Because tips sound cheap, rules have no place in any creative endeavor, and commandments are harsh and compulsory, I’ve decided to call these my ten suggestions.
I receive more questions and emails about how to photograph waterfalls than any others, so here are my suggestions – both for beginners and the more advanced.
1 Seek Soft, Diffused Light. This is the default lighting condition with nearly all waterfall-seeking photographers, and for good reason. Overcast skies, light rain, and fog are what photographers seek and prefer because the soft light prohibits bright highlights and dark shadows from creating too much contrast in an image. Diffused light compresses the scene’s tonal range and extracts the maximum amount of available detail.
2 Don’t Necessarily Avoid Sunny Weather Either. If this seems to contradict the previous tip, you’re right. Waterfalls can be successfully captured on sunny days in bright light, but it helps if the entire scene is evenly illuminated and there are no shadows. The point here is that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to the right light with waterfalls. Try something different and go against the grain.
3 Use a Slow Shutter Speed. To give the water the illusion of motion, try a slowed-down shutter speed. I prefer a range of 1/8 second to 2 seconds, as any duration longer than 2 seconds gives featureless, white areas where the water detail should be. Determining factors on what the right shutter speed might be are the focal length being used, the distance from the water, the distance the water is falling, and the volume of water in the falls. Long shutter speeds give moving water a silky appearance and projects a feeling of grace or fragility. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that a tripod is necessary for this effect.
4 Use a Fast Shutter Speed. As a contrast to the previous suggestion, try a faster shutter speed (1/60 of a second or faster) to project a feeling of raw power or awe. Photography is much more successful when it carries an emotional trigger and the choice of shutter speed can express how you feel about the scene – and what the viewer will ultimately feel.
5 Use a Polarizing Filter. Almost everyone knows how a polarizing filter can remove glare on water or wet rocks. But this effect can be overdone. Next time, don’t turn the filter all the way to full polarization. Instead, rid the wet rocks and vegetation of most glare but leave some detail and texture in the water as well. A polarizing filter may be the most often-used filter for outdoor and nature photography, but it’s also the most overused, in my opinion.
6 Include the Waterfall’s Surroundings. Give the image context and help tell a story about the place by including some nearby landforms and its surroundings. With the image above, the inclusion of the ocean clearly gives this waterfall context and a sense of place that one might not expect with a cropped version.
7 Zoom In. And sometimes the opposite is true. Sometimes grabbing a telephoto lens from the bag and capturing an intimate piece of the falls results in a more compelling image. Which scale represents a more accurate spirit and feel of the place? Often it’s an intimate interpretation.
8 Take the Plunge. Don’t limit your compositional options to places where your tripod can only be erected on terra firma. Getting wet might give you the better angle or perspective. The viewer of your image should almost feel the cold water running over their feet and ankles.
9 Look for Visual Flow. Moving water has implied movement and direction. So why not use this to create visual flow that moves the viewer’s eye through the image frame? The image above is rather simple, but it effectively moves the eye diagonally from the upper left part of the image to the lower right creating balance and flow.
10 Think and See Abstractly. Waterfalls are beautiful, meditative, and captivating natural features. It’s so easy as a photographer to become seduced by their beauty and hope that beauty alone will carry the image. Instead, appreciate the aesthetics and beauty of the scene but also try to see the abstract qualities of the scene as well. Lines, shapes, space, and their relationships to each other will make a “pretty” picture much more dynamic and alive. For example, look at the image above. This is all about diagonal lines, triangles, and movement. How many triangles do you see in this image after you ignore that there is a waterfall in there too? Let go of the literal for just a moment and look for abstract qualities. There will be plenty of time to sit on a mossy rock afterward to take it all in.