|"Tropical Symphony." This Costa Rica waterfall was composed tightly to make an abstract image.|
Waterfalls are likely one of the most common subjects of landscape photographers, on par with sunsets and wildflowers. I'd like to share some of the strategies I use to get successful waterfall photographs that elicit "oohs" and "aahs" from visitors to our galleries. With the following techniques and guidelines, you can capture dramatic print-worthy waterfall images, as well.
Step one is to find a photogenic waterfall. The obvious choices come to mind, such as Yosemite, with its multitude of astounding falls, and Kauai, with its abundant foliage and spectacular cascades. However, there are photogenic waterfalls in many areas that aren't well known by photographers, are more accessible than the iconic locations, and are waiting to be captured by an artistic eye. In many cases, a smaller waterfall can be more photogenic than the 1,000-foot drops if composed well. When I'm traveling to an area for a photo shoot, I'll often do a Google search on images for waterfalls. Google Earth and The Photographer's Ephemeris are also great tools for pre-scouting a location. It's possible to find out the orientation of the falls to the sun and determine the optimum time of the day for photography.
Once you have your waterfall location scouted, the next step is to go at the correct time of day to ensure optimum lighting. I usually prefer sunset and sunrise, and try to avoid the harsh glare in the middle of the day, when possible. It's important to avoid photographing a waterfall when bright highlights and dark shadows are present on the falls. It's best to have the falls entirely in shadow. Overcast days can also be good for waterfall photography since harsh shadows can be avoided. The exception to this rule is when trying to capture rainbows in a waterfall, which requires orienting the camera with your back to the sun. After shooting a few frames, it's important to check your histogram to make sure the water highlights aren't blown out because, once that detail in the highlights is gone, it can be difficult to recover it in postprocessing.
I recommend using a tripod to secure the camera and a UV, neutral-density or polarizing filter to cover the lens and protect it from waterfall mist. In some locations, like Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon, there can be mineral deposits in the waterfall mist that may damage the coating of an unprotected lens. A circular polarizing filter is a great choice because it will help reduce the glare and reflections while also allowing a slower shutter speed to be used. A neutral-density filter can allow much slower shutter speeds, even up to 10 to 12 stops slower with some of the darker versions, which will create a blurred water effect, even in broad daylight. A microfiber cloth is also essential. When photographing falls in Costa Rica, I had to cover my camera with a waterproof cover and keep the lens covered with the plastic until the moment I was ready to take the shot. After every shot, I had to wipe the filter clean with a cloth and cover the lens again. This was tedious, but it was the only way to avoid water spots on the final images. My small microfiber cloth saved the day.
I usually try a variety of shutter speeds while photographing moving water. Sometimes it's difficult to predict how water will appear at a given shutter speed, so test a variety of shutter speeds if you have time. I've even gone up to 25 seconds for an exposure if the light is low and I'm using a neutral-density filter to further reduce available light. Usually, good results occur in the 1- to 2-second range if you want the magical misty look in the water and you're not trying to freeze the motion of water droplets. I think it's harder to capture a good waterfall image at high shutter speeds.
Composing a waterfall image may require getting your feet wet if you're photographing it from the river downstream. I like to include a strong foreground element, and usually the river flow or riverbank creates a compelling foreground that leads the eye into the image and gives a sense of depth to the composition. Another option that I discussed in my previous OP column is the use of a telephoto lens to zoom in on elements of the waterfall and the more abstract compositions within it. If it's not possible to get to the river below the falls, then still look for a strong foreground element that will lead the eye into the waterfall; this can be leaves or flowers that are closer to the lens. Avoid the two-dimensional snapshot look when photographing falls from a distance; challenge yourself to find ways to make the image three-dimensional with use of strong foreground elements and natural lines or S curves leading to the falls.
Additionally, when photographing in the shade or with a neutral-density filter, I often find it necessary to warm up the image with the white balance adjustment so the water doesn't have a blue cast.
Waterfall photography is an exhilarating and fulfilling way to experience the beauty of nature. As with all skills, practice and experimentation will lead to better results that you'll be proud to share with your viewers.