Simple Steps to Learn How to Photograph Waterfalls and Rivers

It’s important to use basic photography techniques when taking pictures of waterfalls and rivers.

My goal is to help you learn how to photograph waterfalls and rivers with these simple steps:

  • Camera equipment needed to photograph waterfalls and rivers
  • Composition
  • Camera stability
  • Camera settings
  • Practice 
how to photograph waterfalls

One of my favorite subjects to photograph is waterfalls and rivers. 

I guess it stems from a fascination I’ve had with moving water since I was a kid. I think I always associated rivers and waterfalls with adventure and discovery. To this day rivers and waterfalls still fill me with a sense of awe.

When you photograph a waterfall or river the right way, it can produce a stunning image to capture the viewer’s immediate attention.

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Camera Equipment for Landscape Photography

We like to use a Camera Gear Checklist of our equipment so we don’t forget anything when heading out to take photos!

Here’s a few of the important things you’ll need photograph reflections in water:

1. Camera: If you’re looking for something new… check out the compact travel cameras we recommend!

2. Tripod: We are big proponents of using a tripod. There are many compact and lightweight options out there that are easy to use. Check out the travel tripods we recommend!

3. Lenses: A good prime lens works well for photographing reflections. We find that wider angles work best. For landscapes we use 24mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.8, and 24-120mm f/4 lenses. → Prime lenses for landscape photography.

4. Camera Bag: Protecting your camera from the elements (like sand and dust) is essential. Using a camera backpack is so nice for hiking too. Check out our camera backpack for outdoor photography.

5. Neutral density filter: There can be extreme differences in light outdoors when photographing landscape scenes. To compensate for this variance of light you’ll need to use a neutral density filter. Check out the Kase magnetic filters we use!

6. Camera cleaning kit: You’ll want a field cleaning kit to remove dust or water that may make its way to your lens. NOTE: this is not for cleaning the sensor. This is the camera cleaning kit we use!

7. Memory cards: Purchase name brand memory cards since you’re trusting your images to the card! → We use Lexar and Sandisk!

8. External hard drive: Don’t forget to copy the photos to a portable external hard drive ‘just in case’. → Check out these awesome portable external hard drives

9. Headlamp: Early morning or late evening is a good time for photographing reflections. This means you may be navigating in the dark. We like to wear a headlamp because it allows us to set up equipment without having to hold a flashlight. Remember to use the red light setting and keep the beam pointed on the ground in front of you to avoid disrupting other photographers in the area. → Check out these headlamps with the red light!

How to Photograph Waterfalls and Rivers

Here are the things I’ve learned over the years that have improved my waterfall and river photography.

Composition: Tell the Story of the Waterfall or River Location

Take time to understand the scene where the waterfall and river are located so you can convey the emotion and experience of being there in person.

  • What about the location moves you?
  • What do you enjoy in the scene?
  • What parts constitute the whole?
  • How do you frame and shoot your image to express all the pieces that are important to you?

When I first arrived at the river in the image below, I started photographing the river from the bridge. The results were fine, but they didn’t convey the beauty of the scene as I was seeing it.

River in American Fork Canyon, Utah

As I walked along this river I finally found the perfect spot that captured the essence of what I was seeing in person.

The photograph of the river below contains a number of components that combine to create what I find to be a stunning and moving image:

  • bridge
  • stone wall
  • rocks in the foreground
River running under a bridge in American Fork Canyon, Utah

The line of the river helps draw the eye into the photograph toward the bridge. Every time I look at this picture I feel the same peace and connection I felt when I experienced it.

PHOTO TIP: When photographing rivers or waterfalls, experiment with angle, depth and perspective to create differing compositions of the subject.

Composition: Get Close to the River or Waterfall for a Unique Perspective

Many times the best shot of a river or waterfall requires you to get close to, or even in, the water.

photographer bending over a log to take a picture of a river

PHOTO TIP: Be prepared with protective gear for yourself, your feet and your camera equipment when taking pictures of waterfalls and rivers.

Part of my photography routine is to walk around and take various shots of any subject. One angle I wanted to take required getting right in the middle of the river!

I had no problem plunging through the cold water since I had winter gear to keep me warm and had water boots to keep my feet dry.

photographer in a river to take a picture

One thing I always carry in my camera backpack is a package of lens cloths. You will need these whenever you photograph water.

PHOTO TIP: Spray from waterfalls and rivers WILL get your lens wet. Use a good quality lens cloth to remove moisture.

mini waterfall in American Fork River, Utah

My efforts to get closer to the mini waterfall in the river resulted in a terrific photograph!

Camera Stability – Use a Tripod When Photographing Waterfalls and Rivers

Keeping the camera still is one of the most important factors to getting a sharp image.

If you find your photos are blurry, we recommend you use a tripod. When you try to hold your camera to take photos, any small muscle movements will blur parts of the scene.

A TRIPOD is essential when photographing waterfalls and rivers using slow shutter speeds. 

photographer with tripod taking a photo in the middle of a river

I also recommend a remote shutter release.

Your goal when taking pictures is to reduce the amount of camera shake. Some of this is caused by touching the camera body when you press the button to take a picture. Use your camera’s self-timer if you don’t have a remote shutter release.

Camera Settings for Taking Pictures of Waterfalls or Rivers

When you photograph a waterfall or river, you’ll need to decide if you want to use freeze motion or blurred motion. Each technique produces a completely different feel and appearance.

Freeze motion captures a specific time where the moving water stops in time as seen in the image below.

Firehole Falls, Yellowstone National Park

Blurred motion captures a continuous flow of moving water to give it a silky appearance as seen in the image below.

Firehole Falls waterfall in Yellowstone National Park

The shutter speed setting determines how much movement you see in the water.

This is my process for finding just the right camera settings for photographing waterfalls and rivers:

1. Using the camera meter, I adjust the settings for the scene the same way I do when taking any landscape photo.

2. My preferred camera settings for waterfall and river photography are:

    • Aperture f14

    • Shutter Speed ⅛ second (I get motion blur and still maintains detail in the image)

    • ISO 100  

Sometimes conditions require adjustment from these settings. If so, I may change to a smaller aperture and a lower ISO in order to accompish the longer exposure. 

I don’t like to go smaller than an f16 aperture so that light diffraction is minimal. The light diffraction can affect the sharpness of the image.

PHOTO TIP: Instead of going smaller than an f16 aperture, I use nuetral density filters to create longer exposures

The neutral density filters are good to use when light conditions are too bright for the long exposures to be captured with only camera settings.

Camera Settings: Watch the Light When Photographing Waterfalls and Rivers

The sun is not your friend when photographing waterfalls or rivers because it creates bright spots and dark shadows in the image.

It’s best to shoot during the Golden Hours around sunrise and sunset. Or take advantage of the shade from objects around the water.

Undine Falls waterfall in Yellowstone National Park

Many waterfalls and rivers are in deep canyons. As long as the sun is behind a mountain with the whole waterfall or river in the shade, you can take a long exposure photo with nice even light.

Overcast days give you more time to photograph. You aren’t constrained to sunrise or sunset.

The colors of moss and leaves around the waterfall or river are also more vibrant on overcast or rainy days.

Yellowstone River above the Upper Falls at Yellowstone National Park

You can also compose your shots to focus more closely on the river or waterfall itself when you don’t have the most ideal lighting conditions.

PHOTO TIP: If light conditions are too bright for the long exposures to be captured with only camera settings, then we recommend you use neutral density filters to help balance the light in the scene.

Best Tip To Photograph Waterfalls and Rivers: Practice

One of the best things you can do to improve your waterfall and river photography technique is to spend time taking pictures.

Get to know your camera and experiment with settings. 

Faux Falls in Moab, Utah

Find a location where you can photograph waterfalls or rivers at different times of day, with different types of settings and different weather conditions.

We enjoy photographing the various waterfalls at Yellowstone National Park.

You should never get bored photographing at the same location because the resulting images will vary when you switch up the time of day, season, composition and angle.

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