Posted by: kerryl29 | May 7, 2018

Photographing Waterfalls (Part II)

In the previous segment of this series, we discussed some of the technical considerations surrounding waterfall photography.  The emphasis of this installment will be on the aesthetic side of the endeavor.  It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: there will be no objective truths revealed in this post for the simple reason that they don’t exist.  My intention here will be to provide some things for you to consider that may (or may not) help you uncover and reveal your creative side when photographing waterfalls.

Rendering the Water

As I noted last time, one thing that you’ll need to determine is how you want the water part of a waterfall image to look.  While there’s obviously a technical component to this topic (as revealed in the previous post), the decision itself is essentially an aesthetic one.  The technical side is about how to turn the crank—how to go about the business of obtaining the look you’re after.

Bond Falls, Bond Falls Scenic Site, Michigan

I almost always prefer a silky look to waterfalls and cascades, but that is:  a) a matter of personal taste; and b) almost always true.  There are exceptions, such as the image below where I much preferred the abstract look of this sectional falls shot, which was very deliberately taken at a relatively quick 1/50 second.

Blackwater Falls Abstract Black & White, Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia

How you render the flow of the water will play an important role in the mood that is established by the image, so be sure to keep that in mind when setting up your shot.  For instance, a “freeze frame” approach, as in the Blackwater Falls image immediately above, tends to instill a sense of tension, while the a longer shutter speed rendering of flowing water tends to produce more of a calming effect.  Of course, the other elements of a scene–objects, shapes, colors, textures, etc.–may add or detract from these foundational moods, so a holistic approach to the scene is recommended.

Lower Emerald Pool, Zion National Park, Utah

All of It or Just Some of It?

Many photographers reflexively feel the need to include all of a waterfall—from the very top to the splash pool at the bottom—in every image.  While there are many times when you will want to do just that, don’t feel a compulsion to do so.  It‘s quite possible to produce a compelling waterfall image without including the entirety of the entity in a single frame.  In fact, sometimes you’ll find that the image is more compelling when you don’t include all of it.

Sometimes photographing an entire waterfall means also including a hot spot in trees above the waterfall, or a patch of unappealing gray sky or some other undesirable element that serves as a distraction.  In such instances, experiment by omitting part of the falls from the frame.

Eagle Falls, Cumberland Falls State Park, Kentucky

Conversely, the bottom of a waterfall may itself be an unattractive feature, filled with logs and other debris.  Or, you may instill a sense of mystery in your shot by hiding the bottom of a waterfall.

Waterfall, Ash Cave, Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio

You may find that simply shooting sections of waterfalls—possibly excluding both the top and the bottom—can produce something interesting and unusual.

Blackwater Falls Sectional Black & White, Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia

Taughannock Falls Intimate Black & White, Taughannock Falls State Park, New York

The Rest of the Scene

One thing that just about every photographer new to waterfall shooting does is take a head-on shot of the cataract.  And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that…as long as you investigate other options as well.  Sometimes head-on shots of waterfalls can be extremely evoking in their simplicity but there are many ways to assemble scenes that include waterfalls as one of numerous elements.

Grotto Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Lower North Falls, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

Eagle Cliff Falls, Havana Glen, Schuyler County, New York

The real key is to investigate many different angles, rather than simply settling for the most easily accessible spot.  Whenever I shoot around water I wear a pair of knee-high waterproof rubber boots, which makes it possible to photograph from places that ordinarily wouldn’t be under consideration—whether that means tramping through water to get to a more compelling perspective or literally standing in water when making the image.

Ottawa Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

I’m always on the lookout for interesting foregrounds to incorporate into the image, to add a bit of complementary spice to what otherwise might be a fairly prosaic shot.

Waterfall #1, McCormick’s Creek State Park, Indiana

Elowah Falls, John B. Yeon State Park, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon

Sometimes it’s possible to get behind the waterfall, which can often lead to a unique perspective.

Memorial Falls, Alger County, Michigan

Behind the Falls Black & White, LaSalle Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

What the Eye Can’t See

Occasionally, you’ll see the makings of an eddy or whirlpool or other feature that can’t be seen with the naked eye when shooting around waterfalls.  When you come across such opportunities, experimenting with long shutter speeds can at times produce remarkable waterfall-related elements that otherwise would go unrevealed.

Lake Falls Black & White, Matthiessen State Park, Illinois

Cascadilla Falls, Cascadilla Gorge, Tompkins County, New York

Don’t Settle

In the end, the thing to do when shooting waterfalls is to remain creative and dogged.  The key to producing compelling images of waterfalls is to remember that each cataract is as different as the most effective way to render it.  There are few better opportunities to “work a scene” than when photographing around waterfalls, so take the readily apparent shot, if you must, and then look around and see how else you might present your subject to the world.  I’ll delve more deeply into some composition-related waterfall issues in the third and final installment of this series.

Panther Falls Abstract Black & White, Banff National Park, Alberta



  1. Great images and thoughtful considerations. I particularly like the image from Ottawa Canyon where the peek at the waterfall in the background is like a little surprise gift the eye finds after following the curved lines of the rocks. I also really like the Panther Falls image. Having been there myself, your image brings back memories of the thundering power of that waterfall.

    • Thanks, Ellen!

      As you know, there are (essentially) two vantage points from which to photograph Panther Falls, each with its own set of embedded challenges.

  2. Rather than tension, I see unbridled energy in your Panther Falls shot. A very nice series, Kerry.

    • Thanks, Gunta.

      Maybe I see tension in the Panther Falls shot because I know what was involved in making the image. 🙂 (It was a pretty precarious spot.)

      • Sounds like a perfect reason to refrain from a slow shutter! 😀

        • 🙂

  3. Absolutely stunning photography!:)

    • Thanks very much!

  4. […] I mentioned some technical considerations (Part I) and general matters of presentation (Part II).  In this final segment, I’m going to focus my attention on narrower considerations of […]

  5. You’re such a master at photographing waterfalls, so I appreciate this post, but I especially appreciate that you begin by reminding people that the suggestions are just that, they’re not formulas. You’ve shown what variety there is in working with waterfalls…I like the way the waterfall is so subtle in that first Zion shot, and I like the Taughannock and Panther Falls black and whites for their strong simplicity. And both “behind” photos are wonderful for their mystical quality. Those two take waterfalls to a different level.
    Finally, the advice to take the obvious shot, but then work the scene – terrific!

    • Thanks! And, not incidentally, you’ve definitely hit on the key to all of this–there is no objectively correct way to approach any of this. I’ve tried to display SOME ways that I’VE chosen to photograph waterfalls. All that really demonstrates is that there are roughly as many different ways to gain perspective on subject matter as there are different waterfalls and different photographers to capture them.

      • And, that being said, you’ve done a great job providing really useful suggestions.

        • Thanks very much!

  6. Great photos, keep with good work!

    • Thanks very much!

  7. Wow! I came across this blog and I am super impressed by your work! Who would have thought water would be such a beautiful part of nature to capture in many different forms.

    • Thanks very much! And thanks for checking out my blog and taking the time to leave a comment.

      Water is a common–though not universal–theme of landscape photography, be it waterfalls (as represented in this series), creeks and streams, lakes and ponds, the ocean (and all of its arms)…even puddles. If you browse through the entries on this blog, or peruse my website, you’ll find these elements popping up with regularity.

  8. wonderful clicks

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