When exploring the outdoors for work — writing books, magazine articles, or for the Johnson City Press, I run into waterfalls. I photograph every waterfall I visit, preserving the collection on my computer, printing and framing some of my favorites. These are not all quality photographs — just snapshots to preserve a memory.
Not all photographs I take of waterfalls are great. Getting an excellent waterfall shot takes time, effort and luck. For the best shots, you need a tripod, a digital camera with manual settings and early morning or late afternoon light. Capturing the personality of a waterfall may mean several visits during different times of the year.
Here are a few hints that may help you become a better waterfalls photographer:
Tripod. You need a sturdy tripod because you cannot hold a camera sufficiently steady when using slow shutter speeds. Be sure the tripod is compact and lightweight so you will be willing to carry it with you no matter how long the hike. Set your camera and use a timer, reducing shake caused by pressing the shutter button.
ISO Speed. The ISO setting on most modern digital cameras is designed to approximate the ISO speed of a chosen film and corresponding camera setting used in a traditional film camera. The lowest ISO number you’ll find on a digital camera, usually 100 but sometimes lower, is generally the preferred setting for shooting waterfalls. This number will yield the greatest detail, sharpness, effects and color accuracy.
Shutter Speed. Slow shutter speeds give a sense of movement. So you know, movement of flowing water is completely stopped at 1/2000 second. The fastest water will soften starting at 1/60 second. At 1/15 second, water movement will be clearly seen, but not be completely blurred. Most waterfall photographs are shot at 1/8 second or slower to produce a soft quality.
Time of Day. Midday sun creates harsh lighting and shadows. Visit a waterfall at daybreak or an hour before sunset, and use the wonderful quality of the light. Cloudy days afford more photo opportunities.
Exposure. The white water of a falls will often cause underexposure of your shot, making the water gray and the foliage slightly dark. With digital cameras you can see what you just shot and adjust aperture, shutter speed or ISO setting.
Perspective. Waterfall photographs need a reference to indicate their size. To give a feeling of depth and space, use foreground elements, such as trees, rocks and people. Try to frame the waterfall.
Position. Shoot from the top, bottom, or side of the falls. Treat the waterfall like a piece of architecture. Be creative while shooting the waterfall from different perspectives.
People. The high reflectance of water tends to underexpose people in a waterfall photograph. Position people considering proper lighting for both them and the waterfall.
Rainbows. If you are lucky enough to find a rainbow at the end of a waterfall, take as many pictures as you can. Shoot at different settings then delete pictures back at home on your computer.
Watch the horizon. Horizon lines should be level, and in general, not placed in the center of the composition. In the image area, look for wasted space, light and dark areas, and distracting elements.
I hope the above tips will increase your chances for a spectacular waterfall photograph.