7 Effective Waterfall Photography Tips

Russel Falls, Mt Field National Park, Tasmania, Australia

Do you know how to shoot waterfalls like a pro from National Geographic magazine? Have you ever wondered how those lucky professional photographers manage to shoot great photos of waterfalls that look like they are in motion? You can also take the better waterfall pictures with using a few simple tips while taking photographs. Here are 7 simple but very effective tips that will help you to take better waterfalls pictures.

Tip 1: Use a Slow Shutter Speed

Use a slow shutter speed is the most important tip for shooting waterfall photos. The slower shutter speed settings making the waterfalls look “professionally” – smooth and silky. The longer the shutter speed you select, the more pronounced the effect will be.

You also have to compensate slow shutter speed by selecting small aperture and because of that you will also get greater depth of field, thereby allowing the maximum amount of focus in your composition.

The slow shutter speed is a very relative term and it depends on the waterfall you are shooting. For big waterfalls with large water volume some times the 1/30 or 1/15 seconds shutter speed is enough. But for small streams with slow water you need to use much longer shutter speed to achieve the same effect – something like 10 seconds end even longer. Experiment and try out various speeds to see what works best for each image.

Upper Somersby Falls, Brisbane Water National Park, Central Coast, NSW, Australia
Upper Somersby Falls, Brisbane Water National Park
Central Coast, NSW, Australia
f/11, 3 seconds, ISO 200, ND8 filter

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Tip 2: Use a Tripod

Shooting at slow shutter speeds requires that your camera has to be very, very steady – the best way to achieve that is to use a good tripod. Your goal is to blur the movement of the water while everything else remains in sharp focus. Without a tripod you will get a picture where everything is blurred because of the camera shake.

Also when shooting with a tripod use a remote control or shutter release. It eliminates any vibration introduced to your camera when you pressing the shutter button. It doesn't matter if you are using wired or wireless remote control if it's actually doing its job – preventing camera shake when pressing the shutter button.

Another thing that can shake your camera even if you put it onto a heavy-duty and steady tripod is wooden boardwalk in a tourist place or scenic lookouts. Avoid shooting when kids are running around and stamping their feet. Even a small tremble of the ground will blur the image in the same way as if you are handholding the camera.

Tip 3: Use filters

A Neutral Density (ND) filter is very useful for waterfall photography, especially when the scene is too bright. It darkens the image and reduces the amount of light from entering the camera without altering the color or tone of the light, thus decreasing the shutter speeds to accommodate the reduction of light. It can slow down shutter speed up to 3 stops. Usually ND8 filter is enough in most cases.

Circular Polarizer filter is very useful to cut out glare and reflections caused by the sun. It is widely used in landscape photography to darken blue sky, enhance colors and increase contrast. Mostly it’s used on sunny days but even on overcast days it will help you to eliminate glare on rocks. A typical Circular Polarizer will slow down shutter speed by 1.5 or 2.5 stops.

You can also stack a ND filter and a Polarizer together to get much slower speed and take off glare at the same time.

Sylvia Falls, Valley of the Waters, Wentworth Falls, Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia
Sylvia Falls, Valley of the Waters
Wentworth Falls, Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia
f/11, 1 second, ISO 200

Tip 4: Right weather

Many waterfalls are found in forest, or in heavily wooded areas. That means the same rules of lighting that apply to forest photography also apply to waterfall photos. Cloudy and overcast days are ideal for photographing waterfalls. This helps make the scene darker and the low light conditions affect exposure by slowing down shutter speed.

Don’t shoot waterfall photos in bright light i.e., in the mid-day. Bright light can create high contrast and this will overexposure white water and underexposure dark shadows. It’s also difficult to get proper slow shutter speed on bright light even with using ND filters and small aperture.

Early morning or late evening is also a good time for taking such pictures as the Sun has gone behind the trees. Early or late hours will also “remove” tourists I mentioned in the tip 2.

Lower Somersby Falls, Brisbane Water National Park, Central Coast, NSW, Australia
Lower Somersby Falls, Brisbane Water National Park
Central Coast, NSW, Australia
f/11, 6 seconds, ISO 200, ND8 and CPol filters

Tip 5: Right season

Drought or dry season without rains can spoil your photo. Waterfalls that are usually beautiful can be very bored without flowing water. I’m not talking about Victoria Falls or Niagara Falls. Such waterfalls always have enough water but small falls can suffer without rains. It’s difficult to believe that dry season can dramatically change a powerful waterfall into a small and slow stream.

Tip 6: Composition

You can shoot horizontal or vertical. That depends on the waterfall you are shooting. In most cases a vertical shot will work. If it is a wide waterfall then horizontal shot may work well. Try and include some foreground if you can to create more interest.

Lodore Falls, Valley of the Waters, Wentworth Falls, Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia
Lodore Falls, Valley of the Waters
Wentworth Falls, Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia
f/11, 1 second, ISO 200 

Get closer and look for small parts of the waterfall that make an interesting composition. A group of rocks near the bottom with the water quickly running over them can make as nice a shot as the whole waterfall.

Weeping Rock, Valley of the Waters, Wentworth Falls, Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia
Weeping Rock, Valley of the Waters
Wentworth Falls, Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia
ISO 200, f/14, 2 sec, ND8 filter 

It doesn't matter what you are shooting – composition is a key factor. So spend some time and read a few good books on composition in photography.

Tip 7: Practice

Practice, practice and practice again. Without practice you will not get better results. The old adage about practice makes perfect applies to photography as well. So, try and try until you get the best pictures.

Good luck with shooting waterfalls!

PS. All small images are clickable. Bigger picture will open in a new window.
PPS. The top photo is Russel Falls, Mt Field National Park, Tasmania, Australia. ISO200, f/16, 5 second.
PPPS. See a little Gallery of Waterfall Images.

Ilya Genkin is a Sydney, Australia photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, Australian outback and deserts, rainforests, lakes and rivers, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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  • ForestWander Nature Photography - March 20, 2009 - 1:51 am

    I love waterfalls.

    They are my favorite subject to photograph.

    This is a great post and offers some very informative tips.

    The subjects that you captured are very nicely composed and professionally shot also.

    Thanks for the post

  • KD - March 20, 2009 - 2:56 pm

    Excellent pictures Ilya and good shooting tips too.

  • Tom Parkes - March 23, 2009 - 10:25 pm

    Love the Russell Falls shot Ilya, its awesome.
    Great work with the DOF on the ferns too.

  • Ilya Genkin - March 25, 2009 - 9:40 am

    Kevin, thanks! It’s good if someone likes the tips.

    Tom, thanks a lot! I had to seriously stop down the lens to get everything sharp. Unfortunately when I was in Tasmania waterfalls had less water than usually. My wife wants me to go back and re-shoot everything. :-)

  • Curtis Copeland - March 26, 2009 - 1:08 am

    Beautiful pictures! Thanks for the helpful hints on waterfall photography.

  • […] I recently came upon this excellent article with tips on how to photograph waterfalls called 7 Effective Waterfall Photography Tips by Australian Photographer, Ilya Genkin. Sure wish I had known about Ilya’s tips before photographing Shelving Rock Falls last […]

  • Scott Thomas - April 1, 2009 - 11:57 pm

    Stunning phots and great tips! I featured this article on my blog today. Thank you for sharing, Ilya!

  • Gerry - April 2, 2009 - 1:19 am

    I’m very glad Scott Thomas sent me here. You’ve done a great job explaining the techniques. Now I’m going to go try them out. I’ll have to wait until May or June to visit waterfalls, but it occurred to me that the same tips would work for rushing streams . . .

    First I have to explore your site. Lots of lovely images.

  • Kirk Hille - April 16, 2009 - 12:41 am

    Stunning shots ,
    love the compositions and silky water .
    Looks like a fantastic spot to photograph .
    Sorry didnt come across your site earlier theres some great work here will deffinatly browse through the next few days

  • Ilya Genkin - April 16, 2009 - 9:15 am

    Hi Kirk, thanks a lot!!! I hope you will like the other photos too.

  • nitesh singh - October 30, 2009 - 5:11 am

    wel superb techniques, i mean i’ a great fan of u buddy… fantastic n mega blowing work

  • Paul Bates Photography - November 17, 2009 - 6:08 am

    Thanks for the great tips! I’ll have to try out the Neutral Density filters tip on an overcast day. Beautiful photos!

    Paul Bates
    Travel, Nature & Waterfall Photography

  • Amit - January 13, 2010 - 7:21 pm

    thanx for the tutorial..i actly use a fast shutter speed as i gt to use a larger aperture and will get a narrow depth of field..bt will surely try this n c..

  • How To Cure Acne - January 27, 2010 - 10:32 pm

    thank you very much! looking forward.

  • andreeas knij - February 7, 2010 - 9:31 am

    Thanks, this was super helpful!
    Andreeas Knij
    Photo Video Chicago LLC
    246 North Pulaski Road
    Chicago Cook, IL 60641

  • Thanker - October 16, 2010 - 9:40 pm

    Thanks a lot Mr. Ilya!!! I never knew a pro giving advice like you…

  • […] Neutral Density (ND) filters simply reduce the amount of light reaching the lens, allowing you to shoot at slower shutter speeds. It doesn’t have any effect on the color, tone or saturation of your image, but this simplicity adds to its usefulness. Using slow shutter speeds in bright conditions you can easily blur water and waves and capture movement in the sky. The long shutter speed gives the clouds a chance to move through the shot, and the water becomes a mist with enough sea state. NDs come in varying strength, from 1-stop till 10-stops. ND filters are also very useful when shooting waterfalls. […]

  • Apratim - October 20, 2010 - 10:04 pm

    The first two tips are exactly what I wanted to know for an upcoming trip! Thanks a lot for sharing Ilya.

  • Adrian - November 22, 2010 - 2:49 pm

    Thanks alot for the tips. I lived in Wentworth Falls for most of my life but now owning a DSLR and seeing your work i will definitely be making a trip back there when net in the country.

  • georges - December 22, 2010 - 3:45 am

    A few things I would add:
    – move closer to the scene if possible, rather than use a zoom. This way, camera movement will not cause as much problem.
    – use a 2 second delay so that your hands don’t touch the camera when taking the picture.
    – Use lower ISO, that will make a sharper image, and help get a slow shutter speed.

    Thanks for those pictures and the tips!!!

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