How to photograph a waterfall

7

I’m feeling inspired to write a post for a friend who just said she was off to Dartmoor next week and plans to photograph a nice waterfall while she’s there. Rather than just give her some tips I figured you might be interested too right!

First things first

The biggest challenge with waterfalls is finding one! I love capturing slow moving water and waterfalls captured well are among some of my favourite images but depending on where you live they may be quite scarce. Clearly you need mountains and rain so if you’re off on holiday it maybe worth typing the location and ‘waterfalls’ into google e.g. ‘Dartmoor waterfalls’ and see what comes up under the images tab. If you’re lucky someone will have taken some and told you where it was shot, or you could contact them if it’s on a blog and ask (most photographers are nice).

Technique

Ok, you’ll see below that I’ve put an equipment list together for everything I use and mention here but lets go over the technique. Once you’ve found your waterfall you need to consider the composition, how do you want it to look. Do you plan to get close in or see it wide, do you want some detail in the foreground like rocks or leaves or shoot straight across the water? When you get there it will make more sense but please do give some consideration to the end photo.

Set up your tripod in a good stable position and look through the live view to gauge the composition. Now the settings…

Settings

First, I am going to strongly recommend you shoot this in RAW. I know it means you’ll need to go through a RAW editing program like Lightroom but I am getting as much fun playing with my photos in Lightroom as I am shooting them! It really does give you a chance to be creative with your work as well as correct and enhance what you shoot. If you have the option on your camera to shoot RAW and JPG then that can be a good compromise and if you are stuck with the RAW editing let me know.

Ok, you’ll be on manual here and I suggest you set your ISO down to 100 or 200 as you’ll have more than enough light.

You want everything in focus, unlike a portrait so lets go to f22 for your aperture.

That just leaves the shutter speed and you’ll get different effects at different speeds. The first one in the gallery was taken at 5 seconds and as you can see the water looks silky smooth. My favourite was done at 13 seconds and then another was 20 so you really can play around with it.

Now you don’t want to just be following my settings to the letter else there’ll be no fun in this. As long as you know that slowing the shutter speed is whats changing the effect you can have a play and see what works on your waterfall. This truly is where the magic happens and it’s such a great feeling looking at the back of your camera and knowing you’ve got a beauty!

Using filters

Now every waterfall will be in a different environment, one of mine was under dense cover of huge trees, another was out in the open with a mountain range and blue skies behind it. The reason I say this is that you are not going to achieve such slow shutter speeds in daylight without a little help. This is where your filters are going to come in. Think of them as sunglasses for your camera.

Now if you’ve got a set like the ones I recommend below you’ll have some grad filters which are only darkening half the glass and some solid ones. Those graduated filters are not really any use here. Their purpose is to darken part of the scene while leaving the other part clear. You would use them for instance on a landscape shot when you want to darken the sky so you can see the clouds without darkening the fields or ground scene. Unless, as one of mine was, you’re trying to darken an open sky, these are not going to help your waterfalls, instead you want the solid ones.

The set mentioned below comes with 3 different strength glasses, ND2, 4, and 8 (the ND stands for neutral density) and the way the bracket works you can stack them up so you actually many more combinations of strength up to ND14.

My suggestion is that you set your camera up to the settings above and take a photo. Expect for it to come out over exposed but then slip in your ND4 glass and see what happens. It’s pretty simple really just darken it with the darker glass or lighten it by removing.

TIP: You do need to start from the slot nearest the lens so you’re not letting light leak in between the filter and the lens.

Now if you have screw on filters you do the same thing and can stack them if you have more than one.

I can’t focus!

Yes, one problem you’ll encounter is that your autofocus won’t cope once you put the ‘sunglasses’ on. I recommend focussing first before you put any filters on, ideally 1/3 of the way into your scene for best range, and then flick the switch on your lens to M. That sets it on manual and unless you knock it the focus won’t change. (This is covered in my focus training)

Now go have some fun!

Here are some of mine, there’s seriously nothing here you couldn’t take with the same equipment below.

As you’ll see from the settings at the bottom of the images they jump a little as I fiddled about but there’s no one ‘correct’ setting so start with my suggestions and move aperture or shutter speed, or change a filter until you’re happy.

TIP: If you’re shooting in RAW its better to underexpose than overexpose if you’re not sure by looking at your viewfinder.


 

Equipment

Now I know what some of you are like, the best part of a new project is having an excuse to buy some new toys and while you will need a few basic things the cost doesn’t need to be too silly.

The right lens

Honestly, your kit lens of 18-55 will be spot on here so I’ll say no more.

A Tripod £49

Here’s a link to great little tripod that I’ve shouted about for a while. The images on this page were taken using this. Now it’s a compact light one but the hook on the bottom means you can hang something heavy on it if needed to really secure it. Put a rock in a carrier bag and you’ll have the stability of a heavy pro tripod 😉
Tripod review

A shutter release £7

Feel free to grab a wireless one of these, there are several options but this is a basic cable one that will get you going cheaply. You don’t have problems of batteries failing or loosing the trigger with this cable version. I’ve listed different models but be sure to get the one that fits YOUR camera!
Cable shutter release review

Filters £12

As you can see from this review I have used these cheap filters and had some great results. You can spend way more but unless you’re planning on selling these photos I think you’ll be fine with these. You may bet a slight colour tint but if you shoot in Raw (which you should) then this is an easy fix on your return.
Filter set review

Walking boots / Wellies

Ok, so I haven’t done a review on walking boots, you’re on your own here but don’t turn up in your new trainers and miss a great shot because you don’t want to get your feet wet! Clearly the area is likely to be wet and slippy too so go prepared in suitable footwear, thats all I’ll say.


 

Now honestly, with these guidelines you shouldn’t be able to go too far wrong. Keep the camera steady on a tripod, focus first then lock it, set up your camera as I suggest then play with the filters and shutter speed… and enjoy it!

If you take 100 photos while you’re practicing, who cares! Just show the one or two that look stunning and you’ll be as proud as punch showing your friends and reading their comments on social media.

Feeling inspired? Please comment below…

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  • Twistedpear

    Great info as always. Not very mountainous in the Peterborough area but you can find small waterfalls. The one below is at Grimsthorpe castle, 20 mins north of Peterborough. Just needs a bit of rain. I plan to return in the winter.

    • That’s great, and you’re right, no mountains in Peterborough lol! I shot these while in Snowdonia on work. Your photo looks great though, I’ll meet you there in Winter 😉

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