Waterfalls -- Part I

Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow


Waterfalls seem to grab the hearts and minds of people. Go to any location that has one or more waterfalls and it is pretty much a guarantee that they will be a major attraction, if not the main attraction, of the area. I recently had the opportunity to hike and photograph in Oregon for several days. It was interesting to see the effect the waterfalls had on people. I saw numerous people hike over twelve miles to look at three waterfalls. Some of this particular trail was along very high cliffs. It was obvious to me that many of the people that I saw on this trail were out of shape. One man I spoke to told me that he had not been in shape for a couple of decades. Yet, these people, many out of shape, were willing to hike over twelve miles, along some intimidating sections of trail, in order to see three waterfalls -- that is the power of waterfalls. Furthermore, this was not a unique situation. In another area, I watched many people hike on a nine mile trail, in the rain, to see a string of ten waterfalls.

I also noticed that the first reaction of almost everyone that I saw at the waterfalls was to pull out a camera and photograph the falls. Most of these shots were simply snapshots taken with inexpensive, hand-held, point-and-shoot cameras. Occasionally, a DSLR on a tripod would be seen. However, as beautiful as waterfalls are, it is not so easy to capture that beauty with a camera. It is easy to produce pictures of waterfalls; it is not so easy to produce powerful images. Waterfalls provide their own unique set of problems, which requires a unique set of solutions. This article is about those unique problems and the solutions that allow photographers to produce images that communicate the power and beauty that is inherent in the waterfalls that stand before their lenses.

The Basics

As with all areas of photography, good waterfall shots start out with the basics. If the basics are not carried out properly, the rest of the photography work will pretty much be a waste of time. The first article in this series will concentrate on ensuring that the basics are done right. Most of these basics are not restricted to waterfall photography but are relevant to many other photographic situations where it is desired to produce high quality images. Once the basics have been covered in this article, the subsequent articles will delve into the more advanced challenges faced by photographers when shooting waterfalls.


Weather plays a huge part in producing great waterfall images. This can be both good and bad news, depending on your frame of mind. The reality is that, frequently, the best waterfalls require some hiking. Occasionally, dramatic waterfalls can be found right next to the road. For instance, this is the case with the Historic Highway in the Columbia Gorge in Oregon. A number of dramatic waterfalls are located right next to the highway. However, most often, the best falls require some work to reach. The problem is that the best weather for photographing waterfalls is not the best weather for hiking.

Quite simply, waterfalls do not photograph well in nice, sunny weather (the best hiking weather). The best time to photograph waterfalls is in overcast weather. The predominate reason is that bright, sunny weather produces harsh light. This harsh light causes four problems. First, harsh light produces harsh shadows -- which produce a harsh image. With waterfalls, it is rare that a photographer wishes to convey a sense of harshness. Rather, the photographer is much more likely to desire a feeling of beauty, grace, or serenity an image. Thus, bright light contradicts the essence that the photographer is trying to capture. Second, bright light desaturates colors. This desaturation occurs both with any colors that the water may contain as well as the colors of the environment surrounding the waterfall. Third, bright light produces glare. This is particularly a problem with the wet rocks and vegetation that typically surround waterfalls. Lastly, bright light demystifies a waterfall image. Many of the most beautiful waterfalls have a sense of mysterious beauty about them. Bright light removes that mystery. While this effect of harsh light may seem less concrete than the others mentioned in this paragraph, it is very important. Think of it this way. If you go to a major art museum, each of the famous oil paintings will have a carefully placed, soft light shining on it. There is a reason for this. This type of light brings out the beauty in the image. Now, how would those same paintings look if the museum were to replace the gentle lights with prison searchlights? Certainly, something would be lost. Photographing waterfalls in bright light is akin to illuminating fine oil paintings with searchlights.

Therefore, the best weather for photographing waterfalls is overcast weather. For those of you with an adventurous frame of mind, this is good news. On those days when you look outside and think that the cloudy weather is going to prevent you from doing much photography, you can head to some waterfalls. For those of you that don't want to get cold or wet, this is bad news.

Now, some waterfalls will photograph best in light overcast. Light overcast produces a light that is gentle but which still has enough power to bring out the colors in a scene. Other waterfalls photograph best in strong overcast. Strong overcast can produce a very moody image with a power to convey that sense of mood in an image. In fact, very powerful waterfall images can also be produced in rainy weather. This is often the case were the surrounding environment is an important part of the waterfall image. In this situation, the photographer will have to wait in the rain and hope for a short break in the rain during which the image can be captured. The rain will produce saturated, pastel colors in the image and may engulf the waterfall and its environment in mist.

So, the next time you look outdoors and think, "Man, what lousy weather". Your next thought should be, "What a great opportunity for waterfall shots".

An Old Filter

One of the major challenges in photographing waterfalls has to do with water getting on the lens (or the filter in front of the lens). Powerful waterfalls can drop huge amounts of water, which produces a mist that can carry long distances. Other waterfalls may have less water but the water descends a long way, picking up substantial speed, before crashing on rocks below. This also creates a strong mist situation. In other cases, the weather may produce fog, drizzle, or rain that gets on the lens. All of this can be exacerbated by wind (which always seems to be pointed directly toward my lens). By the time the poor photographer has figured out her composition, exposure, and other settings, the camera and lens is coated in water. Various devices can be used to protect the camera if the photographer so desires (from plastic bags to rain hoods). However, the front of the lens is not so easy to protect. While the camera body and the lens barrel can be covered. The photographer must be able to see through the front of the lens in order to set up an image. Even hoods that extend past the front of the lens do not always solve the problem as the wind or turbulence produced by the waterfall can drive moisture straight at the lens. Even a hood can not prevent moisture on the lens in this situation.

A partial solution is to place an old, clear filter in front of the lens while the equipment is being set up. This will allow the photographer to take his time to properly set up the image without worrying about water getting on the lens. Once everything has been set up and the photographer is ready to go, the photographer will need to wait for a lull in the mist situation. Then, the old filter is removed from the lens and the shots are taken as quickly as possible. While this does not completely eliminate the problems with mist, with some practice, it will allow a photographer to capture clear images that would otherwise not be possible due to mist problems.


Don't even think of photographing a waterfall without a tripod. A large part of the nature of waterfalls is the movement of the water. This movement is most often captured with shutterspeeds that are slow enough that clear images can not be produced with a handheld camera. A tripod provides a stable platform that holds the camera rigid, dramatically increasing the sharpness of the image, while allowing the use of shutterspeeds that capture the movement of the water.


Figure 1: Weighing Down a Tripod

Yes, you read that correctly. You need rocks! More correctly, you need rocks or some other heavy object to weigh down the tripod.

A tripod is a good start. However, a tripod can be made even more stable by using some object to weigh down the tripod. This produces even sharper images. This is so important that may tripods have some type of mechanism at the bottom of the center post that was designed for hanging objects to add weigh to a tripod. A simple way to take advantage of this feature is to carry a small net bag with your photo equipment. The bag can be filled with rocks and attached to the tripod. Even if a tripod doesn't have such a mechanism, other methods can be used. Figure 1 shows a camera this was being set up for a waterfall shot. This photographer used a camera backpack that has an external bag attached to increase the carrying capacity of the backpack. This external bag has been removed from the backpack and hung on the tripod.

Remote Switch

Just because a camera is on a tripod doesn't mean that the camera will be steady. The simple act of releasing the shutter can cause vibrations that will cause a loss of sharpness. One problem is that pressing the shutter button almost ensures that a certain amount of vibration will be transmitted to the camera. The solution is simple. The shutter needs to be released without the photographer touching the camera at the time of the shutter release. There are a couple of ways to do this. The cheapest way is to use the timer on the camera (most, if not all, SLRs have timers). Once the timer has been set up, a delay of several seconds will occur between the pressing of the shutter button and the release of the shutter. This will allow any vibrations caused by the pressing of the shutter button to die out before the shutter is released.

While inexpensive, the use of the timer button has it disadvantages. It is impossible to fire a series of sequential shots with this technique (e.g., when shooting a river rafting group traversing a series of rapids). In addition, it is impossible to perfectly time the shot (e.g., when photographing animal activity next to a waterfall).

Figure 2: Remote Switch
A far more capable solution is to use a remote switch to release the shutter. A remote switch is a device that allows a photographer to release the shutter by using a hand held device, without the photographer's hand directly touching the camera. This device triggers the camera shutter by mechanical or electrical means. Some shutter releases attach directly to the camera through a cable or wire. Other devices are wireless and trigger the shutter through the use of electromagnetic waves. Figure 2 shows a remote switch attached to a camera in preparation for a waterfall session. Remote switches run the gamut from basic, inexpensive units that provide only for the remote releasing of the shutter to more advanced, expensive, units that have electronic functionality that provides for more sophisticated control of the camera.

Mirror Lockup

We are not done with the vibration problem yet. Even if the camera is set up on a tripod, even if the tripod is weighted down, even if a remote switch is used, image quality can still be degraded due to vibration. Unfortunately, when it comes to vibration, the camera, itself, can play the part of the villain.

The problem comes from the fact that the light that travels through an SLR must follow two different paths in order for the camera and photographer to perform their actions. First, the light must pass through the lens. Then, it must make a right turn upward to travel through the viewfinder mechanism. This is necessary so that the photographer can see the scene in the viewfinder. Second, the light must pass straight through the lens and the camera to the sensor. This is necessary for the light to reach the sensor and allow the sensor to produce an image. Regrettably, the light can not do both at the same time. Therefore, DSLR camera designers place a movable mirror in the path of the light. Prior to a shot being taken, the mirror sits in front of the sensor. Incoming light hits the mirror and is reflected upward to the viewfinder. When the shutter is released, the mirror quickly swings out of position and allows the light to pass through to the sensor. This must happen quickly or there will be a delay between the time that the shutter button is pressed and the shutter is released. Photographers do not like shutter lag. Therefore, the mirror is moved quickly and stopped quickly. Anytime that an object is moved or stopped quickly, vibration will result.

This vibration can affect the sharpness of an image. Mirror vibration is a problem between about 1/30s and 1s. With shorter exposures, the time that the shutter is open is such a small percent of one cycle of the mirror vibration that the vibration does not cause a problem. With longer exposures, the time that the shutter is open is much longer than the duration of the mirror vibration (in other words, the mirror vibration dies out quickly while the exposure continues for a substantially longer period of time).

However, with exposures between approximately 1/30s and 1s, the vibration from the mirror threatens to reduce image sharpness. This is easily solved by enabling the mirror lockup function prior to pressing the shutter button (most DSLRs have a mirror lockup function). Once enabled, pressing the shutter button once swings the mirror out of the way. Pressing the shutter button a second time releases the shutter. In practice, a photographer should press the shutter button once, wait a moment, and press the shutter button a second time. This delay between the pressings of the shutter button will allow the vibrations from the shutter to die out.

White Balance

The lighting involved with waterfall shots can be tricky. If shot in overcast or rainy conditions, the light will likely have a blue tint. If the waterfall is in a forest, the light may bounce off the trees and pick up a green tint. Neither the auto white balance nor the preset white balance options on a camera will guarantee accurate white balance. If the white balance is off, the colors in the images shot with the improper white balance will be off color. The best solution is to do a manual white balance (more information on white balance can be found in the White Balance article).

Figure 3: WhiBal

There are various ways to perform a manual white balance (it is beyond the scope of this article to cover all of the various methods). However, one way will be mentioned. One popular way of performing a manual white balance is to shoot a neutral gray object either immediately before or after the waterfall is shot. The image with the neutral gray object can then be used to white balance the waterfall image in the raw converter or Photoshop (or other image editing software). Figure 3 shows a WhiBal that was designed for this purpose.

Performing a manual white balance will ensure accurate colors and will reduce the amount of time a photographer has to spend performing color corrections.


Some of you may be thinking, "Hey, polarizers don't work in overcast or rainy conditions". Actually, they do. Objects that are wet tend to produce glare. This glare is often polarized. This is particularly an issue with waterfall shots because the rocks near the waterfall will be wet and will almost certainly have a certain amount of glare. In addition, any vegetation that is wet, either from the waterfall or the weather, will have glare. The easiest way to reduce that glare is to use a polarizer. Figures 4 and 5 show a crop of a rock that is part of a waterfall image. Figure 4 was taken without a polarizer. As can be seen, the wet rock has several glare spots that could serve to reduce the image quality. Figure 5 was taken with a polarizer. In this image, the glare has been significantly reduced.

Figure 4: Wet Rock without Polarizer
Figure 5: Wet Rock with Polarizer
The use of a polarizer has a secondary effect. Glare reduces color saturation. By removing the glare, the color saturation will improve.

Bubble Level

You paid your hard earned cash to buy that beautiful DSLR. Maybe you even upgraded to the latest model in order to get that new, bigger sensor. Perhaps you even upset your significant other in order to buy that latest camera (What do you mean you need a new camera? You just bought one eighteen months ago! You said that it produced incredible images! What's wrong with that camera? Did you break it?).

Figure 6: Bubble Level

Now that you have that great camera, suppose that one of your friends suggested that, after you take your images, you throw away a bunch of the pixels in each image. You'd probably be thinking -- Heresy, Lunatic! Well, if you do not make sure that your images are either horizontally or vertically level, this is exactly what you will be doing. Sadly, the human eye is not a very good judge of whether a camera is level. Luckily, a bubble level is designed for just this purpose. A bubble level (see Figure 6) is an inexpensive, small, easy to use device that fits into the hot shoe of a camera and allows the photographer to verify that the camera is level. It works in the same way as a carpenter's bubble level. Simply center the bubble between the lines and the camera is leveled.

I can not emphasize enough how helpful a bubble level is in leveling a camera. The last waterfall that I shot in Oregon was a very tall waterfall. In leveling the camera, there was a significant difference between when the bubble level indicated the camera was level and when my eye told me that it was level. I went back and forth between the viewfinder and the level several times. My eye and the level just could not agree. Finally, an idea hit me. I would line up the lines of falling water with the focus points in the viewfinder. When the camera was level, the lines of water would line up straight with the focus points (the water on this waterfall fell straight down). This would verify whether my eye or the level was correct. Guess what, the level was right yet again. Had I not had that bubble level, I would have misaligned the camera and ended up with a tilted image. Later on, I would have had to correct this in Photoshop. This would have required me to throw away some of the pixels after straightening the image and would have degraded the quality of the image.

If you find that, despite you best efforts, you have a tilted image, you can straighten the image in Photoshop (see Straightening Images -- Part I).

Moving Beyond the Basics

Now that the basics have been covered, the next articles will move on to more advanced concepts.


Waterfalls -- Part II