5 easy to follow tips how to photograph waterfalls... best!
They are meant to be stars in every photo album, but actual results are not always... spectacular? Learn how to photograph waterfalls the best possible way and give your audience that ultimate wow feeling!
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Dissolving • Skógafoss waterfall, South Iceland
1. Find one worth shooting
Let's be honest—not all waterfalls were created equal.
Some are more scenic than others.
Some are iconic. Niagara. Victoria. Iguazu.
Many are (yet) unknown.
Basically, this is not different from a fashion shooting. The result stands and falls with your choice of the model. You can still do wrong in the end, but the right subject will make it much easier to succeed.
Icy • Háifoss ("high waterfall"), South Iceland
2. Choose the right time—and take yours
A great image requires great light.
If you are lucky to live close to one of the scenic waterfalls, you can choose the best possible light at will.
If you are able to see your waterfalls only on holidays, you'll have to plan in advance.
When travelling independently, try to spend a couple of days in the vicinity. This will bring several advantages. You will experience your subject in different weather and lighting conditions, at different times of the day, and from different viewpoints. You will be able to visit before the daily crowds arrive and after they leave (see also tip #5).
Ideally, spend one day exploring the location in search of best vantage points, angles, and compositions. Plan the next day for shooting, applying what you learned on day 1 and adjusting as you go. If possible, reserve another day to account for bad weather, dead batteries, and – it happens – cracked lenses.
If you travel in a company, you won't be as flexible, of course. However, if staying nearby, you can still sacrifice a breakfast or a dinner for the best light, or even lure the rest of your party to join you in search of the latter.
If you are only allowed a short visit during the day, in transit from one accommodation to another ... too bad! Try to make the best of it anyway—scroll below!
Sweet dreams are made of this • Tvindefossen, Norway
3. Select the best format
Like in many other cases, portrait or landscape, that is the question. The answer is by no means simple.
Though the top-down design of the feature itself is definitely in its name ("fall" being a hint), the orientation of your image is not given, much less set in stone.
Iguazu Falls are 2.7 kilometres (1.7 mi) wide compared to 80 m (260 ft) high. Think again!
Actually, there *are* Horizontal Falls, or Waterfalls, off the coast of Kimberleys in West Australia. They are created by the tidal current and can be visited on a ship cruise. The climate will probably kill me, but I would love to get there some day, hot or not.
How to photograph waterfalls: Portrait vs. landscape
Select a detail
Use a long lens
Provide an overview
Include the context
Use a wide-angle lens
What are your preferences?
Glitter • Hafragilsfoss, North Iceland
4. Decide on shutter speed
As with any moving objects, you have 3 options:
Freeze the motion: minimise exposure time by increasing the aperture and/or ISO. This will be especially striking if you position yourself as close to the water as possible. When doing so, be careful not to overdo!
Over the edge • Seljalandfoss, South Iceland
Go for the flow: extend exposure time to achieve a distinct, milky motion blur. This isn't straightforward. The more water is involved and the higher is its fall, the faster the effect can be reached. In any case, though, you'll require a longish exposure and a tripod or another support for your camera. Depending on the time of the day and the lighting, you'll have to stop down and possibly apply an ND filter. To help increasing exposure time, move away from the water and/or use a wide-angle lens to include surroundings [which are often darker].—That said, personally I am not a fan.
Let it to the chance: don't try anything special and pay attention to what is more important for you; composition would be a good choice. Gravitation will take care of the rest. Don't fret, it will work out.—This is my usual approach.
A girl and the waterfall • Goðafoss, North Iceland
5. Avoid the crowds
This is probably the most challenging part. Waterfalls are typical crowd-pullers, so come prepared and be inventive.
Choose a remote one (see also tip #1). The farther a waterfall is from the parking lot, the better is your chance to enjoy it in privacy.
Arriving on location early or late in the day will help—and possibly provide a nicer light, too (see also tip #2).
Moving away from the waterfall can help reduce the masses surrounding it to an insignificant scale.
On the other hand, moving closer and isolating details can also do the trick.
Wait. Tourists on a day trip will have only a limited time at every feature on their itinerary. With plenty of time on your hands and patience, you can beat them (see tip #2).
If nothing else helps, turn the tables! Make some of the crowds part of your image, not an obstacle. This isn't easy, but creating never is.
Zigzag • Ófærufoss, Eldgjá, Highlands of Iceland
How to photograph waterfalls: A summary
I hope, this was useful. As a small bonus, and a swift reminder, use this cheat sheet every time you stand in front of a waterfall and ask yourself how to photograph it.
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