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Photographing Waterfalls and Cascades

There is no shortage of waterfalls and cascades in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. So when the days were dull, foggy and rainy on my recent trip to the U.P we photographed waterfalls and nearby cascades. Not only did I come home with lots of images, but new insights on how to improve my images.

  1. Every waterfall should be photographed for its unique qualities. I prefer flowing water soft and silky. The slower the shutter speed, the silkier the water. But sometimes the sheer power of the water is best portrayed with its motion stopped, drop by drop, by using a faster shutter speed.
  2. Use a tripod. Not only will the tripod stabilize your camera when shooting at slower shutter speeds, but with your camera on a tripod you can take your time and compose your image in the LCD screen.Waterfall Details
  3. Consider a filter. A polarizing filter will remove glare from shiny surfaces and help you slow down your shutter speed. A neutral density filter will likewise slow down your shutter speed.  I use a variable neutral density filter, which gives me different stops to work with, depending on the light.
  4. Pay attention to depth of field so that the rocks and trees surrounding the waterfall or the length of cascade are sharp, unless your image is blurred or soft for creative effect. Start by shooting at F/8 or F/11. 
  5. White balance is tricky.  Depending on the time of day and surroundings, the water may take on a blue or green quality.  If you shoot in raw, you will easily be able to change your white balance during processing. I suggest reviewing Scott Bourne’s recent article for more in-depth information.
  6. Wait for the wind to stop, if you have trees, bushes or grasses, unless blurry is the look you are going for. Alternatively, try taking two images–one at a slower shutter speed and one at a faster one stopping the movement of leaves. Blend the images together with masks and layers in Photoshop, combining sharp leaves and blurred water in one image.
  7. Take test shots to determine exposure. Your exposure is good when your histogram indicates your image has been exposed to the right without clipping highlights, or your LCD image has minimal or no blinkies. It is very easy to blow out highlights, so always be mindful of the histogram or blinkies.
  8. Carefully compose your image on your LCD screen, on live view. Use surrounding trees, rocks, and logs to frame the water. Check the corners and sides of the image, eliminating distractions. Keep the horizon off center.
  9. Look for elements of composition and design as you frame your image, such as leading lines or patterns created by the curve of the water, or the rocks, trees and logs. Use shadow and light to add dimension.Wide Angle Waterfall
  10. Experiment with flash.  Set your exposure for ambient light. Then hand-hold a remote flash to light up darker areas of your image. I usually keep my flash power at less than 100%, taking it down 1.5 to 2 stops. Take test shots to see what power looks best.  The flash should be very subtle.
  11. Shoot HDR, photographing the same image at different exposures, in case you decide to blend images during processing using Photoshop or a third party software such as Photomatix. HDR is an effective means to bring out details in the shadows of the rocks or to creatively change the appearance of the water as it falls or cascades.
  12. Start with the “big picture”, showing how the waterfall or cascade looks in its environment. Then focus your attention to the bits and pieces. Go close and abstract, with a telephoto lens, or wide, low and close with your wide angle lens.  Abstract Waterfall
  13. Walk upstream and downstream, looking for smaller cascades. If the water is shallow and the rocks not slippery, put on boots and go into the water to photograph from a different angle.
  14. Always watch your step, and take precautions. It is easy to fall on wet, slippery, rocky or muddy surfaces.
  15. Think black and white as well as color images.
  16. Pay attention to the quality of the light. It is best to photograph waterfalls in even, not harsh and contrasty, light. I like shooting on misty, cloudy days, carefully composing my images to avoid white skies in the background. If the waterfall or cascade is in a canyon or surrounded by mountains, sunrise or sunset might not work for timing your shot, as the sun may be blocked.

 

Waterfalls and cascades are not just limited to landscape photography and outdoor adventures. The next time you travel to a more urban environment, check out local fountains and parks with water features.  Many of the insights for photographing in nature equally apply to your urban exploits.

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