Photography Basics: How to Photograph Waterfalls and Rivers

One of my favorite things is to photograph 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 that capture the viewer’s immediate attention.

Let’s talk about how to photograph waterfalls and rivers which are wondrous spectacles of water in motion. 

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HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH WATERFALLS AND RIVERS

1. Compose the Photo

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 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.

Experiment with angle, depth and perspective to create differing compositions of the subject.

 

2. Get close

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

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

Be prepared with protective gear for yourself, your feet and your camera equipment.

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.

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!

 

3. Photograph freeze motion or blur motion?

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 falling water stops in the image as seen in the photo below.

Firehole Falls, Yellowstone National Park

Blurred motion was used to capture the waterfall in the image below. It produces a photo that shows a continuous flow of silky water.

Firehole Falls waterfall in Yellowstone National Park

Shutter speed is what determines how much movement you see in the water. Start at 1/15th of a second for blurring the water and go slower when you want more blur. A setting of 1/250th or higher should capture freeze motion of the water. 

 

4. Use a tripod and shutter release 

A TRIPOD is essential when photographing waterfalls and rivers using slow shutter speeds. If you try to hold your camera, any small muscle movements will blur the rest of the scene.  

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

Use a tripod (we like MeFoto Globetrotter) and place it in a sturdy position when you select your location for the shot. If you forgot your tripod for some reason, set your camera on a flat surface and improvise.

I also recommend a remote shutter release. The goal is to reduce the amount of camera shake. Some of this is caused by touching the camera body or tripod. Use your camera’s self-timer if you don’t have one.

BEST TRAVEL TRIPODS | CAMERA ACCESSORIES

 

5. Watch the light

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 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 waterfall itself when you don’t have the most ideal lighting conditions.

 

6. Practice, practice, practice

One of the best things you can do to improve your waterfall and river photography technique is to spend time taking pictures and getting to know your camera and experimenting 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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PHOTO TIPS:

Best Camera Gear to Photograph Waterfalls and Rivers

We rely on our Camera Gear Checklist to make sure that all necessary, and possibly needed, equipment is packed in our camera bag ready to go.

We recommend the following items for photographing rivers and waterfalls:

Travel photography gear list

 

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How to Photograph Waterfalls and Rivers: Tips, Techniques, Gear   Do you wonder how to photograph waterfalls & rivers? This photography guide includes camera settings, camera angles, camera gear, and much more so you can capture amazing images of waterfalls and rivers. Don't forget to save it to your photography board!    How to take amazing waterfall photos

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