Stag Brook waterfall

Photographing Waterfalls

by John Haywood

This is meant to serve as a basic how-to for anyone who would like to photograph waterfalls like the pros.

Everyone loves waterfalls! People love the scenery, the sound, and the feeling they give as the water crashes about the rocky landscape, whipping up a misty breeze. And with so many waterfalls across New York State, it’s impossible not to find a favorite waterfalls to photograph.

Here, I offer pointers on how to capture your favorite falls in a photograph.

Northwest Bay Brook Falls
Falls on Northwest Bay Brook

Photographing waterfalls is no different than photographing a landscape. All you need are the proper tools and you’re all set. That being said, do not feel you need the latest and greatest, most expensive camera and lens. A great photograph can be made with any camera.

The tools:

  • Camera and lens
  • A sturdy tripod is a must. A bean bag or similar will also do the trick.
  • Neutral Density filter – A dark filter that allows for slower shutter speeds.
  • Polarizer filter – A filter that removes glare from water and wet rocks. Will also darken by about one f-stop.
  • Remote shutter release – A wired or wireless controller that allows hands-free shutter release of the camera which decreases camera shake. If you do not have one, you can use the timer on your camera.

Setting up: When you reach your destination, take a few minutes to scope out the terrain. Notice the lighting, the shadows, patterns in the trees, and any interesting formations in the rock or flow of water. I like to take a moment to “feel” the scene. Taking a few breaths and just taking in all that surrounds you can help you concentrate and focus.

Bog River Falls waterfall 2
Bog River Falls

When you have found your shot, set up your tripod and camera, attach whichever filter you prefer to use, and set your camera to “Shutter Priority”. This setting will allow you to choose the shutter speed you want while the camera adjusts the aperture. Also set the ISO, which is the light sensitivity, to 100 or whatever the lowest value is that your camera has. This will allow for use of a slower shutter speed. Most important – Do not just focus on the waterfall itself. When I started photographing waterfalls, I would zoom in on the waterfall and leave out all of the beautiful scenery I was surrounded by. Remember, you want to tell a story.

It all depends on YOUR vision of what you want YOUR photograph to look like.

Making the photograph: Now the fun begins! Look through the eyepiece and frame your shot. Be sure to look everywhere in the viewfinder for any details you may want to include or crop out by moving the camera or zooming in or out. Now decide on the look you want the water to have. What the human eye sees is between 1/60 and 1/30 of a second. This will freeze the water with minimal movement (Image A). A much faster shutter speed will virtually freeze the water in place with zero movement and a slower shutter speed will show much more ┬ámotion. A lot of people like to create the “Smokey” or “Creamy” look of the water by using the slowest shutter speed (Image B) they can get while others prefer the more natural look. It all depends on YOUR vision of what you want YOUR photograph to look like. Please don’t be swayed one way or the other. I have found that a shutter speed between 1/6 and 1/8 allows for a nice blending and shows the motion of the water while also allowing some of the smooth effects of a slow shutter speed (Image C). Again, this is entirely up to you as the photographer.

photography shutter speeds example

The nice thing that digital cameras offer is the ability to see your photos and make adjustments right then and there. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of this feature and experiment by using different settings.

Also, don’t be afraid to make some mistakes when experimenting. Purposely set the exposure too high or too low to see the results. Try different angles, and always remember to also make some photos in the vertical.

Photography is not as difficult as many think. If you have the eye for a good shot and the patience to learn, the world can be your canvas!

As with any outdoor activity, especially around waterfalls, please use caution and remember… no photo or selfie is worth your life!

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