Chasing Waterfalls, and how to Photograph them

Chasing Waterfalls, and how to Photograph them

Russell Falls, Tasmania

I’ve just returned from an 11-day photography trip to Tasmania, the chief purpose of which was to scout out new locations for future landscape photography tours in Australia’s “Apple Isle”. Tasmania is famous for its waterfalls (there are lots) and because it gets a lot of water, the falls are pretty much running all year round. Some images of Tasmania’s waterfalls feature in this article. If you’re keen on shooting waterfalls (and other landscapes) in Tasmania, why not join us for our landscape photography tour in Tasmania next year (2020).

Waterfalls are a perennially favourite subject for photographers. There’s something just magical about capturing water as it cascades over rocks ad bubbles through streams and gullies. If you’re planning on photographing waterfalls, read on…
 

WHAT YOU NEED
Apart from your camera, you’ll need:

  • A variety of lenses, depending on how you plan to photograph the waterfall (see “Lenses” below for more information)
  • A Circular Polarising filter
  • A low- to mid-range neutral density filter (eg. ND 16 or ND32)
  • A stable tripod
  • A remote shutter release or cable shutter release (or your camera remote app).
  • Good shoes/boots (rocks can be slippery).

 

LENSES
You’ve heard the saying “the lens you choose determines the way you see the world”? There is no “single lens type” that’s best for photographing waterfalls. You choose the lens based on the falls and how you intend to feature it in your frame.

    Wide-angle lenses (eg. 16-35mm on a full frame camera) emphasise the foreground and de-emphasise the background. Hence, they’re great if you have a large waterfall that flows into a stream, in which are interesting mossy rocks and similar elements of foreground interest. You may need to shoot closer to the waterfall and find foreground interest close to the cascading water.

    Guide Falls, Tasmania
    Guide Falls in Tasmania, shot at 24mm to allow for the inclusion of foreground interest.

    Mid-range zoom lenses (such as the 24-70mm lens on a full frame camera) will also allow you to shoot for foreground interest but have the waterfall feature in a more dominant way in the frame, while giving you the luxury of shooting a little further away from the falls. The longer end of these lenses are also great for honing in on details in the waterfall (see below for composition tips).

    Git Git Waterfall, Bali
    Git Git Waterfall in Bali, shot at 30mm on a full frame Nikon D750.

    Telephoto lenses (such as a 70-200mm lens on a full frame camera) allow you to select sections of the waterfall in which to set your frame. Use these lenses to pic detail in the falls that you want to emphasise in your image – it could be the way the water falls over rocks, or the shape of water at the base of the falls.

    Margaret River Falls, WA
    Detail of Margaret River Falls, shot at 190mm.

 

LIGHT
When photographing waterfalls, its important to choose a location and time where the entire falls is in flat, even, diffused light. Direct sunlight on parts of the falls can create blown highlights that can distract from the balance of the entire image. Plan to shoot on fully overcast days, or if you know that the falls is in such deep shade that no direct sunlight falls on it. Alternatively, shoot at times of the day when the sun is lower in the sky so that its light doesn’t land on the falls. For example, if I know the orientation of the falls, I will plan to shoot at a time of the day when the sun is rising behind the falls, so that it’s light is obscured by the trees and foliage.

Lesmurdie Falls
Lesmurdie Falls in Western Australia, shot in the late afternoon when the sun is low behind the top of the falls.

POLARISE THE LIGHT
Waterfalls are wet. Yes, that’s pointing the obvious out, but it’s important to understand this as water on surfaces can reflect light and create glare. Water on leaves and wet rocks will often reflect the sky and hence hide the actual colour and vibrance of the surface. To cut through glare and reflections, use a circular polarizing filter. This will allow the colour of rocks and leaves to show through; and if you’re photographing the stream at the base of the falls, it will cut through reflections and show the stream bed, which may contain interesting detail such as rocks, pebbles and logs.

Liffey Falls, Tasmania
Liffey Falls in Tasmania; a circular polarising filter was used to cut through the glare and reflections.

 

EXPOSURES – LONG OR SHORT?
Waterfalls look beautiful when captured in a long exposure; the falling water looks misty or cloudy and infuses the scene with an ethereal feel. In most cases, you’ll be able to achieve water movement blur at shutter speeds around ½ to 1 second; longer exposures give you more “misty” looking water. Choose the shutter speed that conveys the mood and emotion you want to create in the scene.

Nelson Falls, Tasmania
Nelson Falls in Tasmania, shot at a 4 second exposure.

You can also catch a hint of movement if you shoot with slightly faster shutter speeds -- say around 1/100 or 1/50 of a second - as this often retains enough motion blur while still retaining the shape and weight of the cascading water.

Bowen Falls, New Zealand
Bowen Falls, shot at 1/100 of a second.

Most of the time, your circular polarizer combined with your shooting at smaller apertures (f/11 to f/16) will give you a slow enough shutter speed to blur the water. If you need longer exposures, you may need to stack a neutral density (ND) filter to reduce the amount of light entering the camera, and thus prolonging the exposure.

Hot Tip: If you stack filters, make sure you get good quality filters and stack the Circular Polarising filter ON the ND filter, not the other way around. Light needs to go through the weaker filters first before they go through the stronger filter.

Stacking filters can also create very dark and distracting vignettes (because you are effectively increasing the barrel distance of your lens), especially when you shoot at wide angles. So you might need to crop this out in your post-processing, or just increase your focal length to avoid vignetting.
 

COMPOSITION TIPS
We’ve dealt with most of the technical aspects of photographing waterfalls, but the most important thing in making or breaking an image is composition. There are a few key tips that can help you frame and compose a lovely image of a waterfall.

Create the impression of depth in the scene by using a wide angle lens, so that the viewer’s eye is led into the scene from the foreground to the waterfall, which may be located in the midground or background. When composing with a wide angle lens, make sure you have a dominant foreground interest – it could be a mossy rock, or a small cascade, or even a brightly green or yellow leaf on a rock close to your camera. For quite a while, I would collect brightly coloured leaves as I hiked to the falls, on the chance that I might need to place one on a rock to create foreground interest!

Shoot the same composition in both horizontal and vertical compositions. Vertical compositions can emphasise depth in an image, so the viewer’s eye is led further into the scene. Horizontal compositions reveal the environment around the falls and allow the eye to wander more freely as it explores the landscape within the frame.

Purakaunuin Falls, New Zealand
A horizontal composition gives viewers a better idea of the landscape and environment around Purakaunui Falls in the Catlins, New Zealand.

Tengunungan Falls, Bali
A vertical composition of Tengunungan Falls in Bali creates an impression of dept, leading the eye from the foreground to the falls in the background.

Hot Tip: If you switch between horizontal and vertical orientations in your composition, make sure you adjust your circular polarizing filter with each orientation. It’s also worthwhile investing in an L-Plate for your camera and an Arca Swiss style ball head for your tripod if you switch between horizontal and vertical orientations often.

Shoot wide and shoot tight so that you maximise the different images you can obtain from the same falls. Remember that by changing the height of your camera, or just by moving your position to one side, or forward/back a little, you can change the entire composition and the way your viewer interacts with the scene in the frame!
 

ANNOYANCES
One of the key annoyances when photographing waterfalls is that moisture from the spray can be blown into your lens and lead to droplets forming on your lens or filters. Have a lens cloth handy, and you might need to cover your lens and time your exposure for when the intensity of the spray falls.

Spray from the falls is caused by wind or breeze picking up on the moisture; so try to photograph falls from upwind rather than downwind, or pick a day when there’s little wind.
 

SAFETY
When shooting waterfalls, it’s important to always keep your own personal safety at the forefront of your mind. From slippery rocks to deep drops, accidents are just waiting to happen to the ill-prepared photographer. Make sure you’re wearing shoes or boots with good grip; waterproof boots are recommended and allow you to shoot from within the stream, rather than from its banks.
 

SUMMARY
There's a lot of enjoyment to be had photographing waterfalls, much of which has to do with being in the great outdoors and in a usually lush, green environment. I hope this article has proved useful and given you some direction in terms of photographing waterfalls.

If you’d like to photograph the waterfalls of Tasmania, join our 2020 Tasmania Landscape Photography Tour, which runs in April 2020.

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