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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

7 tips for amazing waterfall photos

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

A landscape photo of a Dartmoor waterfall by Devon photographer Gary Holpin Photography

1. Choose a cloudy day

Waterfalls are often in dark and dingy locations, either under the shade of riverside trees or in mossy hollows in the landscape. This immediately causes a challenge when taking photos of waterfalls, in that the dynamic range (range of brightness) between dark shadows and the bright sky can be significant, and cameras can struggle to capture it effectively. This often leads to burnt out skies, and the bright highlights on the white water of the waterfall itself being too white with no detail. Although there are technical ways to handle this large difference in brightness, the easiest thing to do is to simply visit on a cloudy day, when the differences in brightness are less extreme. So, do as I do - when the skies are cloudy but dry, think about heading out to a waterfall.

2. Use a tripod

As waterfalls are often in dark and dingy locations, this means that the overall light levels are generally quite low (even more so if you visit on a cloudy day). This means that cameras will often have to slow down the shutter speed to make sure that sufficient light is captured. If you're shooting in automatic your camera should ensure a shutter speed fast enough to prevent camera shake, however, it's usually better to pre-empt any problems by using a tripod to keep your camera steady. You don't need to spend a lot of money, I've had a student on one of my courses who had a £15 tripod from the middle aisle of Lidl that was perfectly adequate!

3. Use a slow shutter speed (Pro tip!)

The moving water of waterfalls provides the opportunity to start exploring the creative side of photography, through experimenting with shutter speed. Through the use of shutter speed, it's possible to blur the motion of water.and start producing beautiful silky visual effects. To start to play with water motion, you will need a tripod to hold your camera steady, and know how to change the shutter speed using either Shutter Priority or Manual modes. Once you can do this, it's then a matter of playing with different shutter speeds until you find the effect that you like. The effect will depend on how fast the water is moving, but I tend to start around 0.5 seconds, trying faster and slower speeds until I find the look that I want. Faster speeds (of around 0.2 seconds) tends to retain a lot a texture in the water; slower speeds of 1 second or more tends to produce a much smoother, silky look to the water. Note that depending how much lights is available, there will be a limit to how long a shutter speed can be achieved without over exposing the photo, or modifying the light using ND filters (see below).

4. Use your 2 second timer (Pro tip!)

One problem when operating your camera, is that pressing the shutter to take the photo can move the camera causing camera shake which can blur your photo. One easy way to get over this problem (without the need for external shutter releases) is to find your camera 'Drive mode' and set it to the 2 second timer. This means you can press the shutter, take your finger away, and 2 seconds later the shutter will open to take the photo. Simple!

5. Use a circular polariser (Pro tip!)

One of the problems with waterfall photos, is that when light hits the white water, it becomes 'polarised' and produces glare. This can manifest itself in photos by the white bits of the waterfall appearing overly bright, with little or no detail. One simple way to overcome this is to buy a circular polariser for your camera lens. Just as with polaroid glasses, a circular polariser cuts out polarised light, and because it's circular and screws onto the front of your lens, the effect can be modified simply by turning it. Simply turn the polariser until the glare from the white water of the waterfall is reduced, before taking the photo.

6. Use an ND filter (Pro tip!)

Although it's possible to achieve reasonably long shutter speeds when taking photos of waterfalls, since the light levels are reasonably low, it may not always be possible to get a long enough shutter speed to achieve the look that you're trying to achieve. In this case, it's possible to increase shutter speeds further by the use of ND (Neutral Density) filters. ND filters can be round, or square and fit onto the front of your lens. They effectively act as sunglasses, blocking out light so that you can extend your shutter speeds further than you would be able to normally.

7. Don't forget about composition!

Although a lot of the tips for waterfalls are quite technical, it's important not to forget the basics, and the most important way to take a good photo is by embracing the basic rules of composition. The waterfall is likely to be the main subject of your photo, but the image can be made more pleasing to look at by using the rule of thirds to define where the main elements of the photo are located, and finding lead-in-lines (such as the edge of the riverbank) to help lead the viewers eye into the frame.

Want to learn how to take photos like a pro?

If you want to learn more, why not consider one of my one-to-one courses, or if you're not local to Devon, one of my weekend residential workshops?

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