Photographing waterfalls is more tedious than it seems. In this case, the physical aspects of the equipment you use have a big impact on the success of each shot. Here are some important and useful tools to have in the field.
Taking landscape photos of waterfalls often requires a very different workflow than other types of landscape photography. In addition to thinking about good composition and managing ambient light, various environmental factors can significantly affect your output and the success of your shot. That said, there are many physical aspects that are more advantageous when it comes to the equipment and accessories used.
Waterproof and rain covers
Camera and lens choices are much the same as for other types of landscape photography and are pretty much secondary to the fact that we prefer better image quality for our landscape photography. However, the simple attributes of cameras and lenses are important to ensure that the equipment we use can survive such environmental factors. Shooting waterfalls, especially ones with very high flow or current, requires a bit of resilience to get your gear wet. Unlike seascapes, where the water comes in the form of solid waves, the area surrounding the pool below the waterfalls is often filled with a spray-like mist from the continuously flowing water and in aerosol. When shooting waterfalls from a significant height, your equipment can get soaked after only a few minutes of air exposure. For most mid-range and high-end cameras, the weather sealing on the crevices may be enough to protect against moisture. On the other hand, any other camera without waterproofing should be protected by a rain cover or constantly wiped down.
Neutral Density Filters
Using neutral density filters to photograph waterfalls is not always necessary. This is especially true when the area surrounding the falls is covered with many trees that provide shade. Alternatively, one could simply not use a long exposure and would prefer to achieve the frozen texture of water. However, when shooting in a relatively bright situation and looking for smooth, brushed textures on the surface of water, ND filters are a must. Generally, a 3 or 6 stop ND filter should be enough to give your exposure time a significant length depending on the texture you are looking for. Graduated ND filters can also be useful but not always necessary, especially if the camera you’re using has a large dynamic range or you prefer to shoot bracketed exposures to blend them in later.
CPL filters are perhaps the most important filters for photographing waterfalls during the day. Circular polarizers are often used to enhance reflections off bodies of water to create symmetry, but using CPL filters in this scenario is the exact opposite. Polarizing filters redirect light from reflective surfaces, and this redirection can have two common results. First, a CPL can redirect light to improve reflection and provide more contrast to figures reflected off the surface. Alternatively, the polarizing filter can reduce or eliminate the reflection, and this can be useful in a handful of scenarios. In daytime skies, the filter works to reduce glare from reflective particles in the atmosphere, resulting in more intense blue in clear skies and increased contrast against bright white clouds.
In the context of the photography of waterfalls, the same mechanism is useful to overcome the reflection of the many small surfaces wet by the humid air. In this scenario, all the blades of grass, all the leaves and all the wet rocks act as individual mirrors that reflect the light of the sky. The effect of all those little bright objects around the waterfalls produces a noticeably rough texture that fills almost the entire frame. Moreover, as these surfaces reflect light, their luminosity distracts the attention from the highest point of the view, namely the waterfalls. With the use of a circular polarizing filter facing in the correct direction, the photographer can reduce or even completely eliminate glare and distraction, resulting in smoother surrounding areas and better highlighting of waterfalls.
Hoods and shields
In this case, the lens hood has a slightly different purpose. Most of the time, lens hoods are used to shield strong harsh light from the sides, which would lead to unwanted lens flare. When photographing waterfalls, lens hoods can partially protect the lens from fogging, not entirely eliminating glass wetting, but at the very least reducing it. In the video above, I used a magnetic lens hood on top of the ND+CPL filter I was using because the setup didn’t allow for the regular lens hood. In this case, the hood serves as a temporary shield when I’m not exposing because the distal ends of the hood would be visible in frame with an ultra wide angle lens. However, if you’re shooting with standard zoom or normal prime, the hood can be held in position to act as a shield all the time.
Ultra-absorbent lens cloths
Perhaps the most important accessory that should be in your bag when shooting waterfalls would be an absorbent cloth. As already mentioned several times before, the mist from the falls can really be annoying in terms of optics. Not only does humidity cause reduced clarity, small droplets may also be visible in brighter parts of the frame when using a small aperture. The result would be a blurry photograph of the waterfalls with far too many spots that would be nearly impossible to remove.
When shooting high-flow waterfalls, it is important to wipe the frontmost glass element (lens or filter) clean after each exposure. It may also be necessary to limit the exposure time to a certain duration depending on how quickly moisture builds up on the glass. The condition of the front glass layer dictates the success of every exposure and the seemingly insignificant mistake of forgetting your lens cloth can completely ruin the shot. If you are filming for long periods of time, it would be best to have several cloths ready in case one gets too wet.
There’s definitely more to it than meets the eye when looking at landscape photos of well-executed stunts. The serene and peaceful environment is the exact opposite of the logistical effort the photographer must make to create them. Being prepared for light and environmental challenges definitely pays off in the end.