Posted by: kerryl29 | May 14, 2018

Photographing Waterfalls (Part III)

In the 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 my attention on narrower considerations of aesthetics.

A Compositional Element or The Compositional Element?

A fundamental question to ask yourself when preparing to photograph a waterfall is to decide whether you want the waterfall to represent a single element in a broader scene or whether the waterfall is to be the primary (or, in some cases, sole) element of the image.  On some occasions this is a fairly easy decision to make.  Much of the time I spent in Yosemite Valley (and Yosemite National Park more broadly) a year ago I found myself photographing grand scenics which, in numerous instances, happened to include one of the park’s many waterfalls.

Horsetail Falls, El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite Valley at Sunrise from Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park, California

Upper Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Meadow, Yosemite National Park, California

Vernal Fall and the Merced River from the Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park, California

But on other occasions, in the same location, I made the decision to narrow my visual focus and utilize the waterfall as the primary element in the scene:

Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite National Park, California

Foresta Falls Black & White, Yosemite National Park, California

Bridalveil Falls Rainbow, Yosemite National Park, California

Cascade Falls, Yosemite National Park, California

Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California

And, on more than one occasion, my attention was captured by a portion of a waterfall:

Foresta Falls Black & White, Yosemite National Park, California

Tenaya Creek Intimate Black & White, Yosemite National Park, California

Nevada Fall Intimate, Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park, California

Vernal Fall, Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park, California

While the compositional choices are wider at Yosemite than is often the case when photographing waterfalls, the general principle about making choices with waterfalls and their relative prominence in your compositions is widely applicable.  Consider the image sets below.  Each pairing is of the same waterfall, but the “A” and “B” images of each depict the waterfall in question in dramatically different ways.  First, Lower Falls at Stony Brook State Park:

Lower Falls, Stony Brook State Park, New York

Lower Falls Black & White, Stony Brook State Park, New York

Second, South Falls at Silver Fall State Park:

South Falls & Trail Bridge, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

South Falls Black & White, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

Third is the waterfall at LaSalle Canyon at Starved Rock State Park:

LaSalle Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Behind the Falls, LaSalle Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Several things should be apparent:

  1.  How you choose to render the waterfall is a huge factor in the process of determining the impact of the photograph.
  2.   There’s really no objective “right” answer to the question of how best to render the waterfall.
  3.   It would be a mistake not to investigate many different options regarding your perspective because there’s a very good chance that you’ll find multiple options that you like.  The choice regarding depictions is one that will be reflected in a single composition.  As the image pairings above imply, there’s nothing stopping you from depicting the same waterfall in manifold ways.  In fact, you are highly encouraged to consider doing just that.

Move…Yes, Physically, Move Yourself when Photographing

I’ve made this point before, but many photographers have a tendency to fall into a trap of positioning themselves in the most easily accessible spot and photographing a scene at eye level at that spot and moving on.  This approach should be forsaken…basically always, because what I just described is settling and, really, what fun is that?  Not much, I would argue, and not only isn’t it much fun, it rarely leads to particularly evocative or expressive photographs.  The areas where waterfalls reside–the broader landscape of which a waterfall is one element–often lend themselves to careful, copious exploration.

I’ve discussed the notion of “working the scene” multiple times on this blog in the past, most notably here and here.  (Both entries explain the concept in some detail.)  It’s remarkable how often areas around waterfalls lend themselves to this approach.  An integral component of working the scene is moving.  You cannot “work the scene” without relocating and examining different perspectives.  This process is not limited to simply moving to the left and right, up and back.  It also means moving up and down.

The moving around from spot-to-spot part is pretty obvious, and the benefits are pretty well-illustrated, I think, by the variety of perspectives that are reflected in the image pairings above…and below.

Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Glen Ellis Falls, Pinkham Notch, White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

Glen Ellis Falls, Pinkham Notch, White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

Lower Falls, Uncompahgre River, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Lower Falls, Uncompahgre River, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

The up and down part of the equation is less obvious and frequently overlooked, unfortunately.  Particularly when I want to include a strong foreground–and this principle, incidentally, isn’t limited to photographing scenes including waterfalls–it can be extremely helpful to lower your shooting position.  I’m frequently on my knees when composing these kinds of shots (see below).

LaSalle Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Smalls Falls, Franklin County, Maine

Ozone Falls, Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

Beauty Creek Waterfall, Jasper National Park, Alberta

Rapids Above Lower Cataract Falls, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

Arethusa Falls, Crawford Notch State Park, New Hampshire

Cascadilla Creek, Cascadilla Gorge, Tompkins County, New York

There is no substitute for moving around and examining different perspectives and the wider the focal length the more likely a modest change in position will substantially impact the overall shot.  To the extent that you’re able to climb into the water to examine additional perspectives, more’s the better.

Top Down

The overwhelming majority of the time, I prefer to shoot upstream, but there are times when a perspective shooting downstream, from atop a waterfall, can be quite dramatic.

Atop Laughing Whitefish Falls, Laughing Whitefish Falls Scenic Site, Michigan

It’s difficult to generalize about when this perspective works and when it doesn’t.  Sometimes, the backdrop is the star of the show and the waterfall itself can provide leading lines, guiding the eye to the background.

Lynn Camp Prong Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Sometimes, the downstream perspective simply has a unique feel to it.  Regardless, when the opportunity to examine this perspective is available–and it quite frequently isn’t–I always make a point to check it out.

Nigel Falls, Banff National Park, Alberta

Something Different

I’m always looking for a different way to capture waterfalls–something at least somewhat off the beaten track.  There’s a tendency, I think, for many to think of waterfalls as rather prosaic subjects, but much of that seems to be a function of “settling,” as I discussed earlier.  Much of what makes photography interesting–at least to me–is the exercise of trying to render subjects via a fresh perspective.  In other words, the subject is no more prosaic than our approach to it.

Cavern Cascade, Watkins Glen State Park, New York


Ganoga Falls, Ganoga Glen, Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

Hector Falls Intimate Black & White, Schuyler County, New York

Misty Falls, McCormick’s Creek State Park, Indiana

Quasi-Abstracts and Monochromes

Waterfalls are great sources of semi-abstract images.  By “semi” or “quasi” abstract, I’m referring to an image that, when first seen, takes some work to figure out what’s being represented.  (In the case of a true abstract, the viewer generally can’t tell, tangibly speaking, what the image represents.)

Hector Falls, Schuyler County, New York

Waterfall scenes, when viewed narrowly, also frequently make for compelling monochrome images, if for no other reason than that there’s relatively little color to begin with.

Devil’s Bathtub Black & White, Old Man’s Cave Area, Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio

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

Leafy Vortex Black & White, Fall Creek Gorge Preserve, Indiana

It’s not all that difficult to combine the two–semi-abstract and monochrome–with a (relatively) tight waterfall image.  In fact, I’m not sure there’s a landscape element better suited to such imagery.

Brandywine Falls black & white, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Water Meet Black & White, Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

Upper Dells Black & White, Matthiessen State Park, Illinois

Madison Falls, Olympic National Park, Washington

Screw Auger Falls Black & White, Grafton Notch State Park, Maine

Tangle Falls Intimate Black & White, Jasper National Park, Alberta

Parting Thoughts

Technical specifications aside, I suspect it will come as no surprise when I say that I think of waterfalls as I do any other element of the landscape:  how can I render this subject in an interesting, pleasing manner?  The unique characteristics of waterfalls will inform the process of answering that question, but the same can be said for other elements of a scene–a field of flowers, a grove of trees, a cloud-filled sky and so forth.  Each of these kinds of elements have their own unique characteristics that may cause me to approach them, as subject matter, somewhat differently but the fact that they all guide my approach in some way is a common thrust shared by all.

B Reynolds Falls, Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

To the extent possible–and I realize that this is going to sound somewhat ethereal–I always try to let the landscape reveal itself to me, rather than imposing my vision on it…but that’s probably wishful thinking on my part.  It’s not a conscious thing with me, but I’m sure I’m inevitably bringing my own preconceptions along for the ride when examining different compositions.  In the end, I don’t worry about it too much because doing so has a tendency to lead to a kind of artistic paralysis.  And, given the personal nature of the endeavor, “imposing one’s own vision” is, in the end, a significant component of what art, by its very nature, is.

Chagrin River Falls, South Chagrin Reservation, Cleveland Metroparks, Ohio



  1. Good advice and stellar images as always.

  2. Well explained, with the accompanying photos to prove your point. Beautiful images.

  3. Stunning images ! 🙂

  4. Great images! Wow 😮.

    • Thanks very much!

  5. You provided some great reminders. Not to mention the gorgeous images. Falls… a favorite subject whether I shoot it or just enjoy it.

  6. There are too many images to digest here! I do like the pairs, to illustrate your point. I hear you about the question of whether we’re really letting the landscape reveal itself, even when we quiet down, because we do inevitable bring ourselves to it, and that IS important. It’s a balance.
    Some that really stand out for me (thought every one is excellent) are Cascade Falls (8th image), Foresta B&W, Nevada intimate, Nevada Fall, La Salle Canyon (I always like things in the foreground, to bring me in), Rapids above Lower Cataract Falls (for the softness, esp, in the background), Big Run (because I like viewing things through other things), Misty Falls for the sense of absolute peace, and Devil’s Bathub B&W.

    • Thanks very much! I greatly appreciate your taking the time to comment in such detail.

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