Our guest blogger this week is Elijah Goodwin
1. Go with the flow.
Some waterfalls look great only with a relatively heavy flow, others look their best only during periods of relatively low flow, and still others look great under any conditions, but still produce very different images under the different conditions. Scout out your waterfall ahead of time, either in person, online, or in books. Get a sense for when it looks its best or for the type of image you want to create, then show up when the conditions are ideal.
2. Watch your speed.
Make conscious choices about shutter speed within the constraints of your camera and the conditions. How much definition do you want in the water? Do you want to capture individual droplets or do you want a misty, silky flow? Does the waterfall have a lot of whitewater that will register as a big white amorphous blob with a long exposure? Do you want the silky look, but you’re shooting the waterfall in the middle of the day, on a blue sky day, with an open canopy? You better bring a ND filter, or two, and/or a polarizer to further cut down the shutter speed. Play with different shutter speeds to see the effect and to get a better grasp on what shutter speed to choose next time.
3. Get your feet wet.
Most waterfall overlooks, whether formal or informal, are usually not the best angles for photography. Within the constraints of park rules and safety, consider getting into the stream or waterfall itself. Bring a pair of hip or chest waders, or in warmer weather/water a bathing suit and some water shoes. Get out amongst the cascades and find a good position with an interesting foreground or water flow pattern that enhances the image. Clearly you must use caution and be aware of your own limitations, for your own sake as well as your camera’s. Be smart about the force of the water (particularly in major rivers or anything at flood stage) and any downstream drops you could get swept off or slip over. It is not worth having the last photograph related to you be in an announcement of your death/rescue in the local newspaper. Be aware that the rocks can be very slippery; footwear with good traction is a must, as well as slow cautious movements. Make sure to bring everything you’ll need with you (it sucks struggling into the perfect position and realizing you have to go back to shore). Don’t forget a microfiber cloth for wiping spray off of the front of your lens.
4. Get perspective.
Oftentimes a full frame image of the impressive waterfall itself is not going to translate into an impressive image (particularly with large/tall falls). It will either end up looking like a tourist’s snapshot and/or take away all the sense of scale or surrounding beauty that makes the waterfall special. Look for interesting foreground elements when shooting with a wide-angle that enhance the composition and add a sense of scale. Be cautious however, of minimizing the main waterfall too much. Vary your height; our eye-level, with the tripod legs fully extended, is not always the most interesting viewpoint. A low angle can make the viewer feel as if they are in the water. If including the whole waterfall doesn’t work, consider isolating a smaller section. If that doesn’t work either, consider switching to a telephoto and shooting isolations.
5. Look out for the little guy.
Sometimes the big waterfalls don’t make for the best images, or even good ones at all. Oftentimes the small waterfalls or series of cascades just upstream or downstream are actually the better image and composition. Don’t just focus on the named waterfalls and hike quickly by everything else. You may be passing on your best images of the day.
6. Know that all that glitters, is not gold.
Dry rocks can cause annoying and distracting hot-spots in your image. The dappled light of full sun filtering through the forest canopy can also cause blown-out highlights and contrast issues that even an HDR image won’t solve successfully. This is why many photographers advocate photographing waterfalls under overcast/foggy conditions, after/during a rain, or at least very early in the morning or late in the evening. Be aware however, that just like any compositional “rule”, this one is made to be broken. Some open canopy waterfalls look great under full sun on a blue sky day with big fluffy white clouds. No matter what the conditions, consider using a polarizing filter to remove unwanted glare/reflections from rocks or the water itself. If you are photographing on an overcast day, watch out for boring gray/white or blown-out skies.
7. Trip the light fantastic.
If you really want your waterfall photography to stand out, pay attention to the light. Great waterfall images convey a sense of mood. This may mean waiting to visit a waterfall until a foggy morning, shooting in the rain, or getting up very early to be at a waterfall before sunrise. Shoot at the very edges of light during morning or evening twilight. Be aware of the nature and arrangement of the cloud formations and what that may mean come sunrise or sunset. Does the waterfall look best with front, side, or backlighting? Chase down the magical light, rather than going during average light and hoping for magic to somehow happen in the camera or during post-processing.
Elijah Goodwin is a Falls Church based educator, naturalist, photographer, and owner of Whimbrel Nature, a company that fosters appreciation for the natural world through images and education. For more tips on improving your waterfall images check out his blog post on using hyperfocal distance.