I love waterfalls, and over the years I've had a lot of experience in capturing them. This post deals with some of their magic and some of the techniques for photographing them.
Waterfalls come in a number of types: horsetails (thin vertical falls), punchbowls (where water pours from a "spout" into a bowl-shaped catchment), and cascades (step-like series of falls) are three of the most common. Broad falls, like Niagara, are also common. So are chutes, plunges, and ribbons. You can see examples of these, and other types here.
Waterfalls pose great challenges to the photographer. First is access. The Creator rarely put these gems where they could be seen without effort. The various park services have tried to improve on the Creator's notion of access, but the fact remains: the best ones are often the hardest to get to. But there are still plenty within easy reach of paths and parking areas.
On the general subject of access, waterfalls are dangerous places. If you're on top of a waterfall, one slip can be fatal. If you're at the bottom, broken legs are easy to get from stumbling or tripping on the slippery, wet rocks you'll usually find. In the middle, you're often clinging to a cliff and hoping for the best. Carrying a length of stout rope is a REALLY good idea when visiting falls. So is having a buddy, if you're going to be scrambling on wet rocks.
I shot this
The second great challenge is lighting. By the nature of things, waterfalls are nearly white, and their surroundings typically are dark. This gives cameras and photographers heartburn. If you shoot to expose the water properly, the surroundings will be too dark. If you shoot for the overall environment, you will wind up either over or underexposed. The problem is that the range from light to dark in most waterfall scenes is greater than the camera can handle. Our eyes can manage, but few cameras can handle this sort of range.
The third big challenge is getting a decent, unobstructed view while still staying safe and dry (or dry-ish). Waterfalls make a great place for view-obstructing logs to lodge. They also encourage spindly bushes with far too many leaves to grow where they have no business being!
Sometimes the problem of obstructions and access can force you into a place with limited visibility. A small folding brush saw is an excellent idea!
So, here are some tips for dealing with the various challenges.
First, decide what it is you want to convey about the waterfall: its shape? It's romantic quality? Its power? The two pictures at the top illustrate the different "feel" you can get. Both shots are of the same falls, the Sol Duc falls in the Olympia National Park. The main difference between them is shutter speed .... but the feeling of each shot is completely different.
If the waterfall is a cascade or plunge, or in a very romantic setting, you may want to get that smooth and foamy look. To get this look you need long exposures. It's best to shoot in cloudy conditions, or just before dawn or at dusk. Bright sunlight is your enemy.
You will need to use a tripod and an exposure time of about 1/3 to 1/2 of a second. To get shutter speeds this slow, use a neutral density filter, or two polarizing filters stacked together at right angles, and your slowest ISO setting. Most often you will shoot at the highest aperture you've got, f22 or f28 or f32, especially if you've got sun to worry about. What you can do is set the exposure, then plus up by up to 1 stop. This will let the whites be whiter without totally killing the darker background .... usually.
Again, you cannot get good results for the "foamy" look without a tripod. And, while you're at it, use time delay and mirror pre-up if you have it to minimize vibration. And don't shoot for foamy on a windy day; all the vegetation will look blurred, as well as the falls themselves.
If you want to capture the setting, or the liveliness of the water, shoot at between 1/80 and 1/250th of a second.
If you want to capture the power of the fall, or if view is obstructed, try 1/125 of a second, and focus only on a particular part of the fall. You can get some amazing results this way! Here's an example:
Here is a special gallery of waterfall shots. You can see most of the different sorts.
I'll be writing more about waterfalls in coming posts. But this is enough to get you started. Have fun and be safe!