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How to Photograph Waterfalls: 6 Tips for Shooting Waterfalls

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 4 min read

While photographing the natural wonder of a waterfall requires some skill and the proper camera equipment, the basics of long-exposure waterfall photography are relatively easy to learn.

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What Equipment Do You Need to Photograph Waterfalls?

A smartphone may not produce optimal results, but if it’s your only option, you can photograph waterfalls with a by shooting in the "live photos" camera mode and applying the "long exposure" effect to the photo afterwards. For those looking to shoot the best quality waterfall photos, though, you'll need to invest in the following camera equipment:

  • DSLR camera: Ther digital single-lens reflex camera you use should be capable of shooting in manual mode and with a customizable shutter speed.
  • Tripod: A sturdy tripod is necessary because the longer exposure times required for waterfall photography are easily ruined by camera shake. Since you’ll likely be placing your tripod in a slippery environment, secure your tripod using tripod spikes.
  • Remote shutter release: To avoid blurry waterfall shots, use a remote shutter release so that your camera doesn't shake when you press your camera's shutter button.
  • Lenses: There's no right or wrong lens when shooting waterfalls, so choose your lenses based on your desired photo composition. A telephoto lens is ideal when capturing the details in a smaller portion of the waterfall, while a wide-angle lens is ideal when capturing the complete waterfall along with surrounding scenery.
  • Lens filters: Two types of lens filters are particularly useful in waterfall and landscape photography: polarizing filters and neutral density filters. Just like polarized sunglass lenses, a polarizer filter reduces glare. Polarizing filters also allow you to obtain a longer exposure, which helps achieve a “silky water” look. Neutral density filters (also called ND filters) block light from reaching your camera sensor, which allows you to slow down your shutter speed even more without overexposing your image. You can purchase ND filters in a variety of darkness levels, but 3-stop and 6-stop ND filters are good choices when shooting waterfalls.

Basic Camera Settings for Waterfall Photography

Use these basic camera settings as a starting point for photographing waterfalls, but as you gain experience, feel free to follow your instincts and adjust your settings as you see fit. Always shoot in manual mode so that you have total control over your shutter speed and aperture.

  • Shutter speed: Choose a shutter speed based on how much motion you wish to capture. Fast shutter speeds make moving water appear frozen in time, while slower shutter speeds (one sixth of a second through five seconds) create the appearance of flowing water by capturing motion blur. The look achieved from slower shutter speeds is generally more popular in waterfall photography.
  • ISO sensitivity: You camera's ISO setting determines your camera's sensitivity to light. Adjust your camera to the lowest ISO setting (ISO 100) in order to get the best image quality while also decreasing your shutter speed.
  • Aperture: Your aperture setting controls the depth of field and the amount of light that passes through the lens. The aperture you choose depends on the composition of the photo you're taking, but more often than not it’s best to capture waterfall photos with a narrow aperture to keep the photo in focus even with a longer exposure. Selecting a large f-stop number (f/9 or higher) will give you a narrow aperture.
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6 Tips for Photographing Waterfalls

Follow these waterfall photography tips to make sure you're prepared to face the elements and end up with breathtaking photos.

  1. Shoot on overcast days. Clouds help you produce an even exposure by preventing waterfalls from being partially in sunlight and partially in shade. If you do shoot on a sunny day, make sure the light is consistent across the entire waterfall and use an ND filter to reduce the amount of light that reaches your camera sensor.
  2. Avoid windy weather conditions. Due to the long exposure times used in waterfall photography, wind can wreak havoc on your photos. This is because any trees or plants near your waterfall that are blowing in the wind while you use a slow shutter speed will become blurry in your captured photo.
  3. Play around with composition. Altering your composition can elevate an ordinary photo to an extraordinary photo. Shoot from different angles to discover new natural foreground elements to feature in your photographs—flowers, rocks, trees, and (if you’re using shorter exposures) wildlife can transform your photo into something special and provide a sense of scale.
  4. Be prepared to get wet. Some of the best pictures of waterfalls are taken from vantage points located in a stream or pool of water. If you're willing to venture into the water, make sure you're equipped with a pair of water shoes that have sufficient traction. If you expect to shoot from deep or cold water, consider purchasing a pair of hip waders and thick socks.
  5. Protect your equipment. Your camera gear may get wet when you shoot near rushing water. Shield your camera from waterfall mist by purchasing a protective rain sleeve and use your lens hood for an added layer of defense. Before shooting, wipe any moisture off your lens with a microfiber cloth.
  6. Make slight post-processing adjustments when necessary. Landscape photography typically benefits from maintaining a natural look, so when using photo editing software, remember that small post-processing adjustments generally go a long way. Every photo has different needs, but tweaking levels of saturation, exposure, shadows, highlights, and sharpness can immensely improve your waterfall photos.

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