If you've browsed through my portfolios, you've probably noticed that waterfalls are a consistent subject for my photography. I live near dozens of them. Some are well-known and famous with photographers and naturalists (like Linville Falls pictured below). Some don't even have names and are rarely seen. I visit many of them every season because they never seem to get old to me. If there is nothing else to shoot and you're in a place like the Appalachian Mountains or Iceland where there is lots of water and it's constantly flowing, then you'll always have a subject. I don't mean to say that these wonders of nature are only fall-backs, only that they rarely disappoint, as long as you know how to make the scene in front of you come to life on film (or digital sensor, of course). I've been shooting a lot of waterfalls this summer on my quest to retake (or at least reinterpret) images that I made when I first moved back to North Carolina from D.C. in 2011. I've managed to reconnect with some old friends that I've neglected to visit in the past 5 years, like Linville Falls and Glen Burney Falls. It's been great to catch up. Here are a few tips and tricks that I've learned over the last several years when it comes to waterfall photography.
Tip 1: Use a Sturdy Tripod
I cannot stress this enough! A solid tripod is a landscape photographer's best friend. Do not skimp on this purchase if you are a serious nature photographer. Carbon fiber is best. I use a Gitzo Mountaineer Series 2 with a Manfrotto fluid pan/tilt ballhead on it. This combination works great and has given me several years of use. A good tripod set up eventually pays for itself (if not in funds, then in convenience and sharp images). Mine has been very reliable despite having been dropped several times onto hard granite. Carbon fiber is lighter and absorbs vibrations better than steel or aluminum. It is also more expensive (though some new manufacturers of carbon fiber tripods are selling them cheaper these days), but to me it's a no-brainer. If you're putting an expensive camera and lens on a cheap tripod, you are nuts. No two ways about it! If you want to get a sharp image at slow shutter speeds and have that smooth velvety look to running water, you need a tripod.
Tip 2: Use a Wide Angle AND a Telephoto Lens
Most people think wide angles when they think of landscapes. Telephotos are usually an after-thought. Many of my favorite landscape images have been made using a telephoto zoom. When you come to a scene, give it a good look over. Look at the light and the subject and figure out what you want to say about it. Think about its "story" first. Then, choose the right lens for the job. If a wide lens is required to take it all in, make sure to place the elements in the frame so that the composition is simple and lacking distraction. Make sure to have a foreground element to provide a sense of depth and interest. Then switch to a telephoto (focal lengths ranging from about 70mm up) to pick out details, compress the elements, and further simplify the scene.
The image of Linville Falls at the top of this post was made using a 70-200mm lens on my cropped sensor D7000 (my full frame camera was at Nikon for a cleaning) at 70mm. The 1.5X crop factor makes the 70mm focal length equivalent to 105mm. This allowed me the ability to isolate the falls and keep the large boulder in the frame while narrowing the distance between them. Notice that the large boulder and the small waterfall in the lower center are about the same size in the wide angle shot (below) as they are in the telephoto image. The 150 foot high fall, however, is much smaller because the wide angle focal length exaggerates the distance between the two. The wide angle shot was taken just a few meters in front of the large boulder, while the telephoto image was made about 15 meters away from it. In my opinion, because the telephoto shot is simpler with fewer elements, it is the stronger image.
Tip 3. Use a Polarizing Filter to Cut Reflections
I think a circular polarizer is the most useful filter for waterfall photography. A neutral density filter will allow you to get slower shutter speeds, but it doesn't do much as far as saturating colors and cutting the reflections from the rocks and water in your image. Because a polarizer is dark, it also helps slow your shutter speed down a bit. I use the Nisi V5 filter system, which comes with a very nice circular polarizer. By rotating the filter, you can change the amount of polarization to suit your needs. Even though polarizers are most effective when the sun is at 90 degrees of the direction your lens is pointing, it will still make highlights and reflections less harsh in any lighting condition. I prefer to shoot waterfalls at shutter speeds of under 1/2 second to get that silky smooth flowing water effect (the longer the exposure, the better). During brighter conditions the polarizer helps me to accomplish this.
Tip 4: Choose the Right Light and Weather
The best times to shoot waterfalls are early mornings, late evenings, or in foggy and overcast conditions. I prefer to shoot them just after a rain or early in the morning when the rocks and moss are damp and the colors are saturated. The benefits of photographing waterfalls under these conditions are many. First, the sun is low or blocked by clouds altogether so getting slow shutter speed is easy. Second, the reflections on the water and rocks are less severe and are less likely to be "blown out" in your images. Third, the scene is probably not going to be so contrasty that the shadows in your image are "plunged" (or too dark) if you expose for those highlights. Fourth, you're likely to have the place to yourself in dreary weather and especially in the early morning. I very rarely come across another person while photographing even the most popular waterfalls in my region. Even though I prefer these conditions, waterfalls can be photographed during the day and in sunny situations. The trick is to use both a polarizer AND a neutral density filter to even out the exposure and allow the ability for slow shutter speeds.
Tip 5: Get Wet
When out shooting waterfalls I often wear water-proof shoes or slip them off in order to go barefoot. Sometimes the best composition isn't on dry land. I have often stood waist deep in rushing water while holding onto my tripod to keep it from being swept away just to get a picture. Be careful. These are slippery conditions and I never get in over my head (so to speak). I make sure that if I slip, I'm not going down a mountain or over a cliff or into a gorge or something. This is another reason a sturdy carbon fiber tripod is necessary. Even with fast moving water pushing against the legs, it is still typically able to absorb the vibrations enough for a sharp image. In order to get the shot below, I was in fast rushing waters up to my thigh with the water line up to the top set of twist locks on my tripod. In order to get the water out, I simply take the the little rubber "feet" off the legs and let it run out. Be sure to have several dry micro-fiber cleaning cloths for your lenses and gear as well; these things tend to get wet when you're in a river.