Waterfalls present some of the most intriguing and beautiful places to photograph. Often the waterfall is not readily accessible and requires a bit of a hike to get back to it. This makes it imperative you know what you need and are able to carry it with you for the trek. Besides the obvious, here is a list of what you should have with you:
Tripod! The most essential tool for capturing motion and for multiple exposures.
Cable or Remote Release. Tripping the shutter with a finger can often cause a little camera shake and can lead to a softer image. A remote release will prevent this.
The Book for your camera. Know it inside and out. Understand how the time release for the shutter works as a good alternative to a cable release.
Wide angle lens. This can capture the essence of a waterfall and the surrounding area. Including the surrounding area can give the waterfall a sense of scale.
Neutral Density filter. This isn’t always necessary but can be helpful to get those extremely long exposures that make waterfalls so intriguing. A Polarizer can act as a neutral density filter as well.
And extra battery and card. Always!
Towel or cleaning cloth. Waterfall areas tend to have high humidity and moisture can accumulate on lenses and the camera body.
How to get that smooth, milky look
Some of the best images of waterfalls have a silky, milky look to the water. Be aware this can be overdone, but here’s how to do it. With your camera securely mounted on a tripod, stop down your lens to the smallest aperture possible. Meter for an area close to middle gray somewhere in the scene. Try to get your shutter speed down to ½ second or even longer if possible, but still maintain a good exposure. If the scene is fairly dark (as waterfalls tend to be because of their location) open your aperture to get the shutter speed close to ½ second. Open the shutter using a remote release or the time release for the shutter. This is to prevent camera shake when the shutter is tripped. If your camera has a mirror lock up feature, use it here as well after you have composed the image. The mirror lock up will help prevent that slight camera shake when the mirror flips up to allow light to register on the sensor.
Should the scene be fairly bright and you cannot get the shutter speed to ½ second or longer, attach the neutral density filter or the polarizer. Both neutral density filters and polarizers reduce light evenly across the total spectrum, and thus will allow the exposure to change and you can apply a longer shutter speed. As noted by Peter Hill in 2010, An ND filter is to a camera lens what a pair of sunglasses is to a human. (Peter Hill, 2010.)
Neutral Density filters come in different strengths, and the designations can be a little confusing. Below is a modified chart showing the neutral density factor and the f-stop reduction needed for the most common ND filters.
Remember the Exposure Triangle and the relationship between shutter speed and aperture. F-stop reductions can be made with shutter speed changes and not just with aperture settings. For instance, if your camera is set to f8 at ½ second, adding an ND2 neutral density filter will require an exposure change of one f-stop. That means you can open the aperture to f4 and keep the shutter speed the same ½ second, or you can keep the f stop at f8 and double the shutter speed to 1 second
ND filter types
In photography, ND filters are quantified by their optical density or equivalently their f-stop reduction.
f-stop reduction % Transmittance
ND2 1 50%
ND4 2 25%
ND8 3 12.5%