In the previous segment of this two-part series, we discussed some of the technical considerations surrounding waterfall photography. The emphasis of this installment will be on the aesthetic side of the endeavor. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: there will be no objective truths revealed in this post for the simple reason that they don’t exist. My intention here will be to provide some things for you to consider that may (or may not) help you uncover and reveal your creative side when photographing waterfalls.
Rendering the Water
As I noted last time, one thing that you’ll need to determine is how you want the water part of a waterfall image to look. While there’s obviously a technical component to this topic (as revealed in the previous post), the decision itself is essentially an aesthetic one. The technical side is about how to turn the crank—how to go about the business of obtaining the look you’re after.
I almost always prefer a silky look to waterfalls and cascades, but that is a) a matter of personal taste and b) almost always true. There are exceptions, such as the image below where I much preferred the abstract look of this sectional falls shot, which was very deliberately taken at a relatively quick 1/50 second.
How you render the flow of the water will play an important role in the mood that is established by the image, so be sure to keep that in mind when setting up your shot.
All of It or Just Some of It?
Many photographers reflexively feel the need to include all of a waterfall—from the very top to the splash pool at the bottom—in every image. While there are many times when you will want to do just that, don’t feel a compulsion to do so. It‘s quite possible to produce a compelling waterfall image without including the entirety of the entity in a single frame. In fact, sometimes you’ll find that the image is more compelling when you don’t include all of it.
Sometimes shooting an entire waterfall means also including a hot spot in trees above the waterfall, or a patch of unappealing gray sky or some other undesirable element that serves as a distraction. In such instances, experiment by omitting part of the falls from the frame.
Conversely, the bottom of a waterfall may itself by an unattractive feature, filled with logs and other debris. Or, you may instill a sense of mystery in your shot by hiding the bottom of a waterfall.
You may find that simply shooting sections of waterfalls—possibly excluding both the top and the bottom—can produce something interesting and unusual.
The Rest of the Scene
One thing that just about every photographer new to waterfall shooting does is take a head-on shot of the cataract. And there’s nothing wrong with that…as long as you investigate other options as well. Sometimes head-on shots of waterfalls can be extremely evoking in their simplicity. But there are many ways to assemble scenes that include waterfalls as one of many elements.
The real key is to investigate many different angles, rather than simply settling for the most easily accessible spot. Whenever I shoot around water I wear a pair of knee-high waterproof rubber boots, which makes it possible to shoot from places that wouldn’t be under consideration—whether that means tramping through water to get to a more compelling perspective or literally standing in water to get the shot.
I’m always on the lookout for interesting foregrounds to incorporate into the image, to add a bit of complementary spice to what otherwise might be a fairly prosaic shot.
Sometimes it’s possible to get behind the waterfall, which can often lead to a unique perspective.
What the Eye Can’t See
Occasionally, you’ll see the makings of an eddy or whirlpool or other feature that can’t be seen with the naked eye when shooting around waterfalls. When you see such opportunities, experimenting with long shutter speeds can at times produce remarkable waterfall-related elements that otherwise would go unrevealed.
In the end, the thing to do when shooting waterfalls is to remain creative and dogged. The key to producing compelling images of waterfalls is to remember that each cataract is as different as the most effective way to render it. There are few better opportunities to “work a scene” than when photographing around waterfalls, so take the readily apparent shot, if you must, and then look around and see how else you might present your subject to the world.
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.