creating beautiful waterfall photography

For me there really is nothing more beautiful than being in the bush with the sound and sight of a waterfall and for me I just love to spend time around them.

They can be powerful and roaring, yet also serene and calming. Some can just take your breath away with their size and intensity, while others are more soft and gentle.

"Don't have to be big to be beautiful"

Maybe it’s also because it is always a bit of an effort to reach them that it is like you are being rewarded. Whatever the reason, waterfall photography is really my favourite even if I don’t get to photograph them that often.

Life is like a waterfall. It is always moving and there is always an uneven flow to it.”

Waterfall photography was one of the first things I attempted when I started my journey and I quickly discovered it’s not that easy to capture a nice image with that soft water flow.

I really wanted to capture that dreamy look that I had seen and read that having a slower shutter speed was the key to that. Without having any real knowledge of how all the elements (ISO, aperture, AND shutter speed) worked together it’s fairly obvious to say that my first few attempts were an absolute disaster.

My logic said that if a slow shutter speed was good, then a slower shutter speed would be better - it doesn't work that way lol. These days I try and have a shutter speed of around 1 second for waterfalls.

If you don't make mistakes, you don't learn - and I have made many (and still do) learning photography.

My first attempt at waterfall photography

Thankfully I have practiced, studied and learned a lot from those first attempts so here are my essentials for improving your waterfall photography.

I have separated it into 4 sections to hopefully cover all aspects to ensure you get the shots to make your adventures to waterfalls photo worthy.

The main components I believe are -

  1. Conditions

  2. Essential Gear

  3. Settings

  4. Optional Extras

“Mother Nature is the greatest artist and water is one of her favourite brushes” - Rico Besserdich (artist from Germany).

1. Conditions

Either early morning or late afternoon when there is no direct sunlight is ideal, and the same goes for a cloudy, overcast day.

While some waterfalls have a good flow almost all of the time, most will require some rain in the days leading up to you photographing them so this must be taken into account.

Don't forget to stop along the way and appreciate what's around you

Note - Make sure in your planning that there Hasn’t been too much rainfall in the area so you can actually get to your location

This happened to me after recent floods, and being ignorant of how much rain had fallen in the area (no excuse) we couldn’t actually reach the waterfall we went out to shoot that day - 700km and all I have to show for it (photography wise) is this too cute cow

If you can't get to the waterfall, a cow is a cute close second

I will add to this to spend some time when you first arrive at a location to simply enjoy.

Just reaching the waterfall usually involves some effort and time, so take a few minutes to absorb the scene, take it all in and just enjoy - perfect time for a snack!

Or catch up on socials while you're waiting for the cloud to come back over

Then you can start to fully explore and plan your composition and best vantage points to photograph from.

Ensure your equipment is safe and secure at all times!

You will not always get ideal conditions regardless of your planning (or you may be on holidays and have no choice), so the following tips will also help with this. Sometimes (well, a lot of times) you have to make the most of what you’re presented with - just like life!

When life gives you lemons - make orange juice and leave the world wondering how you did that.”

2. Essential Gear

Camera - Any camera that can shoot manual (and in raw if possible) will give the settings to capture that nice soft water flow.

Tripod - This is essential to achieve a long shutter speed without the images being blurry - no one wants that. Double and then triple check that it is stable before fully letting go. The last thing you want is your camera smashing onto rocks or into the water.

Polarising Filter - these act like a pair of sunglasses on your camera to remove glare. They also reduce the amount of light your sensor receives, so that helps to achieve a longer shutter speed to get that nice milky effect.

Thanks to Christine, one of my wonderful tutors - you may not be able to see this in the photo but that's a smashed polariser I'm trying to see through

3. Camera Settings

Settings Snapshot for the best waterfall photography -

  • Shoot in manual mode

  • ISO – 100

  • Aperture – f/8 - 16

  • Shutter speed – 0.5 - 2 sec

  • Auto white balance and shoot in RAW

  • Circular Polariser

  • Camera 2 sec timer or remote shutter release

Tripod - double and then triple check that it is stable before fully letting go. The last thing you want is your camera smashing onto rocks or into the water.

Manual Mode - this gives total control over your settings, and gives you the option to capture the water at varying shutter speeds.

It’s also useful if you want to take 2 images to either focus stack or exposure blend. You then combine these 2 images later in an editing program like Photoshop.

ISO - there shouldn’t be any need to go higher than 100 for this - the lower the ISO, the less grain in your image.

Aperture - anywhere between 8 and 16 should give you decent focus all the way through your image. My go to is generally 11 but I will increase or decrease this to help get the shutter speed that I want.

Basically the smaller number means less of your image will be in focus, while going larger gives you a larger focus area. It gets technical, so all I'll say is to try and not go over f16 if I can avoid it.

Shutter Speed - Once the ISO and Aperture are set, it is the shutter speed that I use to control the flow of water in the image. I generally try and stick with between 0.5sec and 2 sec.

Faster than this and it starts to ‘freeze’ the water, while slower than this you start to lose too much detail and it starts to look like milk. This is of course a personal preference.

Difference in detail - left was shot at a shutter speed of 1/25 second while the right was at 1 second

White Balance - the reason I stick with auto is that I shoot in RAW and can adjust this in my editing - one less thing to worry about! If you are shooting in JPEG, you will need to experiment and adjust your white balance accordingly.

Timer or Remote Shutter - this is to ensure there is no camera shake - just having those 2 seconds after you press the shutter is enough to remove this in most conditions.

Solote Pool - Blue Mountains, NSW

TIP - don’t discount short shutter speeds to freeze the action as well - show off the power of the water.

A faster shutter speed to convey the power of the water - also an extreme zoom in from afar with a telephoto lens

4. Optional Extras

Neutral Density (ND) Filters - while not essential, they can help to further reduce the amount of light entering your camera. This can be good if you are shooting in harsh light in the middle of the day, but are mostly not necessary if you are able to visit in better conditions.

Raincover For Camera & Lens - These can be handy if they are big powerful waterfalls to protect them from spray. A plastic bag can also be used in a pinch if that’s all you have.

If you didn't get wet and covered in mud, did you even go to the waterfall?

Focus Stacking - this is useful if there is even a breath of wind - one slower shot for the water flow and one faster shot to have leaves and branches sharp.

Exposure Blending is helpful if there are overly bright and dark areas in the scene. One is shot to expose for the highlights and the other is to expose for the shadows.

Once again, don’t forget to put the camera aside for a while and just enjoy!

That’s it for now - keep smiling and stay caffeinated

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