Hands down, my favorite photography is waterfall chasing. Waterfalls are just so powerful, so captivating, so attention-grabbing. I was lucky enough to grow up and live in the Pacific Northwest, where waterfalls seem to be around every river bend, every drop in forest elevation, and off every mountain side. The Portland area alone in Oregon is blessed with the Columbia River Gorge, where an entire corridor of waterfalls await to be explored (note: at the time of this writing, September 2018, many trails remain closed in the Gorge due to the Eagle Creek fire of 2017. Please respect trail closures because of the dangers they pose to you, search and rescue teams, the forest service recovery efforts, and the very land itself). But waterfalls are not limited to the PNW, and whether large or small, they are sure to capture your heart as much as they have mine. In this guide, I’ll take you all the way through shooting a waterfall, from the planning stages to capturing the waterfall in the field, along with other considerations.
Planning the Shoot
Before you jump in your car and run off to the first waterfall you Googled in your area, take some time to plan out your shoot first. This is essential to both get the shot you want and to stay safe out on the trail. Waterfalls look best under a diffuse light, so you’ll want to shoot on a cloudy or rainy day, for lovely, consistent lighting. Harsh sunlight can create dappled light and you may get blown out highlights on the falls, which is hard to “fix” in post-processing. There can be some exceptions to wanting to have sunlight in your shot, such as wanting a sunburst coming over the waterfall.
Look up not only weather conditions, but also any potential trail or road closures due to the season. When it is getting close to winter, snow can make a hike more difficult or the road impassible to vehicles. Read up on the trail and pay attention to the length, elevation gain, and any potentially difficult or confusing portions. I always assume waterfalls will be in area of no service, so I will screenshot trail directions, maps, descriptions, et cetera beforehand. Download an offline Google map of the area you will be in, and let someone know where you will be and when you plan on returning. I also highly recommend having The Ten Essentials, which could be split between you and your friends if you do a group outing, and that way you have less weight you have to carry. If you are bringing your pooch, double check whether the area is dog-friendly and what the leash laws are.
Make a checklist of all the gear and outfitting you’ll need and always bring a pair of extra socks! You never know when you will get soaked. If you are driving quite a distance, make sure you know where you will be able to get gas.
I have my favorite gear for shooting waterfalls, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be the best gear for you. Here are my recommendations to get you started:
- Camera body: whatever camera you have with you is the best camera for the job! Whether this is a DSLR, a point-and-shoot, or your phone camera, you can’t go wrong.
- Lenses: I love shooting wide, so I usually have my 14-24mm and 24-70mm with me, but a 16-35mm, 14mm, 35mm, and 50mm are all great choices. Don’t be too tied down to one lens; it’s good to experiment and play around. Sometimes I’ll even be using a 70-200mm to get a detail shot of some certain feature of the waterfall. Just be careful to protect your camera body when you change lenses so you don’t get water or dust on your sensor.
- Tripod: historically, the heavier and sturdier the tripod, the better. You are fighting against wind gusts, especially from the waterfall itself, sprays of water, rain, and other environmental conditions, plus you have to consider the weight of the body and lens you are using. However, I like to travel as light as I can so I can hike further with ease, so I have a mid-range tripod in terms of weight. I am currently using the MeFoto Roadtrip S tripod, but I also recommend their Globetrotter S tripod.
- Filters: if you bring nothing else filter wise, bring a circular polarizing filter. This will cut reflections off the surface of the water and give you a beautiful contrast between the white silk of the falls and the darker, deep patches of the river below. Hoya, Tiffen, and B+W are all fantastic brands to use. You can also play around with neutral density filters to help you get a longer exposure or create some cool effects.
- Camera sleeve or protective layer: plastic bag, rain jacket, umbrella, plastic camera sleeve, or a fancier set up is ideal to keep your camera safe in the wet conditions. Most recent cameras have pretty decent weather sealing, but you’ll need to make sure your lenses are also weather sealed too. Despite weather sealing, your camera could probably use some extra protection to keep it working long after your shoot.
- Lens cleaning cloth (more on this below): multiple. Bring multiple. A small hand towel wouldn’t go remiss either.
- Rain gear – jacket, pants, shoes, waders, the works.
Again, this is not a one-size-fits-all situation, but I recommend starting here and then playing around until you get pleasing results:
- Aperture: f/8-f/16 is your starting point for maximal sharpness, depending on the exact effect you would like and what your other settings will be.
- Shutter speed: 1/4 – 1/3 of a second is usually the sweet spot, but you should play around with longer and shorter exposures for different effects. Each shot you take will be different, especially in river flow areas, which is one of the exciting features of waterfall photography!
- ISO: the lower the better! ISO 100 will give you crisp, grain-free images, and will allow you to open up your shutter for longer for nice silky exposures. This may also be variable though depending on the lighting conditions and what your other camera settings are.
- White balance: this is something you can change in post, but you may want to play around with different shade and cloudy settings to see what you like.
- Self-timer or intervalometer: touching your camera’s shutter creates enough shake to give you a blurry image, so it’s best to either put your camera on a 2-second delay or use an intervalometer.
When you see that amazing waterfall around the corner of your hike, you will be excited and jam right over to get that big, grandiose shot. Take that shot, the classic view that you have saved on your Instagram account. But don’t grow roots and only take the one obvious shot. Move around, take in different angles, and play with different compositions. Just be considerate of other photographers and other hikers that are in the area, because everyone deserves to enjoy the waterfall. No one likes the person in the red jacket sitting in front of the waterfall for a half an hour, taking selfies / live videos / otherwise posting up and oblivious to everyone else present. Don’t be red jacket guy. Take all the selfies you want, but be conscious of how much time you are in front of the main view of the falls.
There are some other considerations when shooting waterfalls. First, to revisit the lens cleaning cloths. Spray from the waterfall is going to give you water spots on your images and potentially ruin your shot. You will want to keep your lens as clean as possible between shots, and assume one cleaning cloth won’t be enough to do the trick. Everything you brought on this trip will slowly become more and more damp, and you’ll want something dry at hand at all times. After the shoot, you’ll want to take everything out of your bag and let it dry completely, including unfolding your tripod legs all the way and taking the covers off your lenses to let the glass in front dry off.
Other Considerations, Continued
The second, but possibly the most important consideration, is to LEAVE NO TRACE. If you bring in a Cliff bar for sustenance, make sure you take the wrapper right back out with you. Don’t leave any trash, and if you are really amazing, consider picking up any trash someone else left behind. Respect trails in delicate areas; some places are eroded or have delicate moss or other plant life that could be easily damaged by ranging off trail. Don’t feed any wildlife you encounter, as it may pose a health risk to you or them, or someone else later on. Keep your music limited to your earbuds, as you are sharing this place with everyone else, and everyone else has a right to enjoy the sounds of nature. If you enjoyed exploring this waterfall, it’s likely someone else will too, and they deserve to see it in all its glory.
Okay! I’m done preaching. Go out and enjoy yourself!
Comment below with what you thought of this guide, what guides you would like to see in the future, or what else you would love to know about photography or travel. And definitely don’t forget to sign up for my mailing list to be notified of future blog posts, upcoming workshops, shop sales, and more!