As a nature photographer and workshop leader I get to photograph a pretty awesome variety of subjects but one of my favorites has to be waterfalls. I would like to share with you some tips and techniques as well as gear choices so you can capture some stunning images of your very own.
I cannot provide you with specific shutter speeds because that relies heavily on the amount of flow coming over the waterfall and depends on the kind of look you are going for. I prefer having the water with a silky look like in the image at the very top of Shawnee Falls in Ricketts Glen State Park. All of the images for this blog were taken there, and with 21 waterfalls along the trails, it is one of my favorite northeast locations. Time of year will also have a major impact on the flow with some waterfalls almost drying up in the summer months. Waterfalls are generally best photographed during the Spring and Fall, but you need to make sure you don’t show too much flow coming over as then the water starts to get too milky. After heavy rains they can also get very muddy and almost unrecognizable so try to plan your shoots when there hasn’t been too much rain.
Must Have Gear
A sturdy tripod is essential when photographing waterfalls as the long exposure times required to achieve the silky look are not hand holdable. I use the Induro CT404 tripod legs (now discontinued) for all my photography and only change out the head depending what type of subjects I am photographing. I use a gimbal style head for wildlife and bird photography but use the Induro BHL3 for my landscape work. This tripod is tall enough so I don’t have to crouch over and yet because it doesn’t have a center column it allows me to get very low when I want to achieve the in your face look that I am sometimes after.
Over the years I have found that my two favorite lenses for waterfall photography are the Sigma 12-24mm F4.5-5.6 DG HSM II and the Sigma 24-105mm F4 DG OS HSM Art. These two lenses provide me the zoom range that I need to cover any situation I encounter and keep my backpack nice and light for the hike up and down into the gorge. I especially like getting very close to my subject with the Sigma 12-24mm F4.5-5.6 DG HSM II as in the image below so I can capture a bit of a unique perspective of the falls. I am almost sitting in the water right next to the small cascade with the main part of the falls in the distance.
A circular polarizer is a must-have for waterfalls as it reduces the glare in the water and on the rocks. I use the Vü Sion filter system for both lenses as they are one of the few companies that make a holder for the convex design of the Sigma 12-24mm F4.5-5.6 DG HSM II. They aren’t inexpensive, but along with the 4 stop solid ND filter it covers just about any flow conditions I will encounter. Just remember to turn your circular polarizer until it eliminates the glare on the water and rocks but needs to be adjusted if you change from a vertical to horizontal orientation. Also keep in mind that these long exposure times can lead to leaf/foliage/grass movement as shown in the upper right of the image below.
Most of my friends know that I have given up on boots when I go out photographing waterfalls as I am always somewhere in the middle of the creek or stream. I have used tall boots that go over my regular hiking boots and I always manage to get water over the top. I have even worn hip waders and still gotten wet….. so I have decided that I only wear either high top sneakers or an older pair of my mid-ankle hiking boots. Why? I just wear shorts and walk into the stream to get the composition I want. I do pack an extra set of light clothing in case I get too ambitious, but you have to realize that if you get too deep into the water your camera and tripod will shake from the water flow. This method provides me with excellent ankle support and traction but sometimes gets a bit cold at the end of the day. Flip-flops and sandals are never a good idea on the trails and be aware that people have fallen and killed at some of the vantage points of the falls. It was an easy walk out through knee-deep water to the vantage point of Wyandot falls and allowed me to capture the autumn leaves captured in the eddy.
Choosing the f/stop
I always want maximum depth of field in my images and generally use f/16-22 in order to achieve that. If you check an online depth of field calculator you will find that at those apertures, everything from about a foot to infinity will be in focus although it comes with a tradeoff in shutter speed. I generally choose a foreground area without too much vegetation so I avoid the blur created by the long exposure times required for those apertures. Since I always shoot in Manual mode, I simply set my aperture and adjust the shutter speed until my histogram is pushed to the right without having any blown highlights. I do this with the filters on to ensure I get the proper exposure and with practice, becomes much easier.
Bracket with ISO
Most photographers are familiar with bracketing exposures by adjusting their shutter speed or aperture. But in a situation such shooing the waterfalls you really have to stick to the proper aperture for depth of field and the ideal shutter speed for the amount of water blur. So the only practical way to effectively “ bracket “ your exposures is by changing the ISO setting on the camera. This is one of the advantages of digital photography that was not previously possible when shooting film.
I always recommend that people use their ISO to adjust their shutter speed after they have finished composing, as this is the best way to insure that you achieve the look of the flow that you want. In the image above, I took off the solid ND filter and also used a higher ISO for a faster shutter speed to help minimize any leaf blur that I would likely get with a slower shutter speed. Once composed, go up in one-stop increments with your ISO and adjust your shutter speed accordingly, then when you get home, you can decide which image works best for you.
Work Your Subject
In conclusion, I would like to instill in you how important it is to work your subject! You spend all this time and effort getting to a location, the least you can do is spend some time working the subject and exploring different compositions. This is where you should combine all my suggestions and capture some stunning waterfall images of your very own next time you are out in the field.
Roman Kurywczak is a full time nature photographer and proud Sigma Pro team member who conducts lectures and workshops across the globe. His boutique tour company, Roamin’ with Roman Photo Tours, caters to very small groups (only 4) to provide the ultimate learning experience for participants. His down to earth and easy to follow teaching style make him a highly sought after lecturer. The author of several instructional eBook’s on nature photography, Roman strives to share his passion for photography as others have shared with him. He is married for over 26 years with two sons and lives in NJ. You can learn more about Roman’s workshops, lectures, eBook’s, galleries, and more at: www.roaminwithroman.com