The first photo included in the How to Photograph Waterfalls article used the Rule of Thirds in Photography as a tool for good composition. I used a slow shutter speed and small aperture to get the right exposure and waiting for a cloud to soften the light for pleasing lighting.
As with most photography, the how to photograph waterfalls method centers around the three most important elements of photography, exposure, composition, and lighting.
Many advanced photographers can call me Captain Obvious on that tip, but it's important to remember the basics before you go for advanced techniques with your photography, no matter what level of photographer you consider yourself.
The most common mistake in waterfall photography is over exposure of the water itself. We all like to have that"set it and forget it" type of mentality.
The problem is that your auto-exposure camera settings can misread the situation. The dark areas of the scene fool the camera's meter into adding more exposure to you image and the light waterfall gets overexposed.
Another challenge occurs when you have direct sunlight striking cascading water. That makes for a very bright situation and it's very difficult for the camera's sensor to capture the contrast correctly.
Using exposure compensation or setting the exposure manually are the ways you can correct for your camera's shortcoming. Looking and understanding your camera's histogram is a smart ways to improve your ability to handle waterfall exposure just right.
The three factors that affect exposure are ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. How you set each one of them effects how you have to set the others. Together they make up the exposure triangle.
Controlling the shutter speed in waterfall photography is the most often talked about subject because of the beautiful results you can get by using long exposures to achieve that smooth, creamy-looking water flow.
There are usually two different approaches to shutter speed selection. How fast the water is moving will change the exact speed to use, but generally here are two starting points to use as general guides.
Compare the two different motion waterfall photos below and the different effects between 1/200 second shutter speed in the original and 1/2 second shutter speed in the 2nd waterfall photo. Hold you cursor over the photo.
The composition itself doesn't really change too much, but look at the splash pool and the waterfall. They're remarkably different. The shutter was open 100x longer at 1/2 seconds rather than 1/200 second. Now look how creamy you can make the water look in the next photo.
This waterfall photo had a shutter speed of 8 seconds to get this much motion blur in the water.
The best lighting for waterfall photography is often on cloudy days. If your waterfalls is surrounded by trees and other vegetation, that'll cast shadows and produce un-even and contrasty lighting conditions.
Good lighting situations also occur early in the morning or late in the day when the sun is low in the sky. If the sky is included in your waterfall composition than blue skies or white fluffy clouds give you the best situation for a nice image.
There are always exceptions to every photography rule so its always pays to experiment and learn from the results you get in each situation. That's one of the greatest things about digital photography. Play around. Have fun. Learn from the ones you like and the ones you don't like.
A neutral density filter (ND Filter) is a nice add on when you have too much light to use a long shutter speed. ND filters are great for taking very long exposures of waves on the beach in bright sunlight.
LCD screen magnifiers like the Hoodman HoodLoupe are great for viewing your camera's LCD screen when you are outside in bright light. They also magnify the screen to get a good look at your focus and sharpness.
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