Posted by: kerryl29 | April 30, 2018

Photographing Waterfalls (Part I)

Waterfalls are among the most popular photographic subjects in the natural world, and why not?  They’re attractive and you can find them all over the place.  I devoted an entire photo trip to waterfalls a couple of years ago, so I’ve put my money where my mouth is.  But there are a number of considerations to take into account when photographing cataracts and that’s the subject of this three-part post.  In the first installment I’ll deal with technical considerations; next time, we’ll consider the aesthetic side of the endeavor.  The final segment will address specific issues of composition as they pertain to waterfalls.

Establishing Exposure (and the Limitations of Doing So)

I discussed the exposure triad when I was guest blogging on 1001 Scribbles a few years ago.  (If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, have a look here.  At some point, I’ll probably adapt the linked entry on this blog for potential future reference.  The linked piece can be read in conjunction with another, broader entry on technical considerations in the field.)  This comes very much into play when photographing waterfalls.

Elakala Falls, Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia

The key to obtaining a good exposure using a digital camera with just about any scene is avoiding blowing (i.e. overexposing) the highlights.  This is certainly true of waterfalls because the waterfalls themselves—the whitewater, specifically—frequently represent the brightest tonal value in the frame.  Back in the film era, the general rule of thumb was to spot meter off the brightest white and open up two stops (and bracket a half-stop, to be super safe) .  You’d correctly expose the highlights and all the other tones would naturally fall into place.  This is still pretty good advice as a starting point in the digital era.  Be sure to check your histogram (and, if you have the capability, check each color channel’s individual histogram to make sure you haven’t blown any of them—blue is ordinarily the most likely to be overexposed for this subject matter) for confirmation.

Middle Falls, Old Man’s Cave Area, Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio

One problem with waterfall exposure is that the parts of the scene excluding the whitewater are often naturally underexposed.  The dynamic range of such scenes—this is particularly true when waterfalls are set in deep canyons or gorges—is often extremely wide and the avoidance of overexposing the highlights, as discussed above, will often lead to deeply underexposed mid-tones and shadows.  This is unavoidable in a single frame, but today’s digital cameras, with unprecedented amounts of dynamic range render this less of a problem than was the case with exposure latitude-challenged transparency films. Less of a problem doesn’t mean no problem, however, and you’ll very likely find yourself wanting to pull up the shadows to render more detail. There are a number of ways of going about this including (but not limited to) a technique that I outlined a few years ago that I’ve found to be very effective.  Whichever approach you choose, simply be aware that you’re almost certain to want to apply some adjustments to deal with this endemic limitation.

Brandywine Falls Black & White, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Shutter Speed Considerations (Including Filters)

Among the most important decisions you’ll want to make when shooting waterfalls is how to render the look of the water itself.  We’ll talk about the aesthetic considerations at some length in the next installment, but for now consider that your choices range from freezing the water (which requires a relatively fast shutter speed) to the so-called “silky look,” which demands a comparatively slow shutter speed.  How slow?  Well, it depends on the nature of the waterfall itself (speed and volume of the water, the nature of the drop, etc.) but you can expect to need to shoot no faster than 1/15 second and possibly significantly slower than that.

If you go with the silky look—and most people do—there are some significant implications.  The first is that handholding your camera is basically out of the question.  To render the non-water parts of the frame sharp but the water itself blurred, you’re going to need to utilize a tripod.  (Of course, you should be doing this anyway when practicing landscape photography, but I digress…)

Sol Duc Falls, Olympic National Park, Washington

Obtaining the shutter speed you want may require some special equipment.  Depending on lighting conditions, simply stopping down the lens as far as it will go isn’t a good idea (it has negative implications for image sharpness, in the form of diffraction) and may not get you where you want to be with regard to the shutter speed anyway.  The same goes for dropping the ISO as low as it can be set–it may not provide you with the shutter speed you want.  A polarizing filter will help slow down the shutter speed—as much as two stops—and has other benefits as well.  A polarizer will usually reduce glare and reflections on wet rocks, for example; the vast, vast majority of my waterfall images have been made with the assistance of a polarizer, and it’s a must have accessory when shooting around water generally.  I covered the subject of polarizing filters at some length in an entry on the 1001 Scribbles blog a couple of years ago.

You may also want to invest in one or more neutral density filters to help obtain slow shutter speeds.  If you’re unfamiliar with neutral density filters I discussed them in this post on 1001 Scribbles.  (The filter series is another I may adapt for use on this blog in the future.)

St. Louis Canyon Waterfall, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

One potential problem is when the slow shutter speed you may want to use makes it difficult to keep other elements of the scene—wind-blown foliage or flowers, for instance—sharp.  If you do very little waterfall shooting, you may be surprised just how frequently this matter crops up, because I’m here to tell you, it’s a very common matter.  The conundrum can occasionally be solved by shooting multiple images and hand blending them in post processing, but sometimes that’s simply not practical.  In that instance…well, there’s not much that you can do about it except wait for a lull in the breeze.  On my trip to Colorado last fall I ran into this matter on a windy day when attempting to photograph rapids on the San Miguel River.  I spent a solid 20 minutes waiting for enough of a lull to successfully obtain one image–the last shot before the epilogue posted on the Day 14 entry.  Sometimes there’s no technical solution to a problem at specific point in time.

Upper Falls Area, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana


The aperture to use when photographing waterfalls may not be as simple as selecting the f-stop that best allows you to obtain your desired shutter speed to render the exposure you need. That’s because aperture also has depth of field implications and depending on your composition, you may need to prioritize depth of field. There are times, when photographing certain scenes, that both shutter speed and aperture draw more or less equal priority and waterfall/creekside shooting is a good example of such an occasion. In this entry written five years ago I discuss in-the-field shooting considerations covering a variety of situations, including the shutter speed/aperture matter mentioned here.

Up Next

In the second post in this series, we’ll discuss some of the artistic considerations that surround waterfall photography.

Lower Falls, Enfield Glen, Robert H. Treman State Park, New York



  1. Love the velvety look of your waterfalls.

    • Thanks very much!

  2. Great examples of waterfalls – enjoyed viewing these

  3. Nice shots!

  4. Gorgeous shots, truly beautiful 🙂

    • Thanks very much!

  5. I read this post twice, and I followed the links to the previous posts both here and at 1001 Scribbles. This is great information, and it is so helpful to be able to refer to the in depth postings on various topics you’ve covered in the past. As always, the images are stunning examples illustrating the points in the text.

    • Thanks, Ellen! Glad to hear that you found the “deep dive” of some value.

  6. Appreciate you going over the details here.

    • Thanks, Jane, glad you found it useful.

  7. Hi Kerry. I’m so glad to see this blog post and looking forward to the follow up posts as well. I was invited to a waterfall photography trip to the Finger Lakes Region of New York this October, so these blog posts are going to be a great resource for me. I absolutely love all of your waterfall images. Hope all is well with you!

  8. The mere falling of water often creates localized breezes which affect the ability to take longer exposure photos. Waiting these out won’t work because as long as the water is falling, there will be no lulls. One can either opt for longer focal lengths to isolate a scene sans foliage, or return to the place in the winter when the foliage is gone or the water is frozen.

    • This is true; the waterfall itself can in fact be the source of the breeze, in which case there is no lull. When this is the case, there are other alternative–live with the effects of the breeze. Often, the foliage that won’t stop blowing is a relatively minor element in the frame. Additionally, some creative use with the healing and/or cloning tools in post processing can work wonders if the photographer feels that a superficially minor blurred element is particularly obnoxious. 🙂

  9. This blog is heaven

  10. […] the previous segment of this series, we discussed some of the technical considerations surrounding waterfall photography.  The […]

  11. […] first two parts of this series on waterfall photography, I mentioned some technical considerations (Part I) and general matters of presentation (Part II).  In this final segment, I’m going to focus […]

  12. Great insight on how to photograph a waterfall (well)! Thanks for this! I wish I looked at these posts before going to Iceland. There were waterfalls everywhere!

    • Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!

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