I don’t suggest that I am a great photographer. Men like Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, David Muench, Ray Atkeson and the like have slammed shut the door on duffers like me. I have shot and wasted enough film to have stumbled upon some reasonable tips to help ensure that you won’t waste as much film as I did in order to capture the qualities of the waterfall in your viewfinder. This information is designed for the photographer who has a basic understanding of exposure.

The Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera is far more versatile than a point and shoot type of camera.

1) If not using a digital camera, use the right film

I wasted so much time trying to shoot fast film at a waterfall. I used to shoot 50 speed film, Fuji Velvia, which allowed me the use of a longer exposure time. I find slower films yield more favorable results than faster films. I also use Fuji films which good color saturation, especially in the blue and green portions of the spectrum. Fuji Reala was my print film of choice, on the odd occasion I used print film. I use a digital camera these days, saving a ton on film is a great benefit. You also can check your exposure and gamut warnings on the spot, so guesswork has been eliminated.

Composition with the Rule of Thirds2) Compose your shot using solid compositional rules

The “Rule of Thirds.” Using your imagination, superimpose a “Tic-Tac-Toe” diagram onto the scene you are about to shoot. The “Rule of Thirds” suggests that the action in the image should take place at one of the four points at which the lines cross.

The "Golden Ratio." Rather than a 50/50 split or the thirds used by the aforementioned "Rule of Thirds", this is a ratio that seems to be based on the Fibonacci sequence, where each number in a progression is equal to the sum of the two previous numbers. For example: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, etc. If you're not a mathematics wizard, it boils down roughly to a 3:5 ratio. Its applications divide into two primary categories:

The "Golden Triangle” rule applies to images with a strong diagonal line. If you divide the image from one corner to the opposite corner, you'll have one strong diagonal. Superimpose a second triangle from an unused corner to the pre-existing diagonal. Make the lines in your frame coincide with these lines.
The "Golden Rectangle" is similar to the "Golden Triangle" except you are dividing your image into a pair of rectangles, then subdividing the smaller rectangle using the 3:5 ratio.

Dividing a composition with the Golden Triangle theory   Composition using the Golden Rectangle theory

If the day is overcast, don’t frame your shot such that the gray of the skies are visible at the top of the falls. It tends to blur the distinction between falls and sky. If the top of a waterfall has the sky as a backdrop, I’ll try to shoot the falls in the morning or evening of a sunny day when the light doesn’t shine directly on the white water. This time of day, with its soft blue/pink tinted glow is often referred to as “Sweet Light.”

3) Use the right exposure to capture the image you have in mind

A good rule is to “wash out” a gentle waterfall and to “freeze” a powerful one. To wash out a waterfall, leave the shutter open for a longer period of time.  In order to start the “washing out” process, you need to use a shutter time no shorter than one eighth of a second. I prefer to leave the shutter open for as long as I can.  There are many ways to do this without overexposing your photo: I don’t often shoot photos on a sunny day, I use polarizing and neutral density filters which block a certain amount of light, I like to shoot in the early morning - or at dusk when the light takes on a softer glow,  I close my f-stop down to f-22.  These factors all work together to allow me the longest possible exposure.

To freeze a waterfall, use the shortest exposure necessary to properly expose the image. This will connote the power of the rushing water. This is one of the few circumstances when I welcome the presence of the sun when I’m making photographs.  It works best with large waterfalls with good exposure to the light.  Bracketing your exposures will increase the likelihood of getting a decent shot.  If my light meter suggests a one second exposure at f-22, I’ll shoot exposures of 1/4 ,1/2, 1, 2 and 4 seconds.  Given the five stop latitude of print film and the three stop latitude of slide film, all five exposures (or three, if you use slide film) in theory, will be usable. This isn’t always the case, so I make sure to have exposures of several different lengths to hedge my bets. I also have gotten into the habit of taking insurance shots, meaning more than one image at each recommended exposure.  This decreases the likelihood that you will lose a shot to something like a scratched negative or a similar event.  Even if you burn a whole roll of film at the waterfall, film is cheap, certainly less than the cost and effort of a return to a waterfall to take new shots because the last attempt wasn’t well executed. 

Galen Rowell suggests that photographers must strive to see the image as the film will see it. The human eye, in his estimation, could detect 11 stops of light. Print film “sees” about five stops of light, and Slide film only “sees” three stops. Let’s say you are photographing a waterfall that is lit up by the sun. If you expose for the bright areas (hot spots) you will badly underexpose the shadows. If you expose for the shadows, you will badly overexpose the light areas. This is why I don’t often shoot waterfalls on sunny days.

4) Have the right tools for the job

A tripod is a thing of joy, and is indispensable when taking a long exposure.  “Shutter shake” becomes an issue at speeds of 1/15th of a second or slower.  The tripod will eliminate this.  A telephoto lens magnifies “shutter shake".  This makes a tripod necessary for any telephotography.  If you don’t have a tripod, the lower end models are quite inexpensive.  If you forget your tripod, don’t despair.  I’ve had pretty good results using my wadded up shirt as a pad for the camera.  Don’t laugh; it saved me once or twice.  A cable release is also a very nice thing to have.  Using a cable release means you won’t have a slight jiggle when you press the button to take your photo.  If you don’t have one or forgot it at home, no problem - use your timer to trigger the shutter. 

A camera bag is also a good idea.  The only damage to my medium format camera came when I was too lazy to carry the camera bag up to the Falls of Lana.  I tripped on a rock and gave my camera a good whack.  It works fine, but there was quite a lot of cosmetic damage to the viewing hood.  Camera bags also hold lots of film, filters, lenses, and other photographical necessities.

Filters are also very helpful. If I could only keep one filter, I would select the Circular Polarizer.  It cuts glare, minimizes reflections, and eats up a stop or two of light which allows me to use a longer exposure.  The polarizer is the most frequently used filter in my bag.  I sometimes use an Ultraviolet (UV) Filter which cuts haze on long shots.  I have a couple of Warming Filters (81A) that I use to add a gentle orange or yellow hue to an image that is likely to be too blue or gray, unless I want the image to be that way.  I use Neutral Density Filters to allow me a longer exposure.  These are simply tools that help me to reach my desired results.

Remember the simple tips: proper film, proper exposures, and proper composition. Meet these few criteria and you can’t go wrong.