Waterfall Photography: A Complete Guide

There are few features in our natural landscapes as beautiful as a waterfall.

All that cascading white water tumbling downwards, bouncing over rocks, hissing or roaring as it lands in a pool or a river at the bottom of its fall is just so inspiring and often breathtaking too.

It’s no wonder landscape photographers from all over the world want to capture this magnificent natural phenomenon. However, doing so in such a way that does justice to the waterfall’s isn’t as straightforward as it may seem at first. Simply pointing the camera at the tumbling water and snapping away with what I would call a 'standard' shutter speed of, say, about 1/60 or 1/125 second gives a reasonable record shot, but it rarely captures the atmosphere of the falls or even results in a technically satisfying image.

What we need to achieve with waterfall photography is a set of images that capture the beauty of the subject waterfall, both artistically and in technically satisfying ways, which are both moody and timeless. This blog will give pointers on the techniques needed to achieve this.


Waterfall photography: considerations and challenges

waterfall photography

Interestingly, many of the techniques needed to photograph a waterfall well are similar regardless of whether you're shooting a gigantic Niagara Falls-type of thunderous cascade or simply water splashing over rocks in a moorland stream.

Before we come to those universal considerations, let's first look at some of the differences between large and smaller waterfalls.

The first and most obvious is scale. With a small waterfall, you may want to make it look bigger and more dramatic than it is – turning David into Goliath, shall we say. It’s not easy, but it is possible to turn what could appear rather disappointingly small and insignificant in the final images into something far more strong and powerful.

For larger waterfalls, you have the opposite problem: capturing the scale, grandeur and might of a waterfall in a small, two-dimensional image frame. One of the biggest issues photographers often grapple with when photographing large waterfalls is simply finding a way to fit it all in. In fact, often, the best answer is simply not to bother. The best and most dramatic photography concentrates on certain parts of the waterfall, often not even attempting to show the whole thing.

Another major challenge for photographers snapping large waterfalls is the spray. Not surprisingly, the impact of tons of water continually falling onto a body of water beneath results in a LOT of spray. If you're shooting from the bottom of the waterfall, the spray may well become quite a serious issue, and the closer you move in, the worse it will get. It can reach a point where your lens simply becomes covered with water within a few seconds of it being pointed at the waterfall, making photography quite impossible. Even if you back away to a distance that seems to be beyond the spray, you should still check the lens front regularly, as any water droplets there will ruin the appearance of the final images.

The next thing to consider is wind. Not just weather system wind, but also wind created by all that falling water, which sends air currents swirling in all directions, widely distributing spray in unpredictable ways.

Shooting from the top of a large waterfall can generate magnificent and rather unusual shots, looking down along the column of water, which are rather different from the usual upward-looking views. However, take care when doing this. Stand only in a safe place and move away if there is any danger of vertigo or slipping.

While going the extra mile to get the perfect photography is to be commended and encouraged, going just the extra inch with a waterfall could be an inch too far!


Universal waterfall photography skills

waterfall photography

Some techniques can be applied to any form of waterfall photography. However, it’s not always easy to work out the best way to proceed. You need to ask yourself:

  • Should I shoot the waterfall in sunshine or under flat light?
  • Do I need a fast or slow shutter speed?
  • Do I need to use a wide or narrow lens aperture?
  • Should I shoot with a wide-angle lens or telephoto?
  • Should I put the camera on a tripod?

It's almost impossible to separate some of these considerations from each other. Deciding on one will affect some of the others, so your answers will often differ.

That said, we’ll start with the first consideration. Decisions regarding most of the others will naturally follow this one.

There’s often a temptation to photograph a waterfall in sunlight simply to maximise the amount of light available, hence making it ‘easier’ to photograph with the camera hand-held. Unfortunately, in my experience, this is usually a mistake. Waterfalls normally contain a lot of white water, and in sunlight, such water is usually too bright for the camera's sensor to handle. Usually, you'll end up with far too much contrast, especially if the white water is set against dark vegetation or rock (which is usually the case). The eye can handle such a contrast range, but the camera sensor cannot, meaning all that white water will burn out and lose its detail.

It's far better and easier to photograph most waterfalls in flat light – either on a cloudy day, with the sun below the horizon, or hidden behind trees or the hill/mountain the waterfall is tumbling down. This will decrease the contrast in your shot massively, making it possible for the sensor to correctly expose both the white water and all the surrounding/background vegetation and rock.


Fast shutter speeds

A fast shutter speed will result in a greatly reduced amount of light.

Many photographers often use a fast shutter speed in an attempt to freeze the movement of the falling water, but that then begs the question: 'What is fast?'

Even in quite a small waterfall, water moves incredibly quickly – much quicker than you think – so using a 'standard' type of shutter speed (say, 1/60, 1/125 or 1/250 second) is nowhere near fast enough to freeze the moving water. An image shot in such a way may look fine in the camera's LCD screen, but blow it up to a 100% view on a computer screen, and you'll see that the water is rather blurred, but not blurred in any attractive way – it simply isn't sharp.

Indeed, to freeze the movement of water in a waterfall, you'll generally need a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 second, but usually double or even four times this. Such a speed is impossible to achieve in flat lighting conditions without using a wide-open lens aperture and cranking the ISO up high. Unfortunately, the former will result in a rather small depth of field (i.e. the amount of the image that is sharp will be reduced), and the latter will cause the image to become grainy and have poorer colour quality.


Slow shutter speeds

In my view, the simplest solution that maintains high image quality and generates truly atmospheric images is to completely abandon any idea of trying to freeze the water and instead embrace the exact opposite. Use a slow shutter speed (slower than about 1/10 second) to really blur out that falling water, creating silky white ribbons that beautifully portray the feeling of movement and the natural flow of water.

Using such a slow shutter speed means you can keep the ISO low to ensure little noise and use a narrow lens aperture to maximise depth of field and ensure that everything in the scene, from water to background rock and vegetation, will be sharply in focus. It also means that the camera must be on a tripod; otherwise, everything will be blurred with camera shake.

So, how slow does the shutter speed need to be? As already mentioned, a rough rule of thumb would be any shutter speed slower than around 1/10 second, but a lot depends on how fast the water is moving. The slower the water, the slower the shutter speed needs to be to achieve an attractive blur.

It also depends on what kind of blur you'd like to have. With a faster shutter speed (say, between ¼ and 1/10 second), you’ll often see what I call a 'shards of glass' effect in the resulting images, where the moving water can be seen as streaks of parallel lines and splashes seen as arching lines of flying, jagged-looking arrows of water. This portrays a rather energy-packed restless sense of movement.

Use a slower exposure (say ½ second or slower, up to perhaps 20 seconds), and the water increasingly blurs out into a silky smooth whiteness containing less and less detail. The result can be a very moody image, one full of the sense of movement, and yet which at the same time can feel peaceful and soothing, even ethereal. A shutter speed slower than 20 seconds can blur the water out into a smooth white, silken sheet, which sometimes feels just a little too ethereal, though nevertheless highly artistic.

Furthermore, obtaining a very slow shutter (slower than, say, 10 seconds) can be quite a challenge during the daytime – there's a limit to how low you can set your ISO (and hence decrease the sensor's sensitivity) or how narrow you can have the lens aperture. To reduce the light reaching the sensor even further and create a longer exposure time, you’ll need to either put a neutral density filter over the lens or shoot at dusk or even at night. Night-time waterfall photography under starry skies can be stunning.


Choice of lens

waterfall photography

My first reaction to questions about lenses is normally 'use just about all of them'.

My method of waterfall photography usually follows a routine starting with a wide-angle lens to shoot general scenes (though not necessarily of the entire waterfall), then honing in on finer details with an increasingly strong telephoto lens. The former gives a general sense of the waterfall's shape and size and may also include either the pool sitting at the fall's base or the river running away from it. The telephoto lens(es) hone in on details like water splashing off rocks, patterns created by water running down angled cliff-face rocks, and so on.

So, essentially, there’s no one single lens best for a waterfall. Instead, it’s a question of mix and match to get a series of images that set the wider scene and hone in on details. When dealing with smaller waterfalls, telephoto detail shots can capture images in which scale is difficult to grasp, often giving the illusion that smaller waterfalls are a lot bigger than they are.

In photographing details with a telephoto lens, I’ll sometimes go with the high shutter speed/high ISO technique to freeze the falling water. Shooting in this way enables the camera to capture individual water droplets flying through the air, creating dramatic, energy-filled scenes. A reasonably strong telephoto lens is needed for this technique to work, as only this will hone in close enough to those flying droplets to make them work as image subjects. It’s very unlikely to work with a wide-angle lens or even a short telephoto, for that matter.


The waterfall rainbow

waterfall photography

We conclude with one of the few instances I might want to photograph a waterfall in sunlight.

Sunlight shining straight onto a waterfall with plenty of spray at or near its base will usually set up a rainbow in the said spray. It’s a spectacular sight and one that stays in place for as long as the sun is shining from the right angle (and you're standing in the right place to see it!)

When this happens, issues with high contrast in the white water areas become more of a secondary consideration, as that rainbow simply has to be photographed. Just do your best to cope with and minimise the contrast and any resulting white burnout. And, of course, keep checking your lens front for spray droplets.

All of this is part of the fun and the essence of the art and skill of waterfall photography. All that's left to say is get out there and start practising!


This blog was written by Nigel Hicks, a hugely experienced Devon-based professional photographer. Nigel works with the USA's prestigious National Geographic Image Collection, among many other bodies, and is a Fellow of the British Institute of Professional Photography.

Nigel runs regular photography workshops in southwest England. To find out more about these, go to https://www.nigelhicks.com/photography-workshops-courses/.

To find out more about Nigel's work in general, feel free to take a tour of his website at www.nigelhicks.com.


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