10 Tips for Photographing Waterfalls

Last Updated on March 3, 2022

Waterfalls make some of the most pretty pictures in nature to photograph, and it is one of the first things I learned to shoot on my film camera. They are great for learning about the exposure triangle and how to use a long exposure to get that dreamy, flowy waterfall look. In no particular order, I’ve listed below 10 tips for photographing waterfalls, along with 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!

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 trip with a film camera, I did not have a polarizer filter. We went to Helton Creek Falls in North Georgia. 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 went back a few months later and redid them – this time with a polarizer filter, and these pictures were loads better. I use the K&F Concept ND and Polarizer Filter.

I don’t use the ND often because I haven’t really come across the situation where I need to have a super long exposure. But I use the polarizer filter a lot – especially for waterfalls and reflections. It works like a charm and brings out so much detail and sharpness in my images.

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

Go on a Cloudy Day

The sun is out, and you might think it is a great day for photographing waterfalls. But I would say going on a cloudy day is much better. In fact, I look at the weather forecast to make sure it is overcast before I go. It is a matter of preference, and I’ve tried it both ways… but the clouds always win in my book.

Why go on a cloudy day? The light on a cloudy day is generally pretty even – your exposure will be less contrasty and prevents blown-out highlights. Also, if you don’t have that polarizer filter with you, your pictures will be way 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 or not. Try it both ways, and go at different times of the day and see what you like!

Use Different Shutter Speeds for Certain Looks

How do you get the dreamy flowy waterfall look? The answer is a long exposure, and this applies to film and digital cameras. You need a slow shutter speed or long exposure, which requires a tripod most of the time.

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 will want to also consider your film speed for a long exposure (see the next tip below).

If I shoot waterfalls on 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 can get on your phone to calculate the reciprocity of various film. I use the Reciprocity Timer App on my iPhone, and you do have to pay for it, but it is very useful.

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). Faster shutter speed stops motion, whereas slower shutter speed makes motion blur. It really comes down to a matter of preference on how you want your image to look.

I prefer the long exposure for photographing waterfalls. But I shoot both with a fast and slow shutter speed to get various photos of the waterfall.

Consider Your Film Speed

If you are shooting with a film camera, then you will want to 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) if you go for the flowy waterfall look. A slower ISO will help you have a longer shutter speed when stopping down. If you want the water to look more rugged, then choose a higher-speed film. This will give you a higher 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.

Choose Your Film Wisely

Before photographing a waterfall with a film camera, you want to 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? Your film stock choice is all up to you.

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 simpler terms, you want to avoid high contrast scenes if you use slide film. For waterfalls, this could mean blowing out your highlights or having muddy shadows. I learned this for our very first waterfall trips with a film camera, and pretty much all my highlights were blown out, providing very little detail in the waterfall.

The color negative film seems a bit more forgiving, and I rather err on the side of caution and use color negative shots for my waterfalls!

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

Don’t Forget a Tripod

If you want to get the nice, lovely images of flowing water (the “streaming” waterfall), you don’t want to forget a tripod! I can’t tell you how many times 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 it harder to get the exposure I want!

A tripod will help steady your camera and prevent possible motion blur from your hand while taking pictures. We personally use a Manfrotto tripod – no complaints with this brand, and it gets the job done.

When using a tripod, you want to make sure you 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 by having your camera fall into a waterfall!

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

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 the cable 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.

Check for a Foggy Lens

Going from one temperature to another resulting in drastic temperature change, your camera lens might become “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 before snapping some shots. It can be a bit annoying, but you don’t want this to ruin your image as this is an easy fix.

Safely Try Different Angles and Lenses

It is easy just to pull out a wide-angle lens and get an image of the whole waterfall. 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 of the top of the waterfall with the water gushing down the side? Or if you want to really get creative, and if the scenery permits, why not do a reflection shot of the waterfall?

Some waterfalls have caves or areas you can walk behind it. 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 just do different pictures of the various sections of the waterfalls.

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 wide enough lens to get both falls in the image.

Tallulah Gorge State Park
View of Tallulah Gorge from the top.
Anna Ruby Falls in North Georgia
Multiple images are stitched together to get both falls in the frame. This was taken at Anna Ruby Falls in North Georgia.

You have to do what works, right? And you have 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 many times I’ve seen people walk on slippery rocks below, above, and to the side of a waterfall. I’ve even seen people walk down a waterfall on the rocks right in the water! Too risky for me, and no picture is worth my life!

Prepare for the Journey Beforehand

This might seem like the easiest tip, but if you forget something in your preparation before your trip, then it can make or break your photos. Of course, the most important thing is making sure you are prepared to safely get to the waterfall (and back) to take a picture.

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 are 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 write down a list of 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 so 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 to hike with.

Who doesn’t want to pack everything to ensure a good photo shot but consider packing light as much as I dislike saying it. Hiking with a heavy bag is not always a good idea, especially if it is a long distance to get to the waterfall.

If you like these tips on how to photograph waterfalls, please share! Please also comment below if you have any additional tips that you want to share. 

A woman with her Canon camera in front of a waterfall

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