RV Travel Photo Tips: How to Photograph Waterfalls

I usually stop at information centers when I travel to a new place. Last week I headed over to the Roadtrek factory in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.  On the way there I stopped at the tourist center on Highway 401 after entering Canada from the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, across from Detroit. I told the women working there that I was interested in a certain area and photography.  They had some great recommendations for me including a brochure on the waterfalls of Grey County. They provided other pamphlets and guides on the many lighthouses of the Bruce Peninsula, a butterfly park, and some others as well.

On Thursday, while hanging out at the dealership, I heard that Friday would be a cloudy rainy day. Woo-hoo! Waterfall shooting weather! It turned out to be a cloudy gray day with drizzle throughout the day. The clouds are perfect for shooting waterfalls because they help to diffuse the sunlight. The waterfalls and the scenery around them will have a nice consistent light on an overcast day.

Sunny days are difficult for a few reasons. Waterfalls tend to be in gorges with cliffs on the side and trees above. That means shadows across the waterfall. Additionally, the water in sunlight is really bright. Those shadowed areas are really dark.  Most cameras have a lot of difficulty with this kind of light.

Hoggs Falls: ISO100 | 33mm | f/13 | 0.5s | Tripod
Hoggs Falls in Grey County, Ontario: ISO100 | 33mm | f/13 | 0.5s | Tripod

When shooting waterfalls I almost always use a tripod. Really I use a tripod for pretty much everything as I move too much.  The tripod keeps everything nice and steady so that the only thing moving is what I tend to having moving: the water. Rocks shouldn’t have any motion in them.  One thing to watch for when composing your shot are trees and plants near the waterfall.  The wind that the waterfall creates will blow those around. A few blurred leaves are acceptable to me but I don’t want too much blur.

The other item I normally use for photographing waterfalls is a circular polarizer. This will help cut the glare on the water or wet rocks. Even though there isn’t any direct sunlight on an ideal day, you can still get some glare. You spin the polarizer while looking through the viewfinder of the camera until the glare is reduced on the wet rocks. Sometimes the effect can be very subtle. If you turn the camera sideways you need to rotate the polarizer 90 degrees as well.

Tahquamenon Falls: ISO 100 | 200 mm | f/11 | 1/25s | Tripod
Tahquamenon Falls in Upper Peninsula, Michigan: ISO 100 | 200 mm | f/11 | 1/25s | Tripod

When shooting waterfalls each one has something different I want to present. A lot of times it is more important about what I don’t include in the photo. Once I’ve selected my composition I need to decide how I want the water to look. This is controlled by the shutter speed. The other controls such as ISO and aperture revolve around that. I almost always shoot in manual mode, but you can certainly shoot in shutter priority mode and let the camera work out the details. If I want milky smooth water I shoot around 1/2 second. A bit more texture in the water needs around 1/20 second shutter speed. If I want to freeze the water completely, the shutter speed needs to be in the 1/1000 range. This all depends on just how much water is flowing over the waterfall. With a lot of water the times are shorter. With little water the times are longer. But it gives a start to experiment.


Akaka Falls: ISO 100 | 200mm | f/22 | 1/3 sec | Camera motion
Akaka Falls on Big Island, Hawaii: ISO 100 | 200mm | f/22 | 1/3 sec | Camera motion

For this article, I’ve shared the camera settings under each image to achieve the look I wanted and should help to see some of the different ways to present a waterfall. This final image is a bit different and one of my favorite things to do with a camera.  While shooting I move the camera. The goal is an abstract image of a waterfall. It takes practice and I certainly create some bad shots, but it also provides some unusual images that I enjoy.

Next time you’re out there traveling on a cloudy day wishing for those blue skies and sun, consider finding some waterfalls to spend some time with and use the light to your advantage.