7 Tips to Create Stunning Photographs of Waterfalls

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Waterfall Photography Tips. A waterfalls photograph in a Coffee Estate in Coorg, India.

Learn to create stunning waterfalls photographs with simpler composition and better techniques.
Nikon D60, 20mm, f/22, 0.8 sec, ISO-100

Today you will learn the 7 easy tips to create the stunning waterfall photographs.

From the smallest creeks to the biggest waterfalls, waterfall photography is always rewarding. However, there is one common thing in all these waterfalls photographs that makes them so beautiful and attractive.

It is the inherent simplicity that makes these waterfalls so wonderful and appealing to everyone.

We have to compose the waterfalls photographs to show that simplicity and bring out the beauty in nature.

Here is a beautiful quote on Simplicity by William Albert Allard

What’s really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer.

Let me simplify the logic behind waterfall photography, so that you can create the magic…

Tip #1: Use Tripod to get Best Waterfalls Photographs

Tripod is probably the most useful tool that you need to photograph waterfalls. Tripod helps you to choose:

  • slower shutter speeds
  • lower ISO settings
  • lower aperture values

Another important use of tripod is that it allows you to choose various vantage points and compositions. This will be helpful to create unique photographs of famous waterfalls.

Tip #2: Manual Mode is Best for photographing Waterfalls

Manual Mode is the best choice to get the best possible photographs of waterfalls. Because:

  • You need lower ISO settings to keep away from the noise
  • You need smaller aperture to keep everything in focus
  • You need slower Shutter Speeds to give silky effect

Manual Mode gives you complete control on Exposure. This is one of the reason, why most of the professional photographers use Manual Mode.

Learn about Manual Mode for Canon or Nikon in minutes.

Tip #3: The Vantage Point and Composition Matters

The Vantage point and composition are often overlooked by many beginners. How many times have you looked at the exact copy of a famous waterfalls photograph? Hundreds? Thousands?

You cannot change the waterfalls or its surrounding for sure, but you can definitely change the vantage point and the composition. It will give you an unique edge.

Waterfall Photography Tips. Crabtree Waterfalls in Blue Ridge Parkway.

Using the waterfalls as leading line is the easiest way to draw viewer into the photograph. Giving depth by including foreground elements and placing the waterfalls off-center give three dimensionality to a photograph.
Canon 5D Mark III, 17mm, f/22, 1/3 sec, ISO-100

Here are some simple tips for waterfall photography:

  • Use Leading Line to Draw Viewer into the Scene either by using waterfall or small rocks
  • Give Sense of Depth by including strong foreground element like a rock or plants or fallen leaves
  • Place the Waterfall off-center by using rule of thirds composition technique
  • Use Lower Vantage Point to give Sense of Height to the waterfalls
  • Try several Compositions from various angles and viewpoints to see what works the best

Tip #4: Diffused Light is Most Desirable for Waterfall Photography

Diffused light is the most desirable lighting conditions for the waterfall photography due to the following advantages:

  • It helps to avoid the water from getting overexposed
  • It brings out the rich colors of the surroundings
  • It allows you to choose any composition you like because there is no shadow cast at any angle

On cloudy days, you get the diffused light.

Waterfall Photography Tips. Manabezho waterfalls in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness Park in Upper Peninsula, Michigan.

Diffused lighting helped me to keep the waterfalls from blowing out. Diffused light brought out the rich colors of fall foliage and it’s reflection on the upper part of the Manabezho falls.
Nikon D7100, 50mm, f/10, 1/6 sec, ISO-100

You will get the best waterfalls photograph when it has rained the previous day and the following day is cloudy. You get the best of both world!

Tip #5: Surroundings are as Important as the Waterfalls

Waterfalls look gorgeous because of the surroundings. If you take tightly composed  photographs of waterfalls, it will lose its impact.

Follow few guidelines to make the waterfalls more beautiful.

  • Include a foreground element like rock or tree branch or fallen leaves to create depth
  • Include the surroundings to give sense of place
  • Remove any distractions either by changing the composition or the view point or both 
Waterfall Photography Tips. Presque Isle waterfalls in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness Park in Upper Peninsula, Michigan.

I have used leading line composition to photograph Presque Isle falls. Instead of composing only for the waterfalls, I choose to include the surrounding to making it more interesting. Inclusion of yellow leaves gives a hint of Autumn season.
Nikon D7100, 22mm, f/10, 1.6 sec, ISO-100

Tip #6: Circular Polarizer Filter helps to Reduce the Reflections

If you can afford one filter, then you should go for Circular Polarizer Filter (CPL). It is very helpful for waterfall photography.

Obvious advantages of a CPL filter are:

  • Saturates or darkens the blue hues in the sky
  • Helps to bring out the colors by cutting the reflected light from the surface
  • Helps to cut the reflection from the water or glass surface 

Cutting the reflection from the waterfall makes you to bring out the real good details beneath the surface.

Remember to buy a quality CPL filter. Most people buy a cheaper filter. Never do that. The quality of the image will be degraded because of the cheap glass used in the construction.

Using Neutral Density filter will be a plus to get slower shutter speeds and to balance out the dynamic range in the scene.

Tip #7: Add Silky Smooth Effect to Waterfall Photographs

After a long wait, we come to the most interesting tip. Getting a smooth and silky effect to waterfalls photograph.

Its rather very easy to get the silky effect. You just have to choose a slow shutter speed. That’s it!

But how slow should be the shutter speed?

It depends on the waterfalls. If you want no evidence of waves or currents, then you have to go for very slow shutter speeds like 1 sec, 2 sec, 4 sec and so on. If you want to retain some of the texture in the water, you have to choose higher shutter speeds like 1/6, 1/15, 1/25 and so on.

It generally depends on how fast the water flow is. Some time 1/6 is sufficient to get the silky effect. Check the settings I have given for each photograph to get a fair idea.

Waterfall Photography Tips. Manido waterfalls in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness Park in Upper Peninsula, Michigan.

Manido waterfalls is so beautiful and wide that it naturally yields for an ultra-wide composition, which is my favorite composition style. I have also used surroundings to create a natural frame. Just a bit of autumn colors make this photograph much more interesting I believe.
Nikon D7100, 24mm, f/10, 1 sec, ISO-100

Not all the waterfalls photographs may look beautiful with silky smooth effect. Some waterfalls may look much better if they are frozen in time, emphasizing the waves or the current.

Bonus Tip 1: Season Plays an Important Role Too

Seasons like Spring and Autumn will lead to dramatic waterfalls photographs.

The lush green of Spring can make the waterfalls photograph very simple in composition giving a very good contrast between white and green. 

The beautiful fall foliage can add the vibrance to the waterfalls photograph by making it lively. The fallen leaves on the rocks can make an excellent foreground.

Bonus Tip 2: Don’t Hesitate to Take Waterfall Photographs Handheld!

What if you do not have a tripod when you visit a waterfall? It may happen sometime. It did happen to me several times since I am bit lazy to carry a tripod 🙂

Waterfall Photography Tips. Beautiful Waterfalls in a conffee estate in Coorg, India

This waterfalls photograph is probably my first successful one taken handheld! I followed the same steps I described in the tip.
One more thing to remember is; even if there is bit of a camera shake, you can get away with it by re-sizing it to a smaller resolution.
Nikon D60, 34mm, f/20, 1/3 sec, ISO-100

I don’t recommend you to do that. However, if you happen to come across such situations you can do any of the following:

  • Use a rock or some sturdy object to serve as tripod

OR

  • Select a slower shutter speed of 1 sec or lesser. Sometimes 1/8th or 1/15th may work. It depends on the speed of the waterfalls.
  • Select continuous shooting mode or burst mode
  • Hold the Camera as steady as you can
  • Take a deep breath, hold the breath and fire multiple shots

Conclusion

Keep the Composition simple, use an unique vantage point, place the waterfalls off-center and include foreground elements to introduce sense of depth.

It is as simple as that!

Now, it’s your turn to let me know if these tips were helpful? Do you like silky smooth waterfall photographs or one which is frozen in time?

Share your experiences of photographing waterfalls. We would love to hear it.

Make sure you take care of yourselves when photographing waterfalls. Safety is utmost important.

Be Safe and Enjoy!

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5 Responses to 7 Tips to Create Stunning Photographs of Waterfalls

  1. David Mendosa January 24, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

    Excellent advice, Prathap.

    One question: When you mention using a GND filter, this reminded me of HDR, which I often use instead. Of course, that’s not practical with the movement of the water. But what about using pseudo-HDR, i.e. one shot processed with HDR. Have you tried that? Does it help?

    Namaste,

    David

    • Prathap January 24, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

      Thanks a lot David 🙂
      Pseduo-HDR; Do you mean developing one photograph with multiple exposure/brightness/contrast and then blend them in photoshop? If yes, then I do use it sometimes. I try to develop differently for surroundings and for waterfalls. Then I merge them to get a decent photograph that appears realistic. I have used something similar in developing Crabtree falls photograph (in the article).
      I also use exposure blending technique sometimes. I will make one exposure for surroundings and one for waterfalls. Then blend it in photoshop manually.
      However, I do not suggest this method, as you may end up giving an artificial look to the photograph. If the scene demands to go for 2 exposures, then it is probably fine.
      I actually mean ND filter not the GND. ND filter is useful when you cannot get slower shutter speeds despite smaller aperture values. GND filter might not be very useful for waterfall photographs I think.

  2. Sasitha, May 9, 2015 at 1:00 pm #

    Hi Prathap,

    your tips and experience would be really helpful

    I have done once thing when ever tripod not available and wanted to used slow shutter speeds, I used self timer to shoot in order to minimize the camera shake while hold the camera steady and it works for me.

    Cheers!

    • Prathap May 10, 2015 at 10:08 am #

      Hi Sasitha, thank you. Using timer needs you to hold the camera stable for a very long period of time (2 to 10 seconds). Instead, I would suggest you to go with Mirror Lock-up while you are shooting hand-held. It reduces the camera shake considerably because the mirror movement is not there.
      Also, if I haven’t mentioned already, sometimes using the burst shots would help to reduce the camera shake because you would have held the shutter down all the time.

  3. Judith Barnett May 22, 2017 at 6:19 am #

    Hello Prathap,
    Thank you so much for your wonderful Waterfalls info, I’ll put it to great use on my next out to the falls in few weeks time.
    Have a wonderful day from Down Under!
    Judith.

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