Beginning Waterfall Photography

Part Three: Beginning Composition

You can do one thing to improve your waterfall photography right away, without spending a single dime on new gear or even understanding exposure and how it relates to photography. The one thing you can do immediately is improve your composition.

Composition is the art of deciding what to show, where to show it, and what to leave out. As Ansel Adams once said "A good photograph is knowing where to stand". Even a basic understanding of composition can allow you to make much more compelling photographs and give you a wide range of ideas about how to progress as a photographer.

Rule of Thirds

Everyone knows the Rule of Thirds, the basis of how we think of composition. It is so popular that many cameras have an option where you can turn on guide lines which show a grid, allowing you to align the important elements of your scene along the lines in accordance with the principles of the Rule of Thirds. This image has a classic Rule of Thirds layout:

Hidden Falls, Panthertown Valley

This picture shows a classical Rule of Thirds layout, both physically and conceptually. The waterfall is the subject, the trees and sky are the background, and everything in front of and including the mossy log is foreground.

For waterfall photography, I like to think of a picture in three parts. The parts of the picture correspond with the rule of thirds conceptually, but your picture does not always need to be strictly divided into thirds physically to convey those parts and make an effective image.

The Three Parts of a Landscape Picture

There are three parts to most landscape pictures. The subject of the picture, the foreground, and the background. There are many variations of the theme that incorporate other elements to add interest, but the basic theme is the same. Once you learn how to combine these three elements effectively, you can start experimenting with variations to add more interest. But first you must learn to properly incorporate the three parts, then you can begin to build on that knowledge.

Schoolhouse Falls

This image has a strong foreground (the water in the calm, tannin-colored pool) that leads to a strong background and subject. But the division between subject and background is more conceptual than physical. The waterfall is the subject, but waterfalls often have their own background contained within them. By deviating from the strict rule of thirds formula and not including the sky as a background, we create a more interesting image that reveals more about the character of the falls.

Margins

Even in waterfall photography, where the background and subject are sometimes inseparable, you still need space around your subject. Your eye will always move first to large, bright shapes when you first encounter an image. Space around the subject sets it apart from the background and helps identify the important parts of the image to the mind.

Wildcat Falls

In this image it is the background that takes on the expanded role and shows the context of the lush green forest while condensing the subject and foreground. The pool serves as conceptual foreground while the rocks provide a margin around the subject. Without the rocks as a margin, the message of the image would become less focused and less powerful.

Foreground

Make sure you find an interesting foreground to interact with the subject. This is what draws the eye into the picture. The easiest way to do this is by getting your camera low to the ground. For waterfalls, you can get great shots from downstream in the middle of the water flow when it is safe to do so. This allows you to incorporate interesting rocks and the flow of the river itself as elements of interest in the foreground.

Looking Glass Falls

In this picture of Looking Glass Falls, the choppy water provides a dynamic foreground which leads the eye to the roaring falls. This image would be less powerful without the foreground to provide balance and draw the viewer's eye into the image.

Tips

These are just a few of the most basic elements of composition. There are many more, and I will talk about them in future articles. I have found the Rule of Thirds and the idea of natural margins to be a great starting point for experimenting with composition. The next time you raise your camera to take a picture of one of the amazingly beautiful areas of Western North Carolina:

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