8 Bold Ways to Improve Your Waterfall Photography

By Chris Tennant Back to


Any introduction to photographing waterfalls will usually include the following: (1) always shoot on overcast days, (2) use a circular polarizer to minimize reflections in the water and (3) use a slow shutter speed to blur the water. Like many “rules”, they are best served as guidelines. Here are eight bold ways to take your waterfall photography to another level by challenging these (and other) rules.

1. Get wet.

Don’t be afraid to get in the water to create a bold, in- your-face foreground that puts the viewer smack dab in the middle of your composition. Safety should be your number one priority, so it goes without saying this requires sound judgment. The good news is that by positioning your camera in close proximity to even seemingly tame cascades, you can produce fantastic results. In all likelihood you will be contending with a near constant spray of water covering the front element of your lens. Bring a lens cloth, be patient and make a lot of images! If necessary, clone out water spots in post-processing.

2. Add texture.

Using a slow shutter speed produces a pleasing, soft motion blur in running water. In addition to its aesthetic appeal, the motion blur imparts a sense of the passage of time, adding another dimension to the image. Often not much thought is given to the shutter speed−just as long it creates “some” motion blur. Many photographs can benefit from adding subtle structure and details of the water providing it with a textural component. So rather than push towards longer exposures, experiment with faster shutter speeds. You’ll be surprised at how adding texture elements can transform an image.

3. Convert to black and white.

Be bold and create a high contrast, black and white image where the flow of water stands out in stark relief to its immediate surroundings. Compose images that utilize the flow of water to create compositional lines. Allow the lines to lead the eyes of the viewer through the entirety of the image, from top to bottom and from right to left.

Shenandoah National Park, VA.

Wet feet are a small price to pay for coming away with compelling compositions, Shenandoah National Park, VA.

4. Shoot with direct sunlight.

An overcast sky acts like a giant soft box, creating an even and diffused light source that is often ideal for waterfall photography. However, a clear blue sky does not mean it’s time to pack your bag for the day. Take chances with direct sunlight. Pick portions of the waterfalls where the sun creates dappled light as it passes through foliage, for instance. While you may not walk away with the shot you pre-visualized of the waterfall, taking the time to explore other possibilities−regardless of the lighting conditions− often pays huge dividends.

5. Dial back your circular polarizer.

In addition to a sturdy tripod, another necessary piece of equipment for waterfall photography is a circular polarizer. Without the ability to reduce reflections from the surface of the water (and nearby rocks and foliage), scenes would suffer from blown-out highlights, with an attendant lack of detail in

those regions. There are times that minimizing reflections nearly renders the water nonexistent. This is particularly true in smaller cascades that do not generate a lot of froth and/or foam. In these instances the circular polarizer becomes so effective that you are left with only details of the stream/creek bed below. Dialing back the effect of the circular polarizer to retain enough reflections and highlights to accent- uate but not overpower the image can cure this.

Err on the side of faster shutter speeds to add pleasing textural components to an image, Blackwater Falls State Park, WV.

Convert to black and white, creating bold contrasty images, Catskills, NY.

Shoot early in the morning or at twilight, Great Falls National Park, VA.

6. Shoot at twilight.

Want to put your own unique spin on an oft- photographed waterfall? Did conditions during the day create scenes with excessively high dynamic range? Avoid the daytime crowds and shoot at twilight! Consider waiting until the “blue hour” (the period after sunset when blue hues are especially prominent in the sky), when the light evens out and creates a pleasing balance of tones between the sky and water. In regions that are unobstructed by foliage the water will pick up and reflect the cool tones in the sky creating a unique and moody image.

7. Get intimate.

It’s not surprising that waterfalls are so popular with photographers and viewers alike. Often it is not only the waterfall itself that captivates us but also the immediate surroundings, whether it’s a narrow gorge in a dense forest or a natural amphitheater intensifying the sound of crashing water. Yet there are instances when it pays to capture intimate details of a waterfall, to the exclusion of its surroundings. Isolating details and using repetitive shapes and lines can create inviting, almost abstract, photographs.

8. Find a unique perspective!

Get off the beaten path and don’t settle for the same composition as everyone else. Give yourself enough time to thoroughly explore the surrounding area and be creative. In many instances shooting straight-on may be the best option. However, can you safely access a point that allows you to shoot from the side? What about a perspective from above? Some waterfalls even lend themselves to being photographed from behind! Find a vantage point that allows the viewer to become immersed in the scene.

About the Author

Chris Tennant
A physicist by training, Tennant’s passion for photography started well before the seeds of becoming a scientist were planted. Making photographs for over two decades, starting with the Pentax K-1000 he received for his 10th birthday. Now fully immersed in digital photography, his earliest experiences were with film in a darkroom. That early experience continues to influence his work, as he continues to (digitally) develop black and white in addition to his color work. Born and raised in central New York, he currently works as an accelerator physicist at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. To see more of his work visit christennantphotography.com