A visual feast throughout the UK, waterfalls are fantastic natural features to photograph. Jeremy Walker looks at the best ways of photographing waterfalls.
We’re lucky to have a huge variety of waterfalls across the UK, especially in Wales, Scotland and the North of England. Southern England isn’t short on these cascades of water, either, with some excellent examples on Exmoor in Somerset.
Waterfalls are simple, elegant features to shoot and you don’t need one the size of Niagara Falls to get good images. A waterfall of 4ft-5ft (1.2-1.5m) or even a few feet across can be just as photogenic – sometimes more so than a great roaring giant that is producing so much spray you can’t get near it.
On first seeing a waterfall, look around your location and take time to study the flow of water. Waterfalls are living entities and they will pulse with the flow and volume of water. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to shoot the waterfall in its entirety, as you’ll find many excellent images by looking for sections, abstracts, details or close-ups. Try to identify individual rivulets within a fall, curtains of water, or rocks and boulders that will add shape, direction and flow to your shot.
Health and safety
Before you shoot your waterfall, be aware that you’ll probably be working in a wet environment, with spray from the falls making the surrounding area very slippery. Take care when climbing over rocks to get in position and carry your kit in a camera bag. Moving around a wet, slippery location with thousands of pounds’ worth of camera kit on a tripod is asking for trouble. If there’s spray coming from the waterfall you’ll need to protect the front of your lens with a lens hood. If moisture is falling on the camera, try using a chamois cloth to wrap around it and help protect it and the barrel of the lens.
There are probably two main approaches to shooting a waterfall: the big, wide view, perhaps showing the whole of the falls, going for the dramatic in its landscape setting; or the closer, more intimate portrait showing the finer detail that’s easily missed when struck by the grandeur of a big fall. Both approaches can work well, but look for a composition that helps to tell a story, such as fallen rocks at the base of a waterfall, a dead tree across the river or even plant life growing in the rock face.
The most simple tool for composition is, of course, the camera itself, and don’t be afraid to turn the camera through 90° to shoot upright. It sounds so simple, but when faced with a long, wide subject it’s tempting just to use the camera horizontally.
Best time to shoot
The light at the beginning and end of the day is usually regarded as best for shooting landscapes, and this can also work for waterfalls, but they do present a unique set of problems. Many waterfalls will be in V-shaped river-cut valleys, and early morning and late evening light won’t hit the falls unless the valley is facing roughly east or west. When the sun is high, direct light on the water can be too contrasty and the highlights will lose all detail. The water will also look mottled and messy.
Unusually for a landscape subject, soft light from a grey, overcast sky can be the ideal conditions for shooting waterfalls. Soft light lacking contrast will always illuminate the water evenly and make it look much smoother. Also, if the waterfall is surrounded by trees and heavy foliage, a soft light will prevent unsightly shadows forming across what is the most important part of the image.
One of the big problems when shooting waterfalls is being able to convey their size and scale. It may not be obvious from adjacent boulders, trees and other objects in the shot just how big or small a waterfall is. The best way to convey the message of scale is to include a human figure, as we can easily relate to the size of a person. If you really want the figure to stand out, get them to wear a brightly coloured jacket!
There are two schools of thought when exposing for a waterfall, or any shot where flowing water is an issue. Do you shoot with the fastest shutter speed possible and ‘freeze’ the motion, perhaps capturing every droplet of water with a shutter speed of 1/2000sec or higher? Or do you go for an exposure of several seconds, perhaps even minutes, and capture a smooth flow and silkiness to the water? Both techniques have their merits and can to help convey a story or message.
If you choose the fast shutter speed approach, you may want to bump up the ISO, so you can have a high shutter speed and still shoot at a reasonable f-number for depth of field, such as around f/8 or f/11.
Using a flashgun will also ‘freeze’ the motion of water, but you’ll only be able to cover a relatively small area of the waterfall with this technique. You may also have unwanted and very false-looking highlights.
To prolong your exposure and create the silky-smooth-flow effect, you’ll need to increase the exposure by dropping the ISO down to as low as it will go and then using a filter such as the Lee Filters Big Stopper. This will increase the indicated exposure by 10 stops, with a 1sec exposure, for example, becoming 17mins.
However, you don’t actually need 17mins, as anything from a few seconds to a couple of minutes will start to look good, depending, of course, on how fast the water is moving.
Remember to meter for a midtone grey, rather than the pure white of the waterfall for an accurate reading. If you meter for the white of the water, you’ll end up underexposing the shot.
Shooting waterfalls can be fun, and to a certain degree therapeutic and soothing, but a final word of warning: shoot from the bottom of the waterfall and look up.
Climbing to the top of a waterfall and looking down is rarely the best view and you risk standing on wet slippery rocks right next to a long drop. It’s not the fall that hurts you – it’s the landing!
One that didn’t work – or did it?
Simplicity is often the key to success. Every now and then we’ll see an image, shoot it, think we quite like it and then, a few minutes later, a nagging doubt sets in and we try to ‘improve’ the shot. I’m never averse to a little ‘gardening’ if it helps an image, such as removing a distracting twig, stone or leaf. However, if you have to start building the foreground there may be something wrong. Does the image need a pile of nicely shaped boulders? Should there be more stones in the pile or should I have just lived with the foreground as it was?
Before and After
Compose and set up your shot as normal, metering for a midtone grey. Shoot with the inidcated exposure, checking the histogram to ensure that the highlights and shadows aren’t clipping. Apply a Lee Big Stopper type of filter and recalculate the exposure. In the case of a Big Stopper, it would be 10 stops, (for example, 1/30sec would become 32secs). Expose at the new recalculated exposure and the water should become blurred or smooth and silky, depending on how fast it is flowing.
Jeremy’s Top Tips
Sense of scale
It can be difficult to convey the size and power of a waterfall. Because we can relate to the size of a human, use a person, preferably brightly dressed in a red jacket (as seen above), and have them stand near the waterfall.
If there’s enough spray, and you can get the right angle relative to the direction of sunlight, you’ll get a rainbow. Use a polariser to enhance the colours, but be aware that the polariser increases your exposure by up to 2 stops.
If you can’t take a ‘big view’, showing the waterfall in all its splendour, look for smaller ‘micro’ alternatives. Search for close-ups or abstracts and use long exposures to show the flow of water that the human eye can’t see.
Don’t give up
If you turn up to shoot a waterfall and things aren’t as you planned or hoped, don’t just walk away with nothing. Look for the offbeat or even bizarre. Think ‘outside the box’ and consider how you can use what is around you to your advantage.
Use the camera’s white balance control to alter the mood, look and colour of an image. Blue will suggest cold and wintry conditions (3200K or lower), while a higher setting makes the image warmer. This technique works best when there’s no other colour in the image.
Kit list for photographing waterfalls
A good range of focal-length lenses will be useful, depending on how close you can get to the waterfall. A 24-70mm and 70-200mm lens will cover most eventualities, but an extreme wideangle, such as Nikon’s 14-24mm f/2.8 zoom, will work well for closer shots.
A circular polariser is useful for enhancing the colour of any rainbows, but also for taking the sheen and reflections off the surface of the water and increasing contrast. A 6-stop or 10-stop filter is also handy to increase the exposure length to create blur and motion.
A chamois cloth of the type available at motoring accessory shops is useful for wrapping around your lens and camera to protect your kit from spray. It’s also useful for wiping moisture off your camera kit should it get wet.
At some stage you’ll probably want to shoot from the wettest place possible, and you’ll end up in a puddle or a tributary of the river. If you need new wellies, choose the neoprene-lined thermal variety. Warm, dry feet are essential.