A Traveler’s Guide To Taking Better Waterfall Photos

Peter West Carey August 1, 2013 3

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This post is a departure from typical waterfall advice. Sure, some of the normal stuff is in here, but I want this post to be a realistic look at how to bring back great waterfall photos when you are not a photography-obsessed geek like me. If you are a traveler who enjoys taking photos, wants to take better waterfall photos and doesn’t want to get ‘too serious’, please read on.

When You Don’t Want To Carry A Tripod

Conventional Wisdom, and every photography site you find on the Internet, will tell you to use a tripod when taking pictures of waterfalls. “Don’t even think you can’t, mere mortal,” is what I imagine a cape-wearing, super-photography-hero saying from in front of Victoria Falls as the sun sets gracefully to the side. But I’m here to insist you don’t need one.

First of all, if you are reading this far, there is no way you are going to pack along a full size tripod on your vacation. Maybe if it is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but even then, you’re thinking of weight and suitcase/backpack space and a tripod just won’t make the cut. You are also likely aware that a tripod helps you take longer exposure photos and that makes the water look all smooth and silky. But you still don’t care.  What can you do?

You can use anything at all that will help you steady your camera, for one thing. The problem with you is you have a pulse and this incessant need to breathe, constantly. Which makes your body move. Which makes your camera move. Which makes your pictures blurry. So try to use less of you holding the camera and instead place the camera on anything you can find. A rock, a tree (held against the tree or sideways), someone else’s tripod (you would be amazed at how nice photography-lunatics like me, who carry around heavy tripods, can be, just ask!), your backpack, a car, etc…

Steadying your camera on something helps when taking slow shutter speed images. I know you are as cool and as steady as a cucumber, but find something on which to rest your camera. Baring that, if you insist on handholding your camera, breathe. Breathe slowly and time your shot for when you exhale. Also, press the shutter release (“The Button” as many call it) slowly and don’t remove your finger until the photo is done. Slow, deliberate. Smooth. If you’re interested in seeing me demonstrate this technique, you can watch a little video here:

To Blur Or Not To Blur

This is no hard and fast rule about blurring waterfalls because it is up to individual taste. The same waterfall can look different with one effect or the other so I suggest trying both, you might be surprised.

For instance, here is the base of Upper Multnomah Falls in Oregon first shot at 1/320th of a second to stop the action and then 1/8th to blur it.

Peter-West-Carey-Waterfalls

Peter-West-Carey-Waterfalls

Personally, while I am a fan of silky waterfalls, I like the stopped motion in the first image. Don’t be afraid to try both.

Some Settings

If your camera has Shutter Priority Mode (it will be the letter S or Tv on the main control dial) I highly suggest using that mode for most of your shooting. The idea with shooting waterfalls is to control the amount of blur to your liking, I call this ‘intentional blur’ and it is far more useful than ‘unintentional blur’. Some people love the silky smooth look and others love splash. Either way, here is how you get what you want:

For silky waterfalls you will want a shutter speed starting at 1/20th of a second or slower. The slower the shutter speed (1/10 is slower than 1/20 is slower than 1/125, etc…) the more motion to the water and the more blur. If you are handholding your camera without anything on which to brace yourself, 1/20 is about as slow as you should go. As you practice more, or just get lucky, 1/10 or 1/4 might even be possible. Also, set your ISO to 100 or the lowest number you can select.

Multnomah Falls, Oregon, USA

Multnomah Falls shot at 1/8th of a second by bracing my elbow on a railing.

For freezing the motion of a waterfall, 1/250th of a second or faster is suggested. The faster the better to catch all the splash (this also works well for crashing waves on a beach). It may help to set your ISO to 400 or maybe even as high as 800 to obtain the shutter speed you want.

Peter-West-Carey-050914-111454-7938

Lower Yellowstone Falls shot at 1/500th of a second to freeze its massive beauty.

In either case, if your aperture number (the one that says “f/something”)is blinking or says “Hi” or “Lo”, then you have too much or too little light. If you are trying to freeze the waterfall, you need more light (and that’s why we increased the ISO, to make the camera more sensitive to light) and shooting in brighter conditions will help.

In the case of silky waterfalls, light is actually your enemy. Shooting waterfalls on gray days or in indirect light is suggested to help with the silkiness. But if you can never be in charge of the time of day you shoot a particular waterfall, such as on an organized tour, you might want to consider picking up a…

Neutral Density Filter

A neutral density filter is about the easiest piece of equipment you can carry to help with waterfalls and not break your back hauling it around. It is filter that screws on to the end of your lens and blocks out light, much the same as sunglasses. But it is neutral in color. I suggest getting a .9/ND8/3-stop filter. This will block out enough light to make most waterfalls, even in direct sun, dark enough to use a slow shutter speed.

Or Just Use Sunglasses On Your Phone

I’ll admit this trick really works and I use it. Camera phones aren’t the best and the highlights will tend to be blown out anyway (or the color is off, which is why I turned the image below to black and white), but it works in a pinch. In this case, I was able to achieve 1/20th of a second with bright, but not direct, light. Slow enough to have some action in the photo.

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You Don’t Need To Get It All

One big mistake I’ve seen over and over is people trying to capture the entire waterfall in one shot just to show how big it is. The problem here is most waterfalls are horribly bright near the top (sky) and dark at the bottom. This makes life hard on your camera and makes for less than stellar shots. It will lead to skies that bleed out and tops of waterfalls that look funky.

If it doesn’t look great to capture the entire waterfall, consider going for pretty snips and pieces.  Zoom in. Here, let me show you an example.

This is a set of falls along the Boulder River in Washington state’s Cascade Mountains. I tried to capture the whole falls in one shot and I really don’t like how it came out.

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This is a unique situation where the bottom, in this case, is the blown out part. But the sky still doesn’t look right because I am pushing things too much.

Let’s try zooming in on a piece of the falls instead.

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Much more pleasing and it is far easier to work with in the computer to bring out the natural beauty.

Watch For The Sun Hitting Only Part Of The Waterfall

One major drawback of modern digital cameras of all kinds is they still can’t record the same range of bright to dark that our wonderful human eyes and brain can. This means when the there is a large range of light, from dark shadows to bright sun, your camera may not produce what you see. This is even more true when it comes to bright sun on part of a waterfall. Watch out for these ‘hot spots’ and realize you won’t get what you see in those situations. Try for gray days with even light.

Include Something Other Than The Waterfall

If you find your waterfall images are a little bland, jazz them up with some foreground objects. Yes, it’s a pretty waterfall and yes, it has a name. That doesn’t mean it needs to take center stage. Let it play a bit part and choose something else downstream, or to the side, to take the lead.

Waterfall And River, Orcas Island, Washington, USA

Waterfall And River, Orcas Island, Washington, USA

Practice At Home

This seems simple and silly, but it really does help you figure out technique in a controlled manner. You will need a garden hose. That’s about it. Hang the hose up and maybe set up a few objects for the water to splash down on its way to the ground. It need not be fancy and you can even try things on your kitchen sink instead.

Test out the shutter speeds you might want to try when on your trip. See what happens when the hose is in the sun and when it is in the shade. Can you get the shutter speed your need to create the silky or splashing effect you want? This will not be too much different than a waterfall ‘in the wild’.

Lastly, Shoot A Lot

You have a digital camera with a lot of space on a memory card and memory is fairly cheap. Use it! When trying to take silky waterfall photos without a tripod and only marginal items on which to brace your camera, or when totally shooting handheld, put your camera on its highest frame rate (often called ‘high continuous’ on most cameras) and fire away. Still do your best to not move, but also tip the odds in your favor by blowing off 10 or 20 shots of that once-in-a-lifetime waterfall image you just have to bring back with you.

You need not bring along a tripod to bring back beautiful waterfall photos.

3 Comments »

  1. robert lengyel August 1, 2013 at 9:46 pm - Reply

    Really liked your simple explainations and examples of both methods. well done.

  2. Vagabondette Mandy August 2, 2013 at 5:00 am - Reply

    Good tips. I recently took a photo class/tour in Edinburgh that got me off of the auto settings on my camera and I haven’t looked back. Will keep these tips in mind next time I see a waterfall.

  3. Ginni Yeung August 15, 2013 at 3:49 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the simple tips…planning a trip to Iceland in the Fall, and will visit a few waterfalls. So glad I stumbled upon your article…

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