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  • Austin James Jackson

7 Tips to Improve Your Waterfall Photography

Columbia river gorge waterfall photography
A waterfall in the Columbia River Gorge

Waterfalls can be some of the most compelling subjects to photograph, especially for those of us in the Pacific Northwest. The incredible amount of waterfalls means that you can spend weeks photographing different scenes without getting bored.

In this week's blog post, I'll be giving you 7 practical tips that will help you take your waterfall photography to the next level.

1. Correct the White Balance

The first step to post processing any photo successfully is to neutralize the white balance. You don't need to select a white balance in the field, but you should be correcting it once you upload your photo into Lightroom/Photoshop.

When correcting white balance, look to make sure that the water color in the whites of the water is pure white or slightly blue (personal preference). If the color of the river is normally blue, you don't want to neutralize that, but rather just look at the color of the waterfall itself because that should be white or slightly blue.

silver falls autumn photography
I used the clouds and the water to help neutralize the white balance so that the image didn't appear too blue, and my fall foliage looked realistic.

2. Don't Oversaturate the Blues

One thing I find myself constantly doing when editing my waterfall photos is reducing the saturation of the blues. As you push your RAW file, the blues in the water tend to oversaturate very easily, and this is something that you'll want to avoid. As a general rule of thumb, I personally like to leave the saturation of my waterfall and other whites of the river under 5%.

Metlako falls autumn photography
One of my favorite waterfall photos from a viewpoint that has washed away.

3. Focus Stack

If you have a close-up foreground, you'll need to do a focus stack in order to get the whole frame in focus. When you're looking for foregrounds, look for rocks where the water seems to slide off, rather than pool up. Pooling water does not make the most interesting foreground, while sliding water seems to create leading lines into your frame. If you aren't sure how to focus stack, fear not! I'll be writing another blog post on how to focus stack in the next few weeks.

4. Crashing Water + Sunlight = Light Rays

Cloudy days are often a photographer's choice when shooting waterfalls, but early morning or late afternoon sunlight often provides the best light for waterfalls. If you're shooting a raging waterfall, the mist from the falls can often times be illuminated, creating light rays.

Koosah Falls photography
This raging waterfall and the sunlight combined for some amazing light in the late afternoon.

5. Use a Polarizer

I can't emphasize this tip enough. So many photographers overlook the importance of filters. A polarizer is one filter that you simply can't "fake" in Photoshop, so it's crucial that you get this one right in the field. You need to use a polarizer because it helps cut glare off of the rocks and water, allowing you to see more color in the water as well as see through the water to the rocks down below.

I use the Hoya HD3 Polarizer, and I highly recommend picking up one of Hoya's polarizers. If you do need filters, you can check out this blog post where I talked about picking out filters. You can also use "Jackson15" at checkout to get 15% off.

toketee falls kayaking photography
Using a polarizer helped cut the glare off of the water and foreground rocks, allowing my subject (kayaker and waterfall) to really stand out.

6. Experiment with Different Shutter Speeds

I find that some waterfalls look better at fast shutter speeds, while others look good at slower shutter speeds. Usually, I like shooting giant raging waterfalls at a fast shutter, while the smaller falls usually look better at a slow shutter.

While you're on location, it's definitely worth trying both to see which one looks better. Even if you think one way in the field, at least take both so that you have options. Often times, you'll find that your mind has changed by the time you go to upload images on the computer.

spirit falls kayaking photography
A faster shutter speed is often interesting if the waterfall is raging. You can see how I was able to freeze this frame by using a super fast shutter speed.

7. Dodge and Burn Effectively in Post Processing

Dodging and burning waterfall photos is incredibly important to add depth to your shot. I like masking the lights, and then dodging the foreground water in order to create depth. Also, dodging the waterfall in the background can help increase the depth provided in your images, since it gives the illusion that there is more atmosphere between the foreground and your waterfall.

Proxy falls landscape photography
I applied more dodging to the spot where the water slides off the rock, which helped increase the depth in this photo.

Waterfall photography can prove challenging, but it is one type of landscape photography that shoots well year round. I love photographing waterfalls in the spring, just to return in the summer, fall, and winter, since every season provides it's own beauty.

Hopefully these tips helped and you'll be able to put them to use when shooting waterfalls this winter and spring. As always, I'm happy to answer questions in the comments or via email! Happy shooting!