Six Challenges of Photographing Waterfalls

It would seem so easy. Hike to the waterfall, set up the tripod, aim, and shoot. Go home and process your new fine art print. Well, like any other scene, it is never that easy. There are some challenges to creating quality waterfall landscape photography, which I have learned to deal with and overcome during my time as a landscape photographer.

1. Avoiding the Bright Light

Nothing kills a waterfall photograph like direct light hitting the water blowing out the highlights. This is pretty much Waterfall 101 and any good photographer knows it. That is what the cloudy, and even rainy days are for. I’m always aware of the forecast and plan for using those mornings and evenings at the waterfalls. There is nothing, not even a polarizer, that is going to make it possible to photograph a waterfall with direct light on it.

2. Determining the Composition

In many cases, I have seen photos of a particular waterfall before so I might have a rough idea of how I am going to want to compose it. At the same time, it’s good to not let that influence you. It could stifle your creativity. Most trails to waterfalls are downhill, so I’m generally not exhausted from the hike. That will come later on the way back up, lol.

Even though I’m still feeling good after a downhill hike, the first thing I do is stop, sit down and absorb the scene. Like many other scenes, this is not the time to be in a hurry to create a waterfall print. I have some decisions to make. What is surrounding the waterfall? Is it nice lush greenery, brown or red rock? What I am going to include in the composition?

If there is lush greenery, I will probably not waste it zooming in on the waterfall. I will shoot wider and include it. Conversely, if there is just rock, I might zoom in on a section of the waterfall. I shot quite wide in the below photograph of Panther Creek Falls in Washington as the surrounding greenery was outstanding. I shot just a section of the falls at Gibbon Falls in Yellowstone National Park as the overall scene was just the falls surrounded by dark rock. This way I could accentuate some of the colors from the sight hitting the falls.

photo of panther creek falls - waterfall photography
"Pursuit of the Panther" - Panther Creek Falls, Washington - Click on Photo to Purchase
Gibbon Falls Yellowstone National Park - Waterfall photography
"Gibbon Falls" - Yellowstone National Park - Click on Photo to Purchase

3. Slow or Fast Shutter Speed

I also have to determine if I’m going to use a slow or fast shutter speed. Do I want to slow it down and let the water get that smooth and silky look or do I want to show the power of the water with a fast shutter speed? If I’m, going with the slow shutter speed, I’ll generally start out aiming for about 1/2 second.

Even though it’s overcast a 5 stop neutral density filter is good to have in the bag. I might not be able to slow it down that much otherwise. I prefer not to use high f-stops like f/22 to slow it down as that can cause diffraction. I have noticed that going longer than ½ second doesn’t make a noticeable difference in the look of the water on the falls, but there can be other reasons to go longer.

The following two photographs from waterfalls in Iceland demonstrate the point. At Seljalandsfoss, I just wanted to smooth out the water as it cascaded over the rocks from above and a .7 second exposure was perfect. In the second photo at Skogafoss, I wanted to show the power of this huge waterfall and used a fast exposure of 1/1000 second. My daughter did me the favor of standing close to the falls in the mist to so show scale. I rarely include someone in a photograph for this purpose, but in this case, I just felt it was important.

waterfall in iceland - waterfall photography
"Sejalandsfoss Sunset" - Iceland - Click on Photo to Purchase
Skogafoss waterfall in iceland - waterfall photography
"Pure Power" - Skogafoss, Iceland - Click on Photo to Purchase

4. Finding a Foreground

Fine Art Photographers always like to include a nice foreground in the photo if at all possible. Sometimes you have to get a little creative. At Dick’s Creek Falls in Georgia, I noticed the water was swirling below the falls. I wondered if a long exposure, say 30 seconds would show this really well and create a foreground. I took a few test shots and saw it was going to work great. I took a bunch more and got the result I was looking for.

photo of dick's creek waterfall - waterfall photography
"Dick's Creek Falls" - Georgia - Click on Photo to Purchase

When I arrived at Wahclella Falls in Oregon, at first I was not happy about the logs that had come down the river from a recent storm and lodged themselves at the base of the pool by the falls. I then decided to make lemonade out of lemons and used them as a foreground. It wound up being quite different from all the other photos I had seen of this location.

wahclells falls oregon - waterfall photography
"Wahclella Falls" - Columbia River Gorge, Oregon - Click on Photo to Purchase

5. Using a Polarizer

Many years ago, I used to think that a polarizer was just automatic at any location with water. Well, that just isn’t the case. In a pinch, it can act as about a 1 ½ stop neutral density filter and help slow down your exposure. Maybe that’s enough in a given situation with other camera settings. The real use of a polarizer is to eliminate reflections and allow the camera to see under the water.

In the below photograph at Lower Lewis River Falls in Oregon, I wanted to show the bottom of the river on the edge of the deep pool of aqua water. If I could have it show up in the image, I would gain a foreground of sorts and highlight how the water dropped off in the pool at the base of the falls. I took some test shots first and could see it was going to work perfectly.

lower lewis river falls - waterfall photography
"The Aqua Pool" - Lower Lewis River, Washington - Click on Photo to Purchase

6. Catching the Rainbow

While there may not be a pot of gold at the end of these rainbows, they are certainly fun to catch in your image. Just like in the previous section, a polarizer is a must. The polarizer has its greatest effect at 90 degrees from the direction of the sun or light source, so a little moving around and planning can be required. The rainbow does require some sunlight, which can blow out the water, so some compromises might have to be made.

In the following two photographs from Yosemite National Park, the sun hits Bridalveil Falls in the late afternoon in May resulting in some nice rainbow colors. I had the circular polarizer set to full in both cases.

Yosemite Bridalveil Falls - Waterfall Photography
"Rainbow Falls" - Yosemite National Park - Click on Photo to Purchase
lower bridalveil falls rainbow - waterfall photography
"Bridalveil Colors" - Yosemite National Park - Click on Photo to Purchase

In Summary

There are challenges to producing any Fine Art Print. I have found the challenges of photographing any subject, be it waterfalls, mountains, seascapes, or anything else to be what keeps me focused and enjoying landscape photography to its fullest. If it was just point-and-shoot easy, I just wouldn’t enjoy it as much.


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