Photographing Waterfalls: 10 Tips and What Not to Do

Photographing waterfalls was the first thing I learned to shoot on my film camera. They taught me about the exposure triangle and how to use a long exposure to get that dreamy, flowy waterfall look. Since then, I’ve taken many photos on several waterfall hikes in North Georgia, and I’m always looking for more waterfalls to capture these beauties.

In no particular order, I’ve listed below what I’ve learned, including 10 tips for photographing waterfalls and things you should not do.

You can apply all of these tips with your film camera. Don’t have a film camera? That is okay! You can use most of these tips with your digital camera, too!

Also, if you want ideas on where to photograph waterfalls in North Georgia, don’t forget to visit my article Explore the Best North Georgia Waterfalls.

Waterfall gushing off a small cliff with fall foliage in the background and foreground of photo.

1-Use a Polarizer Filter

If you want to reduce glare and reflection for your waterfall photo, use a polarizer filter. A polarizer helps minimize scattered light, removing reflections and increasing the vibrancy and saturation of colors.

On my very first waterfall hike to Helton Creek Falls in North Georgia, I did not have a polarizer filter. It was sunny that day, a perfect late summer day with no clouds in sight. The waterfall was entirely in the sun, resulting in too much glare. My images came out too bright, with little detail of the actual waterfall.

Completely dissatisfied with these images, we returned a few months later – this time with a polarizer filter, and the outcome was significantly better. The polarizer filter worked like a charm, bringing out so much detail and sharpness in my images.

What polarizer filter do I use? I use the K&F Concept ND and Polarizer Filter, and it does the job well. I don’t use the neutral density (ND) filter often because I haven’t really come across a situation where I need to have super long exposures. But I don’t forget the polarizer filter for waterfalls and reflections.

Helton Creek Falls
A polarizer filter is excellent for photographing waterfalls as it reduces glare and reflection. As you can see in this photo, there is little reflection in the water. You can see most of the rocks.

2-Go on a Cloudy Day

The sun is out, and you might think it is a great day for photographing waterfalls. However, going on a cloudy day is better. In fact, I look at the weather forecast to make sure it is overcast before I go. It’s a matter of preference. I’ve been on sunny and cloudy days, but I think my pictures always come out nicely on cloudy days.

Why go on a cloudy day? The light on a cloudy day is generally pretty even – your exposure will be less contrasty and helps prevent blown-out highlights. Also, if you don’t have that polarizer filter with you, your pictures will be better off if you go on an overcast day.

Of course, this also depends on what time of the day you visit the waterfall. If you go for sunrise or sunset, it might not matter as much if clouds are present. Try it both ways and go at different times of the day to see what you like.

3-Use Different Shutter Speeds for Certain Looks

How do you get the dreamy flowy waterfall look? Whether you shoot with a film camera or digital, the answer is to use long exposure through a slower shutter speed. This often requires a tripod.

Use an incident light meter or your built-in camera’s meter to determine your proper exposure settings based on the given light conditions at the waterfall you are photographing. For shutter speed, this is generally at 1/2 second to 2 seconds (or possibly more) of exposure depending on your ISO. If you are using a film camera, you’ll want to consider your film speed.

If I shoot waterfalls on 35mm film, I typically try to keep my exposures no more than 2 seconds long. Any longer, and you will have to start calculating for reciprocity. For example, a 10-second exposure on Ektar 100 would really be 18 seconds long.

There are apps that you download onto your phone to calculate the reciprocity of various films. I use the Reciprocity Timer App on my iPhone, which isn’t free, but it’s worth the price.

Desoto Falls
I love using long exposure to get the dreamy, flowy waterfall look.

You will use a faster shutter speed to stop motion (basically, show the waterfall as is). A faster shutter speed stops movement, whereas a slower shutter speed makes motion blur. It really comes down to a matter of preference for your photo’s composition.

For me, I prefer using long exposure for photographing waterfalls. But I shoot with fast and slow shutter speeds for variety.

4-Consider Your Film Speed When Photographing Waterfalls

If you are shooting with a film camera, consider your film speed. Film speed and shutter speed go hand in hand when photographing waterfalls.

Ideally, you want a lower film speed (ISO 50 to 100) for the flowy waterfall look. A lower ISO will help you have a longer shutter speed when stopping down. Choose a higher-speed film if you want the water to have more texture. This will give you a faster shutter speed to stop the motion of the water.

I’ve been sticking with Kodak Ektar 100 film for most of my waterfall pictures, and I like how they’ve come out. However, I would love to experiment more with different film stock.

5-Choose Your Film Wisely

Before photographing a waterfall with a film camera, ask yourself what you are trying to compose. Do you like it in black and white, or color? Do you want to use color negative film or slide film?

Personally, for waterfalls, I find shooting slide film a bit harder than using color negative film. If you use slide film, your margin of error is smaller due to the limited dynamic range. That is, the number of stops of light between your darkest point and your lightest point is smaller compared to color negative.

In other words, you want to avoid high-contrast scenes using slide film since it can blow out your highlights or create muddy shadows. I learned this the hard way for our very first waterfall trip with my film camera. All my highlights were blown out, providing very little detail in the waterfall.

Color negative film is more forgiving, and I rather err on the side of caution and use this film for photographing waterfalls.

YIKES! My first time photographing a waterfall with a film camera. Notice the highlights are completely blown out.

6-Don’t Forget a Tripod

You don’t want to forget a tripod if you want to get lovely images of flowing water (the “streaming” waterfall). I can’t tell you how often we’ve packed camera bags with lenses and film stock but completely forgot to bring a tripod. While I know I can still get good images without one, it makes getting the exposure I desire harder.

Why a tripod? A tripod will help steady your camera and prevent possible motion blur from your hand while taking pictures. Currently, we use a Manfrotto tripod.

Remember, when using a tripod, you want to put the camera’s weight on a tripod leg to prevent the whole thing from falling over. You don’t want to end your trip early with your camera falling into a waterfall!

A camera on a bridge in front of waterfall
Capturing DeSoto Falls in North Georgia with a tripod.

7-Have a Shutter Release Cable

A tripod and a shutter release cable are a pair that I do not travel without. Even with my camera set up on a tripod, I don’t have a steady hand to get an image without potentially causing motion blur. This is when a shutter release cable is super helpful.

By attaching the cable to your camera, you won’t have to touch your camera directly while taking the picture. You can gently press down on the cable’s button to take your shot, further preventing the chance of motion blur.

Photographing a waterfall
Using a shutter release cable helps reduce motion blur in your photos.

8-Check for a Foggy Lens

Going from one temperature to another with drastic temperature changes might make your camera lens “foggy.” For example, if you are riding in a cold car but then get out to take pictures of a waterfall in a warmer environment, your lens has to adjust to that temperature (or humidity) change.

It might help to pack a soft cloth in your camera bag to gently wipe your lens if this happens. You might have to do this a few times or wait for your camera lens to adjust to the new environment before using it. It can be a bit annoying, but you don’t want this to ruin your image since this is an easy fix.

9-Safely Try Different Angles and Lenses

Pulling out a wide-angle lens and taking a landscape photo of a waterfall is easy. But why not try to get different compositions of the waterfall to change it up some and let your creative juices flow?

You can use a telephoto or macro lens to get closer shots of the water or drops falling. What about taking an image at the top of a waterfall with the water gushing down the side of a cliff? If the scenery permits, why not do a reflection shot of the waterfall?

Some waterfalls have caves or areas you can walk behind them. Can you safely walk behind the waterfall to get an image? If there is a bridge in front of the waterfall, you can take a picture of the waterfall with the bridge. Or you can take photos of the various sections of a waterfall.

If you have a huge waterfall or double falls and don’t have a wide enough lens, you can take multiple images to stitch the image together. We did this at Anna Ruby Falls in North Georgia since it is two waterfalls next to each other, and we didn’t have a lens wide enough to get both falls in the image. You have to do what works, right?

There are so many options for photographing waterfalls. Have fun and play around with what you got and try different angles. You might be surprised by how the images come out! 

Of course, you want to do all this safely. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen people walk on slippery rocks below and above a waterfall. I’ve even seen people walk down a waterfall’s side on slick rocks. Too risky for me, and no picture is worth my life!

Large waterfall gushing off a rocky cliff
Try photographing waterfalls from different angles.
Anna Ruby Falls in North Georgia
Multiple images are stitched together to get both falls in the frame. This photo was taken at Anna Ruby Falls in North Georgia.

10-Prepare for the Journey Beforehand

This might seem like the easiest and most obvious tip, but if you forget something for your trip, then it can impact your photos. Of course, the most important thing is making sure you safely get to the waterfall and back.

Many waterfalls in my area seem to be out of cell phone signal, so I try to remember to put the physical address or coordinates into the GPS before starting my journey. I definitely do not want to get lost in some of these areas, especially at night. Some roads are not well-lit and deep in the woods. Spooky!

Don’t forget to bring food, water, and a good pair of hiking shoes if you are making a trek to see a waterfall. And if you are in bear country, make sure you are aware of your surroundings and consider bringing possible bear spray. I’ve accidentally been within ten feet of a bear before, and it’s not an experience I want to repeat!

Also, make a mental checklist or list all cameras and lenses you might need before you go. Most of the waterfalls in North Georgia are at least forty-five minutes or more from my house, and it is always frustrating when I forget something.

This list can include your cameras, camera lenses, tripod, film stock, shutter release cable, filters, and a good camera bag for hiking. This seems like a lot, and you may want to pack light, so you might have to consider what is most important to bring for a waterfall hike.

A woman with her Canon camera in front of a waterfall

If you like these tips for photographing waterfalls, please share and pin for later! And if you have any additional tips, please comment and share below!

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