Waterfall season is almost here, are you ready?

crystal cascade waterfall pinkham notch
Crystal Cascade, Pinkham Notch, NH.

Who’s ready for some waterfalls? I know I am!

It’s Spring time, it’s getting warmer outside, the snow we got here in New Hampshire is starting to melt.

All of which means it’s Waterfall Time!

Those of you who’ve been following me for even a short time know I love to photograph waterfalls. In fact, waterfalls may very well be my single favorite thing to photograph. Lucky for me the White Mountains of New Hampshire has a wide variety of falling water for me to explore.

Below is a list of my most used waterfall photography gear. You’ll find gear I won’t leave home without, as well as a few items that aren’t absolutely necessary but will aid in capturing you favorite local waterfall.

Tripod ~ number one on my “Don’t Leave Home Without It” list.

(Actually, it’s the only thing on my “Don’t Leave Home Without it” list).

canon gitzo tripod waterfall long exposure
Tripod required. Setting up for a long exposure at the base of Cloudland Falls.

The single most important piece of gear you’re going to need while photographing waterfalls, besides the obvious need for a camera, is a good sturdy tripod.

In order to capture that silky smooth water you see in so many waterfall images, you’re going to need long exposure times, anywhere from half a second up to a minute or more. This means your camera needs to be absolutely still while the shutter is open. Otherwise the surrounding scenery will be just as silky looking(blurry) as the water. Not a good thing!

I highly recommend splurging a little bit when it comes to investing in a camera support system. While tempting due to their low price, I urge to to stay away from those cheap  $20-$30 tripods you’ll find in the big box stores. They will do the job, barely, but they are usually not all that sturdy, don’t have the range of adjustment that better tripods do(legs don’t move independently), and are all around more of a pain in the backside to use than a good tripod will be.

Plan on spending at least $250-$300 for a decent entry level tripod and head, with better models that can easily set you back over $1,000. Yikes!

Speaking of heads, I would also recommend going with a ball head over pan/tilt style head for its smoother and easier range of adjustment. Also, I recommend ball head with an Arca-Swiss compatible clamp for attaching your camera to the head. There are numerous companies that make Arca-Swiss compatible ball heads and plates, allowing you to mix and match brands.

Take it from me, a good tripod and ball head is a pleasure to use and well worth the investment.

Recommended extras.

The “two birds with one stone filter”, the Singh Ray Vari-N-Duo. A circular polarizing filter and variable neutral density filter all in one. Not inexpensive!

Circular Polarizer Filter (CPL). 

The CPL almost made it onto the “Must Have” list, but because you can make beautiful waterfall photos without one it was bumped to the “Highly Recommended” list.

What a CPL does is reduce the glare and reflection on wet surfaces. It also adds saturation to the colors in the photo. A CPL will also reduce the light hitting your cameras sensor by from 1-2 stops, aiding your ability to utilize longer exposure times. Because of this a CPL may be the only filter you need when photographing waterfalls.

As with anything, you get what you pay for when it comes to filters. I suggest you buy the best you can afford from companies like B+W, Singh Ray, and Formatt-Hitech(there are others, these are the ones I have experience with).

Money saving tip: Buy a single good CPL that fits whatever lens you have with the largest filter thread diameter. Then, buy inexpensive step down rings to adapt it to all of your lenses with smaller diameter front threads. This saves you from having to buy a separate, expensive filter for each of your lenses.

Neutral Density (ND) Filters. 

When a CPL doesn’t reduce the light enough for you to be able to use your desired shutter speed, it’s time to add some neutral density filters to your collection.

Think of ND filters as sunglasses for your camera. Rated by the amount, or stops of light they block, ND filters are available from 1- to as much as 16-stops and are great for getting long, or really, really long exposures when the ambient light is otherwise too bright. One thing to be aware of is that some of the higher stop ND filters can add a color cast to your photo that will need to be corrected later in the computer.

ND filters come in both round screw on filters and square filters designed to work with a filter holder mounted to the front of your lens. Again, you get what you pay for. In my filter case you’ll find 3-, 6-, and 10-stop square ND filters that I use with a Formatt-Hitech Firecrest 100 Filter holder.  (The great thing about this filter holder is that it comes with several adaptor rings to fit a wide variety of filter thread diameters, as well as having a high quality circular polarizer included. All at a very reasonable price).

These filters are stackable as well, with the above combination giving me as much as 19 – stops of light reduction if I were to use all three at once. More when used on conjunction with a polarizer.

large fan of water splashing up at Thompson Falls

Micro Fiber Cloth. 

You will get water drops on the front of your lens or filter. It’s not a question of if, it’s a matter of when and how often. You won’t always see them when looking through the viewfinder either, so check the front of your lens often. There’s nothing worse than finding out when you get home and upload the images onto your computer, that there’s a big blurry blob on the middle of what you thought was the best photo of the day.

Water Shoes. 

That’s right, water shoes. I rarely, if ever photograph waterfalls while standing on the banks of a river or stream. I want unique compositions, and that means getting wet. As long as it’s safe to do so I’ll wade right in to capture a unique angle on the waterfall.

There are two water shoes that I use, the Vasque Lotic, and the La Sportiva TX2. Both stick like glue to wet rock, though sadly the Lotic has been discontinued and are getting hard to find online.

Pretty short list, isn’t it?

Give me a camera with wide angle zoom lens, a decent tripod, circular polarizer and a micro fiber cloth and I can photograph waterfalls all day long.

Stay tuned for Waterfall Photography: Camera Settings and Composition Tips




8 thoughts on “Waterfall Photography Part 1: The Gear

    1. Just about everything I mentioned, and will be mentioning in the next article on camera settings, would work with fountains too. Paris must have one or two fountains kicking around you could practice on. 🙂

    1. That Vari-N-Duo is painfully expensive. Cost is size dependent, with the one I have, the 77mm standard mount, costing $390 U.S.

      It’s an excellent filter, but unfortunately it vignettes like crazy at anything below about 24mm. That’s on a full frame camera though. I still need to pick up a step down ring to be able to use it on any of my Fuji lenses. I’m hoping due to the Fuji being a crop sensor the vignetting won’t be so bad.

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