Beginning Waterfall Photography :: Planning Your Shots


Wildcat Falls?

You have hiked into a remote wilderness area at some ungodly hour of the morning to get "the shot", and finally you are rewarded: the trail leads you to a beautiful waterfall in perfect lighting. What do you do next?

Drop Your Pack and Have a Seat

Carlton Falls

Don't just raise your camera and take pictures from the same angle everyone else does as they walk by! Take off your pack and relax a little bit. Look at your surroundings and ask yourself what makes them unique.

In Winter, there may be ice or snow. In Autumn, colorful foliage. In the Spring and Summer there could be flowering plants. In some places, like Linville Gorge, you have the option to make breathtaking panoramas. Think about how you can incorporate these things into your picture of the waterfall.

While you are resting, look at the light that is falling on the waterfall and the surrounding area and notice how it is moving. After a little practice, a few minutes will be enough to tell you where the light is coming from, where it is moving to, how quickly it is moving, and how you can avoid or incorporate it.

Walk Around a Little Bit

Now that you have rested, walk around the waterfall and look for ways to incorporate the unique elements you noticed earlier. If you are impatient you will start taking shots at this point, and I often do. But it pays to plan your shots before you take them, especially if the lighting will change quickly. As you walk around and frame up shots, think about these things:

Is There Direct Light Falling on the Scene?

Raven Rock Detail

If only a portion of the shot has direct light, you must think about how to preserve detail in both the highlights and shadows of the photograph. Often you should avoid direct light, especially falling on the water itself, as it will cause too much dynamic range for the camera to capture accurately. There are software tools you can use to blend exposures and recapture dynamic range, but you will find your results are much better if you start with a good exposure and good lighting instead of using these tools to correct mistakes. Uneven lighting in a photo can be used to make an impact, but only if you plan carefully. To learn how to judge whether the dynamic range of a scene is too high, take a look at my article on using your camera's histogram to judge exposure.

Where Can I Setup a Tripod?

Lower Portion of Wildcat Falls

In landscape photography, and especially in waterfall photography, the use of a tripod is crucial. Look for spots where you can get your tripod low to the ground to capture foreground detail in rocks, moss, tree roots, and other interesting features. You can often use your camera's live view feature to avoid lying in the dirt! You can also use this feature to get great shots with your tripod in the water if you are willing to risk getting your gear wet.

Take the Shots

You have looked for unique elements, walked around to figure out how you can incorporate them, and you probably have a few possibilities in mind. Take the best 2 or 3 and go shoot them. Here are a few final questions to ask yourself as you frame up each shot:

Is the Wind Moving the Leaves?

Crabtree Leaves

There was just too much wind coming from the falls to get a sharp shot at this shutter speed. I should have taken a few shots at quicker shutter speeds to freeze some of the motion.

Is the Sky Going to Be Blown Out?

If a good exposure of the waterfall will cause the sky to be overexposed, you must either re-compose to exclude the sky or take bracketed exposures and use post processing software to enhance the dynamic range of your image. In either case you need to be aware of the sky as an area of potential problems.

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