Photographing Waterfalls and Streams

June 3rd, 2011 by Jack Graham

Editor's note:  Welcome Jack Graham to the blog!  Jack comes to us via regular contributors Mike Moats and Guy Tal.  Now living in Portland, Jack conducts workshops all over the country, concentrating on landscapes.  Jack has been published in numerous magazines including Audubon and Outdoor Photographer, and is a chairperson for NANPA.  Reinforcing the the theory that It really is a small world after all, Jack and Chris found out that they went to the same university, lived in the same dorm, and even played the same instrument in the band!  Read more about Jack on his website here, and learn about his workshops here.  A big welcome to Jack, and we look forward to more from him soon!

–Chris Klapheke

I live in the Pacific Northwest. What else says Pacific Northwest more than a waterfall. Spring here in the Pacific Northwest is a glorious time to take advantage of the hundreds of waterfalls  within a short drive. The waterfall  against a backdrop of lush greenery is one o my favorite subjects. Let’s discuss some of the challenges and suggestions that might help you in your waterfall photography. These are in order of how I think about them in the field. They are all equally important  in making quality waterfall images.

 

 

 

 

 

WATER EFFECTS: Silky or Natural?

This should be an easy decision. Slow shutter speeds for the silky effect and faster for less silky, or more action packed water. This is determined by the amount of water coming over the falls or over the rocks in a stream. If you are undecided, experiment and shoot both ways. Sometimes this is the best way to attack the situation and make your final decisions after the fact in front of your monitor.  If you want to convey the overall power, force & majesty of a big waterfall, I usually try to use a fast shutter speed. The converse is true for smaller falls and streams.

Adjusting shutter speeds is your call. If you want the silky effect (my preference) use slower shutter speeds. If you want moving water to look like it really does, then use a fast speed. Here is a chart that I refer to for the effect that I desire.

  Natural Blurred  Silky
LARGE WATERFALLS   /CASCADING WATER: 1/500sec 1/125sec 1-1/2 sec
MEDIUM WATERFALLS /CASCADING WATER: 1/250sec 1/60 sec 1/2 sec
SMALL WATERFALLS   /CASCADING WATER: 1/125sec 1/15 sec 1 sec
MOVING STREAMS: 1/60sec 1/8-1/4sec 2-4 sec


COMPOSITION:
As in all other facets of nature photography, composition is a primary concern when making a pleasing image. When photographing waterfalls & streams,  I always ask myself:

1)      How  do I want to portray this waterfall or stream?

2)      How can I use the surrounding environment to support the stream or waterfall?

 As in landscape photography, a strong foreground serves to anchor the image and make the waterfall stand out. Rocks with perhaps a stream running over and around them may serve to anchor the image and make the waterfall stand out. There might be some wildflowers as well or if you really get lucky rainbow created by the waterfall if the light is right. The surroundings of the waterfall often give the viewer an idea on where the waterfall is located. In most cases the surroundings offer lush green vegetation.  Don’t discount the surroundings and get overwhelmed by the waterfall.  Using all the good composition techniques that we all strive for in our photography is primary in waterfall photography as well

 Decide weather you want to shoot the waterfall as a vertical or horizontal image. Like other landscape photography, I recommend making the shot both ways and deciding which one you like when you get home in front of your monitor. (TIP: Horizontal & vertical images are used for different applications… its good to have each in your files.)

 

A horizontal view of Proxy Falls!!

Don’t discount the surroundings and get overwhelmed by the waterfall! Using all the good composition techniques that we all strive for in normal photography is primary in waterfall photography as well.

 

 

 

LIGHTING & EXPOSURE:

An important facet of waterfall or stream photography  is lighting and exposure.  Typically, ideal conditions are cloudy, misty days when the contrast is at a minimum. Many waterfalls are located in gorges and are in good light during sunny days, but not always. Depending on the available light conditions, matrix, evaluative (or automatic) metering is perfectly good way to photograph streams and waterfalls.

However often times, light conditions and the volume of water coming over the falls or on the stream can confuse even the best meters in today’s DSLR’s.  Look at your histogram. Do you see blown out areas of the waterfall? Are the surrounding areas of the image too dark? If so, you may need to manually meter the scene. Spot meter a medium tone and adjust your compensation + or  – depending on the scene.

 

 

 

 


When shooting, I advise you to shoot in the RAW format. You can sometimes save images when shot RAW vs. JPEG in the post processing. It is sometimes possible to deal with some over blown highlights in the RAW format, usually never in JPEG.

Wet rocks also work a lot better than dry rocks–get there in the rain!

 

 

 

TIP: Try a Graduated ND Filter

 

 

 

 

Other important considerations:

 1)      Do I need to mention tripods? I hope not. Photographing at slow shutter speeds just does not work without tripods… period !

2)      Just as in other applications use the slowest ISO as possible. The slower the ISO, the less grain.

3)      To attain a less silky effect on the water but want to retain your aperture of choice, you can increase the ISO to increase shutter speed. Experiment. Different shutter speeds will create different effects on the water.

4)      Use people or objects to add a sense of scale, especially with waterfalls.

5)      The polarizing filter is a MUST in order to reduce the glare on reflective surfaces. This filter will remove the glare also bring out the colors of the surrounding area making for stronger images. I use a polarizer almost all of the time when shooting waterfalls. When photographing intimate images in streams, such as water flowing swiftly over rocks, I rarely use a polarizer. Here I want the colors and textures created by the light and what is under the water to come through and not be diminished in any way… but that’s a discussion for another time. ( TIP: Not all polarizer’s are created equal. Why would you put a bad polarizer on a great expensive lens?

6)       Depending on the light and elevation UV filters cal play a role in helping bring out colorations. These are also useful in keeping your expensive lenses fry, especially if the lenses are not sealed, (TIP: Never stack filters. This can produce lens flare. )

7)      Carry protective gear for your camera. More often than not, waterfalls are going to get you and your gear wet in order to get the best image.

8)      I use a chamois to remove water from my lens, not a microfiber cloth. My experience with microfiber cloths is that they just move water around. A chamois will pull the water into away from the lens.

9)     Get out there in bad weather.Look for the image less photographed like this one of Multnomah Falls incased in ice.

10)      Be careful, not all cameras and lenses are sealed to avoid moisture. Moisture can quickly render some DSLRs DOA!

 Get out and have fun!

Comments

comments





The Outdoor Photo Gear Blog is an outdoor photographer's resource for photo and camera tips about photography in nature, wildlife and other outdoor settings. Throughout the blog you'll find great articles on composition, lighting, general photography and imaging techniques used by professional photographers.

The Outdoor Photo Gear Store sells great photography equipment and accessories for the wildlife, landscape, and nature photographers. If you haven't visited The Outdoor Photo Gear Store to see all great camera and flash accessories for the avid outdoor photographer, you should check out all the great gear we offer.


One Response to “Photographing Waterfalls and Streams”

  1. Valerie Hoffman says:

    Great shots! The Columbia River Gorge is one of my most favorite places to photograph waterfalls! You are blessed to live in such a beautiful place!

Leave a Comment