From plunges and cascades to trickles and torrents, here are some of our top tips to help you to creatively capture their majesty and their motion…

Beginner

Why are photographers drawn to waterfalls? They’re little more than the joint effects of water, gravity and erosion, they flow unpredictably and according to recent rainfall, and they’re often hard to reach on foot. Thankfully, no two waterfalls are the same, and many are off the beaten path; searching them out takes you through some of the world’s most beautiful and most hidden landscapes.

From plunges and cascades to trickles and torrents, here are some of our top tips to help you to creatively capture their majesty and their motion…


1
Get to waterfall country with a manual camera


Where are the world's best waterfalls? The most iconic tend to be the biggest ones, such as Niagara Falls in the U.S. and Canada, Gullfoss in Iceland and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Zambia, but you really don’t have to travel far to photograph water flowing over a vertical drop. Wherever you live the chances are there’s a waterfall near you that’s just as dramatic, in its own way, as anything you’ve seen on TV, social media and photography forums.

Most waterfall photography requires slow shutter speeds so you’ll need a DSLR or mirrorless camera that allows you to take full manual control. You’ll also require a sturdy tripod and both wide-angle and telephotos lenses.

Snow melt trickles down into the blue-tinged 'Fairy Pools' on the Isle of Skye
The 'Fairy Pools' on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, are a firm favourite with photographers. Image by George Turner - f13 | 10s
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Think about getting a camera backpack. Although some of the more expensive camera backpacks are made from tough waterproof materials, an elastic waterproof cover works just as well. Since most waterfalls are going to require a hike, consider investing in a backpack that includes sturdy shoulder straps. Some even come with built-in pockets for a hydration pack, too. Always go for one that can hold your tripod. 


2
Creating ‘milky’ motion and ‘silky’ streams


Although it’s not the only effect you can get from a waterfall and flowing water, the ethereal ‘milky’ or ‘silky’ look in photographs of fast-moving water is popular.

"Don’t worry about the weather. In fact, the best shots of waterfalls are very often taken in bad weather."

To get such an effect you need to use a shutter speed of over a second, and as much as two seconds. However, that brings the problem of letting too much light in, which can cause the water and the slick rocks around the plunge pool to be overexposed.

Solutions include keeping to ISO 100, stopping down your aperture (using a bigger f/ number), using the shutter priority mode on your camera, and popping on a circular polarizer, which will help reduce some light where it matters. You can also consider using an ND filter, which effectively acts like sunglasses by blocking light, with each extra ‘stop’ allowing you to double the exposure time. So a 1-stop ND filter will let you increase your exposure from, say, 0.5 seconds to 1 second, and a 2-stop ND filter from 1 second to 2 seconds.

Exactly what will work will depend on the available light, so experiment with slowing your shutter speed and see what looks best when you get back to your computer.

A dark and moody long exposure of the waterfall known as Lady Falls or Sgwd Gwladus on the river Afon Pyrddin near Pontneddfechan, South Wales, UK
To get the silky-smooth effect of flowing water, you need to use a shutter speed of 1 second and over. Image by Leighton Collins - f4 | 30s
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Don’t worry about the weather. In fact, the best shots of waterfalls are very often taken in bad weather. The heavier the rain in the previous 24 hours, the better, and though you don’t want rain for the actual shoot, an overcast sky massively helps in preventing long exposure shots from being over-exposed. 


3
Capturing cascades and colours


Don’t just go for ‘milky’ water. It’s not particularly well suited to epic cascading waterfalls where the overriding impression is one of power and scale. If you zoom in on the cascade with a telephoto lens then you can use a fast shutter speed (the faster the better) to freeze-frame the fast-moving water.

Don’t go chasing rainbows while ‘waterfalling’ – you’ll go mad – but do be prepared for them to suddenly appear at big waterfalls. When a lot of water is flowing into the plunge pool below it tends to create a lot of spray and mist. When it’s sunny the light travels through those water droplets and each colour reflects off it at a slightly different angle to create a spectrum of colour. Cue a beautiful rainbow!

A gull passes in front of Skógafoss waterfall, Iceland
Freeze-frame fast-moving water and create an epic sense of scale with a telephoto lens and a faster shutter speed. Image by David Rippin - f5.6 | 1/1000s
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At the base of some waterfalls you’ll often find a rock shelter and/or ledge behind the flow caused by erosion. A behind-the-falls shot looking out at a landscape from behind can be very tempting, but first assess how you’ll get there and whether it looks safe. Prepare to get wet and, consequently, to work very fast to protect your camera.  


4
Get your feet wet and bend your knees


Your tripod is waterproof and its height can be adjusted from low to the ground to close to your eye level, so move it to wherever you’ll get the best composition.

"Very often the best angles are going to be from the pool around the waterfall’s plunge pool, or from a river it creates."

Very often the best angles are going to be from the pool around the waterfall’s plunge pool, or from a river it creates. So it’s going to help hugely if you’re prepared to get wet. That makes either a pair of hiking sandals (for warm water) or a great big pair of Wellington boots (for really cold water) very helpful. Similarly, if you wear some waterproof trousers it will encourage you to kneel down and perch on wet surfaces, allowing you to go for angles that are the most creative and not just the most convenient.

A photographer takes a picture of Lower Panther Falls along Panther Creek near Carson, Washington.
Get low down to get more impressive and unusual vantage points. Image by Cavan Images - f4 | 1/25s
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As well as allowing you to get up close to the waterfall and to get great angles on the action, there’s also a good chance you’ll be able to catch reflections in the water around you. For example, at Skógafoss waterfall in Iceland at night a long exposure on the river emanating from the waterfall reveals a green tint from even a very mild display of Northern Lights. Also bear in mind that south-facing waterfalls are nicely lit by moonlight close to a full Moon.


5
Keep your lens clean and your camera dry


Whether you’re getting up close to a monster waterfall or a succession of smaller falls on a river, spray on your camera lens and filters is inevitable.

"...stuff your pockets with microfibre cloths – the thicker, the better because they’ll absorb more water..."

So stuff your pockets with microfibre cloths – the thicker, the better because they’ll absorb more water – so you can frequently dry your camera’s lens and/or filters. Keeping your lens clear of spray is something of a constant battle when photographing some waterfalls – especially if you get up close – but don’t forget about your camera body. It can help to have a plastic bag or a small microfiber hiking towel to place over your lens between shots. Bring an extra towel to drape over your camera body, too, which will also help soak-up the spray.

Long exposure of famous Skogafoss waterfall in Iceland
Make sure you bring plenty of cleaning wipes - getting close to waterfalls, it's inevitable your camera will get wet! Image by Nora Carol Sahinun - f14 | 4s
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After the shot is over make sure you wipe everything down and, if possible, make your lens spotless again using a dry microfiber cloth, cleaning spray and/or disposable wet wipes designed for the job.