Tips for Waterfall Photography

This is an image of Spirit Falls in the Columbia River Gorge. When I approach a waterfall for the first time, I not only look for the most pleasant vantage point from where to shoot, but I look for several other things as well. At the top of the list, safety is always number one. Waterfalls can offer some perspectives that photographers dream of, but often times to gain that perspective requires the photographer to put themselves in a very dangerous location. If there is an unreasonable degree of risk to your equipment or self, it is prudent to find a safer vantage point. The second thing I look for, or rather plan for, is light. There are numerous tools available to the photographer (see bottom of page) these days to not only map out a waterfalls precise location and determine which direction it is facing, but also to predict the angle of the sun at any time of day. This along with weather reports can give you a pretty accurate idea of what kind of light you may be working with. Overcast days or even stormy days can provide stunning soft light for photographing waterfalls. In addition to scouting for hazards and accessing lighting conditions, I try and find any additional interesting characteristics of either the waterfall itself, or possibly something slightly downstream that I may want to include in the composition to anchor the photograph, or perhaps compliment the main subject in some interesting way.

spirit falls

In this image the downstream ledge worked really nice allowing the foreground water to spill right over and out the bottom of the frame, effectively anchoring the photo and leading your eye back into the image towards the falls. In regards to exposure, the photographer of course has many choices of shutter speed to choose from, each rendering a different feel to the end result. You can go with a longer shutter speed anywhere from 1/2 sec. or slower depending on available light. If it is very bright out, you may need to add a Neutral Density filter to allow less light to hit the sensor, thus allowing longer exposure times. Longer exposures will typically produce that very creamy, ghost like look to the water. This effect is very popular with photographers and viewers alike. With certain images I think this look  works well, with others…not so much. Slightly faster shutter speeds in the range of 1/4sec – 1/125sec can help yield detail in the water while still allowing the movement to show through. It really boils down to personal preference and the photographer’s individual taste. The amount of water that is flowing, as well as the rate at which it is flowing play huge factors in determining the appropriate shutter speed for any given look.

When I first took a look at this waterfall, I immediately noticed a beautiful hue to the water, and at this time of year (the Fall) it was at a relatively low flow. I noticed many different colors in the water as it spilled over the foreground ledge, and it was very important to me to try and convey to the viewer what exactly I was seeing. With some experimentation, I decided on 1/30sec., which allowed me to keep a lot of the detail in the water as well as the individual colors I was seeing. I was shooting on a morning when there were a lot of low clouds and mist around, so light levels were low. I was able to get plenty of Depth of Field, and maintain the shutter speed I wanted without having to add a neutral density filter which would have cut the incoming light level and slowed my shutter speed accordingly.

As far as post processing for this image goes, I use Photoshop CS6 as my editing software, as well as Topaz plugins to add additional effects if desired. Slight saturation was selectively added to specific areas of the image, as well as subtle highlights to the foliage within the scene. I am very big on selectively editing my photographs using masks, as I prefer total control rather that making global changes such as sliding the saturation to effect the whole image rather than just some of it. Post processing in this manner certainly takes more time than many workflows, but you usually get out of it what you put into it, like most things in life. If you are using ADOBE Lightroom, there are tools to make local adjustments without the need to apply masks as in Photoshop. The technique you will use will depend on the software you utilize. When I am completely done processing the image to my liking, I will add a final level of sharpening using the Unsharp mask filter in Photoshop.


Camera Equipment

Canon 5D Mk2
Canon 16-35L 2.8 ll USM
Gitzo tripod w/ Really Right Stuff BH40 Ballhead
Cable Release
Hoya Polarizing filter

Camera Settings

ISO 400
Aperture f/16
Shutter Speed 1/30sec.
Exposure Compensation -2/3

Software and recommended Apps
Photoshop or Lightroom – Primary photo editing software
Topaz Plugins (
The Photographer’s Ephemeris – (this is software for determining light angles for any location on Earth at any time of day)
Google Earth (Free download for mapping locations, coordinates, and directions)


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