Tips for Shooting Waterfalls

I have a love-hate relationship with waterfalls. Well, really it's a love-love-hate relationship, because I love them, I love to shoot them, but I hate how difficult it is to really nail the shot. It's a lot harder than you'd think.

Because most waterfalls are located in forested areas, you're dealing with a complex set of conditions that influence not only the composition of the image, but also the time of day and the settings required to capture it. Fortunately, that makes it even more rewarding when you get it just right.

Let's go through those conditions using this image as an example, one that I captured during a recent trip to Catawba Falls in North Carolina.

Catawba Falls near Asheville, North Carolina

Catawba Falls, NC | 14mm, 1" exposure at f/22, ISO 50

The Scene

I've always found woodland scenes to be really difficult to shoot. There are some absolutely beautiful forests out there, and when you walk through them it seems impossible to take a bad photo. But the relative positions of the trees and the depth that you can feel from the surrounding scene is really difficult to replicate in a 2D image. Not to mention, there are typically a lot of distracting elements around the waterfall you're attempting to photograph - a bunch of sticks jutting into the pool, half-wet rocks littering the scene, etc. I often find myself trying to eliminate distractions when shooting in the woods.

The easiest way to cut out distractions and get a composition you like is by taking some time to walk around the scene until you find an angle that captures the vibe you're going for while hiding what you don't want the viewer to focus on. At Catawba, I looked at 5 different spots before choosing two of them. The final image hides some ugly branches behind a rock and I ended up cloning out a few piles of wet leaves that were right in the middle of the frame. The result is an image that highlights the multiple levels of the falls and the way it cascaded down over each one.

A vertical image of Catawba Falls near Asheville, NC

24mm, 1/5 sec at f/14, ISO 50

The People

The other tough thing about photographing popular waterfalls like Catawba is people. There are so many people who want to walk right up the falls and go for a swim, stand under the water or just hang around and enjoy the scene. Big time distraction. They have every right to do so, but that means you typically have to visit and shoot your composition in the early morning or evening hours to avoid having people in your shots. Although, sometimes that can be a nice element.

This was a real challenge at Catawba because I unintentionally visited in mid-morning on a hot summer day - so the area was littered with other tourists and their families. I was patient though and every few minutes the scene would clear out as people climbed back down the rocks, allowing me to snap a photo without anyone in the frame. I also captured one image where two women were perched on a rock looking up at the falls that I ended up liking.

two women sit on a rock admiring Catawba Falls near Asheville, NC

47mm, 1" at f/16, ISO 50

The Light

Light is tricky in every scene, but there are two factors that make it especially difficult when shooting waterfalls - A) water reflects light, and B) trees block it. Getting the right exposure is tough because if you expose for the water, the trees will be too dark, but if you expose for the shadows in the trees, you're blowing out the highlights in the water. If you have any direct sunlight on the trees it gets even harder because not only will the light change with every breeze, but you'll have to contend with another level of exposure to catch the leaves just right. Told you it was complex!

In this particular scene, I was shooting at about 11am, so the sun was pretty harsh in the clearing over the falls. I used exposure bracketing to take 3 different exposures from the same vantage point and blended them together later to make sure I got the exposure level correct for each area of the scene. The hardest one was probably the trees at the top of the frame - that area was so bright with the sun shining directly on the leaves. I ended up having to crop out more sky because it was just way too bright.

60mm, 1" at f/16. ISO 50

The Water

The best waterfall shots (in my opinion) feature silky smooth water. It's relatively easy to get this effect with a long exposure, but how long of a shutter speed is optimal for getting it just right? How do you account for the reflection of the sunlight shining down on the falls? The lack of light if you're somewhere super dark? How much does the speed of the water matter when choosing your settings? All tough questions to assess when you're standing there in the field.

At Catawba, this was actually pretty easy to achieve. In my experience, somewhere around one second (1") is the best shutter speed for smoothing out water that's moving quickly. That also happened to be the sweet spot for balancing the light in the scene. Any longer and I would've started to overexpose and lose detail. It's not the silkiest water I've ever seen, but it looks pretty good.

63mm, 1" at f/18, ISO 50

Voila! I couldn't be more pleased with the final image. I captures the scale of the falls, the clear cascade down its many layers, as well as the feeling of being deep in the forest on a summer morning. Even though it can be complex, I still love shooting waterfalls. Catawba Falls was probably the best one I've ever seen and I had a blast shooting it.


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