Updated: May 3, 2020
A good shot of a waterfall is a key element in every photographer’s portfolio. People are drawn to waterfalls, the final destination of many hikes, as a reminder of nature’s sheer power. Contrasting the motion of the water versus the stillness of the rock features surrounding it, waterfalls offer photographers a unique opportunity to flex their creativity.
As with any photo setting up the scene is key; consider while composing the features of the waterfall that you want to highlight. Is the size of the waterfall particularly wide or tall? Do you want to emphasize the power of the water or the relative stillness of the trickle? Are there elements in the foreground or beside the waterfall that offer an interesting contrast? And then there is considered the holy grail of waterfall shots; the rainbow created from the mists of the water spray.
Shutter speed will have the greatest impact on your waterfall photos. A slow shutter speed essentially equates to more water passing through the frame field. The random splash patterns of the water flowing across the rocks and through the air combined with a slow shutter speed result in a milky fluid shot. Conversely, a faster shutter speed will capture a more clear, translucent flow.
Fundamentally, shutter speed changes the texture of the water in the frame. The former is perceived as powerful and the later gentle, but too slow or too fast can spoil the scene, so throttle your settings accordingly. Waterfalls are a great place to practice your skills and understand how these settings truly work. Experiment and enjoy.
A couple of thoughts and words of warning:
Having a person or object of known size in the foreground or background of a waterfall helps the viewer perceive the size of the scene. I’ve taken photos of some waterfalls whose size and immensity were astounding, but these attributes were difficult to discern later without something to help the viewer understand the perspective.
Waterfalls create spray and mist, which when combined with the right sun conditions can produce an excellent rainbow shot. However, mist and spray combined with a slight breeze can cover you and more importantly, your camera lens, with water droplets. Keep an eye on your lens to make sure that you don’t have droplets that will distort your images.
Watch your step. The same spray and mist make the surrounding rocks and footing slippery. Choose your positions deliberately, especially on cold days when ice can form.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how amazing and abundant waterfalls are in Iceland. Anyone who knows me is well aware of my fondness for Iceland and its amazing natural features; it truly is a photographer’s paradise. Many of the lessons learned here are based upon my visit where massive waterfalls and cold weather made for some challenging conditions.