From Niagara Falls to Iceland’s Dettifoss, waterfalls are some of the planet’s finest natural wonders. I’ve had the privilege to not only visit some beautiful waterfalls during my travels, but capture them in my photography.
Waterfalls form in the upper edges of a river where the water flows over different bands of rock, eroding the soft rock to undercut the hard rock and make a waterfall. This is a process that takes many many years to result in the beautiful attractions we go out of our way to visit. Whether it’s a cascade, a plunge, a cataract, a horsetail, or a plunge, waterfalls are a breathtaking sight to behold.
Snapping a shot with a point and shoot or smartphone is simple, but for a more complex and radiant shot that really embodies the view’s essence, more advanced photography equipment and skills may be necessary.
Take it from me. When I visited Victoria Falls, I wanted to make sure I got some amazing shots that did the vision justice.
Victoria Falls, also known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, is a waterfall in southern Africa on the Zambezi River at the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. Most consider it to be one of the seven great wonders of the world, and though it’s neither the tallest or widest waterfall, it is the largest due to its combined width and height and resulting record-breaking sheet of falling water.
For those more familiar with North America’s wonders, Victoria Falls is roughly twice the size of Niagara Falls. I can tell you with certainty that, in person, it lives up to its reputation.
How to capture it, though? That’s always the question. Here are some general tips for photographing waterfalls, and some extra advice for capturing the rainbows that appear in their mist.
1. Get the right gear
You’ll want the right gear to get an amazing shot. For this photo, I used a wide angle 24mm lens and to give some blur to the water I used a 1/200 of a second exposure.
Some of the most popular waterfall photographs utilize long exposure to give the falls a surreal, smooth quality. You’ll need a tripod for stability. I’d also recommend a wide angle zoom lens and polorizing filter.
2. Read your waterfall, scenery, and weather
Not all waterfalls are created equal, and so you’ll need to approach the falls as you would any subject: different every time. Fast, raging waters will require different settings than a more delicate stream.
It will also depend on the weather, season, and time of day. How much light do you have? Do you need a darkening lens? Visiting a waterfall when the weather is overcast is ideal, but if you can’t get a cloudy day, sunset or sunrise can provide the diffused light you need.
To add drama to your waterfall pictures it is sometimes useful to add an element in the foreground. Above, the mighty Iguassu Falls are framed by foliage on the top of the image.
Once you have your subject, your equipment, your settings, and the right atmosphere to get a good shot, take the time to think about composition. The above image combines a small waterfall in the foreground with a double rainbow in the middle and the main waterfall in the back for an eye-catching composition (Garganta del Diablo, the Devil’s Throat, Iguazu Falls, Argentine side).
In the featured photo of Victoria Falls, you can see that I used the rule of thirds to compose this shot, with the rainbow occupying the left third and the falls, the right two-thirds.
4. Bonus: Rainbows
Rainbows occur frequently by waterfalls thanks to the generous amount of spray generated by the falling water. This water acts as a prism, which sunlight passes through to form a rainbow. Your polarizing filter will really come in handy to bring out the rainbow’s vivid colors.
Luckily, much of the same tips that apply to shooting waterfalls can also capture amazing rainbow photos. Even luckier, your chances of seeing a rainbow by a waterfall are good. With a little luck and strategy, you’re all but guaranteed to get a great shot.