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Capturing great waterfall shots is not as difficult as it may seem. Keys to getting them are knowing what time of year to be there to get the best water flow, what time of day to photograph them, and deciding what shutter speed to use to either freeze the motion of the water or exaggerate its movement. Otherwise the same basic rules of good photography apply with regards to composition, handling the background, light, etc. Depending on the amount of spray it emits, you will need to bring an absorbent cloth to continuously wipe off your filter. This is especially true if you work close to the falling water. If you do work close, be especially careful of your footing as the mossy ground can be very slippery.
Although great waterfall shots can be made with a point and shoot, an SLR is superior as you can control the shutter speed which dictates the look of the water. A slow shutter speed allows you to create a cotton candy effect giving the appearance of falling white lace rather than water. A fast shutter speed freezes the drops of the falls. The cotton candy effect conveys a tranquil feel while the frozen drop effect exudes power and strength. It’s a matter of personal taste as to which look you prefer although you’ll often find that the amount of light dictates the shutter speed. If there’s too much, you can add a neutral density filter to slow it down, but if there’s not enough and the goal is to shoot frozen drops, you’ll need to return when the light is more intense.
Other than an SLR, there are a few key pieces of equipment you’ll need to get good waterfall shots. A zoom lens will give lots of versatility with regards to composition. A tripod is a must to steady the camera when making long exposures. A polarizer is highly recommended as it will remove the glare from water covered rocks surrounding the falls. As you rotate it, you’ll be able to see the effect through the lens. The only drawback is the polarizer will eat up 1 1/2 stops of shutter speed so if the frozen drop effect is your goal, you may have to forego its use.
If you’re looking for lots of water, spring is the best time of year as the melting snows feed the falls and produce the most amount of flow. Autumn is not known for torrents of water, but surrounding fall color more than makes up for it. Winter can provide great mood shots especially after a fresh snow. If you’re photographing falls in a tropical area, the seasons won’t have much of an impact as there’s always a lot of water. If you live in an area where the seasons change, visit the falls throughout the year to catch them in different moods.
A few ideas to think about when shooting waterfalls are depicted in the accompanying images. In photo number one, I used the flowing line of the stream to lead the eye up to the source of the water. In photo number 2, it pays to know the falls you’re going to photograph so you’ll know what time to be there when the daily rainbow appears. This is influenced by the time of year in that the position of the sun changes so if a rainbow appears in the summer, the sun angle may be wrong for autumn.