Shooting Waterfalls

Shooting Waterfalls

This will be an evolving article with the final product to be included as an Appendix to the forthcoming second edition of the book.  You are invited to offer critique and or opinion about the content with the purpose of improving.  I thank you for your input.

Over the years, I’ve experimented trying to establish a standard for myself when shooting waterfalls. I’ve come home with lots of different outcomes. A couple things that have become apparent to me are that:

  1. there are a number of different outcomes that will be considered acceptable to you and your peers. However, it comes down to artwork and what pleases you.
  2. The other thing is that, the more you get into it, the more you find out just how involved it can become. Access and camera positioning are always an issue, but getting the right exposure and composition are also sometimes a challenge.

So, what are you looking for in your work when shooting falls.

  1. My first consideration is that my image never, ever has any blow out in the water. So, it’s all about the histogram. I like a balanced histogram. In other words, no blowouts on either end, which can often be wishful thinking but what you want. I like to be able to see what’s in my shadows as well, even though I often darken them beyond a real ability to discern what’s there. But I never want to see the “255’s”, as I call them. “255” is a blowout in white and there’s not much you can do to change it in post processing, unless you paste something in there, and that’s a dubious proposition, at best. Typically zero is taken to be black, and 255 is taken to be white. Values in between make up the different shades of gray. Trying to fix a blowout by changing it’s exposure value will only render some level of gray.
    • Weather is usually a determining factor when shooting water. It’s really hard to get perfect histograms when you shoot in full sun with no canopy. Cloudy days and even rainy days are welcoming to me when I’m shooting falls. Unlit wet rocks and vegetation are pretty nice and welcome compared to the problems of bright sunlight. I think the early morning hours are best, however, early or late day, in most cases, will find the sun sinking behind a hillside and putting your subject in shadow, while still maintaining sufficient ambient lighting.
  2. My preference for long exposure effect has transitioned from the “silky” to the more “stringy” looking image. But that’s just me. I think the string effect looks more natural, as far as long exposures go, than the silky, and that’s what I like. I still shoot silky. As a matter of practice, I usually obtain images in both extremes as well as in between and then, usually a snap shot or two in fast shutter speed. Nothing wrong with shooting a waterfall with a fast shutter.  They can be just as eye catching as any other.
    • When you are in very dark places, it will be difficult to get by without some silky effect because of the length of time the shutter is open. Other times, there may be two separate spills on the same fall, where one moves faster than the other. They will probably not come out the same way. You may have one silky and one stringy. You may also be doing a long exposure to capture a swirl in the image and that super long open time will show some silk in the falls. Kind of like the image below.Living Waters04
  3. Foreground interest is always a priority if possible. A nice swirl in the water or a big rock or some other creek feature can add a lot of gusto to your shot. Likewise, other items in the frame can be distracting and take the eye places you don’t want it to go. Your composition is going to be one of the bigger power aspects of your image. Viewing angle should also be a consideration. Get down at water level or maybe shoot from the side as well as the front if the situation allows.


I’m a minimalist when it comes to equipment, but there are some things that you will definitely need.  I don’t like to carry every lens I own when I will only need a wide angle or normal lens.

  1. Backpack – you should get one.  When going over the edge into a creek, you will need two hands.  Often, you will have a rope in one or both hands and your hiking stick in the other.  Having to worry about your camera at this time is not something you want.  Back pack it.
  2. Tripod – Price, materials, and brand are unimportant, strength and stability is, so, just look at what you’re buying.
    • Do you have a strap for your tripod?  You should get one.  You can make one if you’re handy or you can probably find something online.  I have a tripod bag with a strap, but I prefer my home made model.  So I have several choices. Bottom line is, unless I’m using my tripod as a walking stick or support, then it’s strapped to my back or back pack.
  3. Circular Polarizer – I use a Hoya, but have used other brands and can’t really tell a lot of difference between brands, but I’m not that observant about that sort of thing.  As long as it knocks down the glare and doesn’t create some weird color shading, I’m good. But you should have one, not only does it take the glare off the water, but it kicks up the richness of the rocks and vegetation and sometimes let’s you see what’s under the water as well, which can be interesting foreground for you.
  4.  Neutral density filters – I usually carry a #6 and a #10.  Used in combination with a polarizer,  it’s probably all you will need.  I have found some of the variable neutral density filters I’ve used acted silly on several occasions with crazy vignettes and colors.  I will not recommend one at this point as I have not used one that I like in it’s full range of use.  The dark side seems to be just that.  Kinda scary sometimes.  I used the Tiffen VND 77mm on my Nikon 24-70mm lens and on the darker end of things this is what I got (unprocessed).
  5. Graduated Neutral Density Filters – sometimes very useful, especially when the sun is shining right over the top of a fall and reflecting on top of the water.  A cheap and perfectly useful set of Cokin’s will get you started.  You will develop preferences over time, but this is a really cheap and effective way to get into these type of filters.
  6. Flash – As far as I’m concerned, a flash is a luxury when hiking, though one might be useful from time to time if a person wanted to do some light painting.  I don’t even like the backpack, but it’s a necessity.  Just keeping the weight down is important for me.
  7. Boots – In summer, I often just get in the water in my shoes and pants and just get wet.  However, hip waders are cheap.  $40 bucks at Wally World.  Any boot will do, you just have to watch how deep you go.
  8. Hiking stick – Make sure it will hold your weight when going downhill, that’s why you have it. In my experience, getting into a creek is much more challenging than getting out. The stick is essential in a lot of places. I also use my tripod this way on occasion.
  9. Research – If you have never been to the place that your are headed to, you need to do some research to discover what equipment you may need.  Sometimes, you will need a rope to get into a creek, or you may need to creek walk for a mile, or you may just not think you are up to the task and go somewhere else.  Do you want to get wet or should you take the hip waders?  Lots of choices to be made before heading out. Get a guide book or check online. There are lots of waterfall sites online and people to interact with who have probably been where you want to go.

What to do:

Now that you are where you want to be, you need to survey/assess the situation and get oriented

  • Set up – First you have to get to the spot without doing any damage to the old bod or the camera equipment.  Then find a place for your tripod legs.  Make sure you don’t put them in a bind between some rocks.
  • Compose – OK.  This goes for every shot you will ever take.  HORIZON, HORIZON, HORIZON.  If you don’t get it level in the camera, you will have to crop it in post and you may loose some important parts of your capture in a crop.  Being level is a good practice no matter what you are shooting and you’d be surprised how often it is overlooked.  Very cheap levels that attach to the hot shoe on your camera are available.

Also, I was taught to “fill the frame” when I shot film.  That’s not necessarily the current paradigm.  I’m not sure what it is, but if I feel the need to crop in order to correct my horizon, for instance, and still maintain my original capture, I will need some room to maneuver.  With today’s resolutions, I don’t think that it’s a stretch to have some throw away space around your main subject.

  • House Keeping – I don’t know who came up with this phrase, but it’s appropriate and important.  Be observant of what’s in your frame.  If there are some dead branches that are messing up the scene, then pick them up and move them if you can. I always keep a handsaw in my truck in case I want to remove an offending dead limb from my foreground. Also, try not to incorporate anything that will draw the eye away from your subject.
  • Expose – The magic potion!  You need to decide what you are looking for.  I will normally begin taking sample shots around ¼ – ½ sec. and normally expect to maintain a minimal ISO. Your shutter speed is going to determine what your shot looks like as far as water movement goes. I prefer an aperture of f11-f16, but that may often not be practical. You will have to negotiate with your camera.
    1. Speed of water – If waters are at high flow, you will get silk even at higher shutter speeds.  You may want to change your ISO in order to get an appropriate shutter speed. Also, don’t be afraid of your smallest aperture. There are little aperture nazis out there, who also pixel peep at 200%, that will tell you that it’s a no-no. Use it if you need/want it.
    2. Amount of ambient light – Available light and where it’s coming from are important considerations in how to frame and expose an image.  For instance, having sun in your face as you look at a fall is an issue.  This is where some filters will come into play.  An alternative to filters may be HDR, however, in the most extreme cases of gradation of light to dark, HDR may not even work effectively.  Your product will end up looking surreal or even stupid.  You need to knock down the bright, so you can expose for the shadows as well.  That will require a Graduated Neutral Density Filter.  Once you get one of these filters (or a stack of them) in your hands and use it to effect, you will understand.  It’s like sunglasses for the 255’s.
    3. Another option, when dealing with direct sunlight, is to feature it. I’ve seen and taken a number of images where the sun is in my face or blasting through the trees to the side. Utilizing the smallest aperture to show the rays of the sun can sometimes be a decent effect. It all depends on your situation.

Shoot – Cable release is best.  Timer works too.  Just keep your hands off.  On a fully extended or weak tripod, a camera will shake enough to blur a shot just from the action of the shutter’s concussion in the camera body.  Add the length and weight of a lens to the movement in the camera, and you get some shake (a blurred image).  And if you have any length on the reach of the lens, that amplifies it proportionally.  Keep things still.

Post processing:

  1. Shoot in RAW.  If you don’t, you should start.  Don’t be afraid of it.  It’s the best thing for you, believe me.  My processing flow is based on using RAW image files in Adobe Camera Raw, then opening in Photoshop to do additional work or to save.  I do the majority of editing right in Camera Raw.  Lightroom Develop Module is the same, if that is your preference.
  2. Straighten and Crop if necessary.
  3. Basic tab
  • Establish your black point and white point.  Use  Alt click PC/Option click Mac, and move the black or white sliders.  Don’t freak out when the screen goes blank. Image will come into view as you slide. Stop sliding just as it begins to materialize. Watch the histogram while moving and you will see the correlation.
  • Adjust color temperature if necessary. Often, especially in really dark places or overcast skies, your waterfalls may come out looking blue. I like my waterfalls to be white as much as possible. Move temperature slider to the warm side to compensate. If that’s having a negative effect on the color of the rest of the image, move to the HSL/Grayscale tab to manipulate the blues.
  • Next I work the shadow and highlight sliders.  Look into reducing Highlights to help define the stringiness in the water a little. The clarity slider may also help here. Move the shadow slider to help bring out the surrounding dark areas to your taste.
  1. Lens Correction tab – Enable Lens Correction and fiddle with the rest of the sliders if you wish.
  2. FX tab – The FX tab contains the “Dehaze” control. Move that slider to your desired effect. I’ve found that I just love this control. Not only does it dehaze, it has the added effect of gently saturating and contrasting the image. You may find that you don’t need to move the contrast slider at all and that you’ll be using less saturation than normal. I’ve personally not found much use for the rest of the sliders in this tab.
  3. Basic tab – Looking for the Contrast effects if needed, then some Saturation and Vibrance if needed.
  4. HSL/Grayscale tab – At this point I’m looking for specific color modifications that I may want to do by using the HSL/Grayscale tab. Most times, if I’m in here, I’m taking blue out of the water or kicking up the greens and yellows. A lot of times orange might seem too dominant as well.
  5. Adjustment Brush corrections. This is a very powerful tool. If you need it, it can really save an image
  6. I usually do spot healing and cloning in Photoshop but some can be done in Camera Raw as well.
  7. Sharpen – Work with the Details tab in conjunction with the Clarity slider on the Basic tab.
  8. Save – You can save from Camera Raw or Photoshop/Lightroom.

Wind in the trees – Lots of times the wind will be blowing. You may have trees, bushes, and clouds in your background and surrounding areas. During a long exposure you can end up with blurry, fuzzy looking trees and surreal skies. You may say you don’t even care about this, and it can be an artsy effect, but if you don’t want that effect, you need to try to adjust for it.

To do this, you will need to combine several images in layers and use masks to reveal the parts you want. First, go ahead and make your image as you like, then, with camera in the same position – don’t move the camera or the focus point – and change the exposure using at least a 1/100 shutter speed or faster. You want to stop the motion. Combining the images is a topic for another discussion, but if you have the essentials, then you have something you can work with.

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