Beginning Waterfall Photography :: Time of Day


Every Day We Get One of These

There‘s a sunrise and a sunset every single day, and they‘re absolutely free. Don‘t miss so many of them.

Jo Walton

If you read my first article about capturing flow when photographing waterfalls, you know I am a fan of using slow shutter speeds on most waterfall pictures to convey the peaceful movement of the water. But if you try to take a half second exposure on a sunny afternoon you will soon discover this is too much light and your beautiful waterfall has been captured as an overexposed white streak.

If you have a DSLR camera you can buy a circular polarizing filter or a neutral density gradient filter to cut down the amount of light and get the proper exposure. A circular polarizing filter also cuts down on glare and reflections, which is often nice when shooting water. It will also increase color saturation, although this is easily done after the fact with digital pictures. Using a circular polarizing filter can be tricky and, more importantly, they don't change the quality or direction of the light.

The most effective way of taking good waterfall photographs is to take them during conditions when the right amount of light is falling on the waterfall from the right direction. You can still use filters to modify the light, but a filter won't change the position of the Sun in the sky. Natural light is the key to good outdoor photography. To take great pictures you must pay close attention to the light: which direction it is coming from, which parts of the scene it is striking directly, and which parts of the scene do not have enough light compared to the rest of the scene. One of the great challenges of shooting waterfalls in the South is the lighting, where thick canopy over small creeks often creates a tunnel where all light comes from directly above the waterfall, overexposing it while the surrounding trees and rhododendrons are underexposed.

Here are a few tips to get you started thinking about time of day and other conditions as it relates to your waterfall photography.

Patience, and Why Clouds Are Your Best Friend

Clouds are the waterfall photographer's best friend.

As you begin to photograph waterfalls you will quickly discover that exposing your picture properly for a waterfall means underexposing everything else in the picture. The subject might look nice but everything else will be very dark. If you expose for the surroundings, your waterfall will be blown out, meaning the camera will record pure white with no detail. So how do you fix this?

I once tried to tell my wife a story about patience. She cut me off after about 3 words.

"Get to the point." she said.

If you want to photograph waterfalls well, the first step is to go on cloudy days (often bad weather) and be patient. Don't just hike to the waterfall and start snapping shots. Wait for the sun to go behind the clouds before you start taking pictures. The more even lighting will make your results much nicer.

Interesting Conditions Make Interesting Photos

Looking Glass High Water

This picture is unusual because most pictures of Looking Glass Falls are serene and peaceful. Especially to those who know Looking Glass Falls well (as many of my fans do), this picture is interesting because it presents the falls in a new way. Interesting weather conditions like heavy rain, snow and ice add interest and help tell the story behind your photo.

Sunrises and Sunsets

Not Your Typical Sunset Picture

A fiery orange sky will obviously add pop to a landscape photo, but did you know these times of day provide beautiful lighting for waterfalls even when you cannot incorporate the sky into the picture? This picture of Schoolhouse Falls in Panthertown Valley was taken as the Sun was setting. Even though you can't see the sky in this photo, you can see the scene is evenly lit. And because of the angle of the light, you can also see behind the waterfall quite well. If this had been taken when the Sun was directly overhead the cave behind the waterfall would have been dark and the detail would have been lost.

Avoid Direct Sunlight on Water

A Poorly Exposed Picture

This picture of Bard Falls was taken at midday. Notice how the light shines directly on the lower part of the waterfall, destroying most of the detail. The forest above the waterfall is underexposed and much too dark. There is simply too much dynamic range in this scene for the camera to produce a compelling picture. In a situation like this you must either recompose the picture to include a narrower dynamic range or wait until the light is less harsh.