Great Falls II (c) 2005 William Lawrence
One of Bill’s and my favorite types of landscapes to photograph are waterfalls. If you’ve had a chance to check out our website, or have seen our booth at one of our shows, you have probably already figured out that we love waterfalls and that Great Falls on the Potomac River is one of our favorite sets of falls.
Bill took the photo at the top of this post from the second overlook at Great Falls National Park in Virginia. I love the way the light makes the rocks glow in this photo. To capture the light, Bill went out to Great Falls early on a Saturday morning to figure out how long after sunrise the light hits the rocks. The next morning, he was there, all set up and ready with his large format camera to take the photo just as the sun rose about the ridge line.
As we’ve built our collection of waterfall photographs, we’ve made a few (ok, more than a few) mistakes and learned a few things. Here are a few tips that we hope will help you take great waterfall photos of your own.
1. Shutter speed is important in waterfall photography! Tastes vary in how people like to see the water flowing over waterfalls presented in a photograph, but we prefer using a slower shutter speed for a motion effect to the water. A fast shutter speed will show individual waves and droplets in the water, but a slower shutter speed actually shows the path that the water travels – the slope of the water off the fall, the arcs of the water as it splashes off a rock on the way down the falls. For us, this makes a more interesting picture. Typically, we’ll try for a shutter speed of ½ to 1 second if we can, but will try to at least keep the shutter slower than 1/15 of a second.
2. ISO matters. To keep the shutter speed slow, we use a low ASA film (we often use 50 ASA) or set the ISO on the digital camera as low as it will go (usually 100).
3. Use filters if you have them. If the light is bright enough, we may not be able use the shutter speed we want to. When this happens we use either a neutral density filter or a polarizing filter can be used to drop the shutter speed.
4. Use a tripod. With slow shutter speeds, you will need a tripod to steady the camera. Also, remember that with a shutter speed this low, anything moving in the picture other than the water (e.g. people, foliage blowing in the wind) will also be blurred.
5. Make sure the camera is level. A photograph of water that appears to be flowing uphill is very disturbing. I really try to remember to use my bubble level – and to make sure it is level for my waterfall photos. I’ve deleted more waterfall photos than I care to remember of water running uphill in the picture.
6. Direction matters. Remember to check the direction of the falls, to determine the best time of day for light hitting the falls to give the most dramatic photograph. Great Falls is best photographed in the morning.
7. Seasons matter. Check out the falls in different seasons, e.g. does it look best with new spring foliage? Best in the fall with the leaves turning? Some other time? Since spring and fall tend to be the wettest times of the year, these are usually good times to catch falls at their peak levels.
8. Research before you go. Learn what you can about the falls, and what you’ll need photographically, before you get there. If you know that name of a waterfall you want to photograph, search for it on Google. Chances are someone has posted information about photographing that set of falls somewhere on the web.
9. Be prepared to do some hiking. Most of the waterfalls we have been to involve some hiking in hilly terrain (it is tough to have a waterfall over perfectly flat land). So don’t forget comfortable hiking shoes for the trail, a water bottle (especially in hot weather), sunscreen and bug spray.
10. Takes lots of photos at various exposures. You may be surprised at what you discover what your preferences for waterfall photography are.
If you’ve got any tips for taking photos of waterfalls, please add them below as a comment. We’d love to hear your tips.