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Designing and Composing Waterfall Photographs: A Visual Approach

In another article, Edwin Martinez shared some basic tips on photographing waterfalls. Here, he provides some more ideas on how to approach the next exciting challenge: Deciding how to compose your shot. (Text by: Edwin Martinez)

Composing waterfall photos (Top)

Visual design is a key element in presenting your photographs. It is about how you implement your vision and arrange elements to work harmoniously within the frame. Here are some basic templates that may help you out.


Before you start: Explore first and assess the location
Check vantage points. Can you access the waterfalls? What are the elements present at the base of the waterfalls? Are there iconic landmarks around the waterfalls that you can include in the frame, such as a rainbow, mountains, hills, or grand scenes?

Rainbow in waterfall

Skogafoss, Iceland
EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM/ FL: 19mm/ f/16.0, 8.0 sec/ ISO 50/ WB: Auto


1. The Classic
If a waterfall can be approached near its base, find interesting elements such as rocks, leaves, tree branches, etc. Choose your foreground and make sure the shapes lead the viewer to the waterfalls. Never choose a foreground element that is horizontal in shape.

The classic approach to waterfall photography

Kalayaan Twin Falls
EOS M3/ EF-M11-22mm f/4-5.6 IS STM/ FL: 12mm (19mm equivalent)/ f/8, 1.0sec/ ISO 100/ WB: Auto


2. The Diagonals
The inclusion of dynamic lines, such as diagonals or curves, will be a sure hit in any visual design. Such lines lead the eye of the viewer to the waterfall. Diagonals can be found in almost anything from rocks to the shape of the shoreline of the river.

Using diagonals in waterfall photography

Gulfoss, Iceland
EOS 5DS R/ EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 22mm/ f/16.0, 1.0sec/ ISO 100/ WB: Auto


3. Reflections
In any waterfall environment, you will usually find shallow pools of water forming around the area. Look for reflections in them and use this as your foreground element. Don’t forget to use a circular polarizing filter (CPL filter) to enhance the reflection.

You might be interested in: Tips for Water Reflection Photography: Fun with Puddles!

Using reflections in waterfall photography

Skogafoss, Iceland
EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM/ f/16/ 1.0 sec/ ISO 50


4. The Top View 
Certain types of waterfalls such as the punchbowl type can only be viewed from the top. Try to use the cliff as your leading lines. Remember that curves are also dynamic lines.

Leading lines in a high angle, high position waterfall shot

EOS 5D Mark IV/ EF70-200mm f/4L USM/ f/16/ 129.0 sec/ ISO 100


5. The Intimate
You don’t always have to use a wide-angle lens to photograph waterfalls. Certain types of waterfalls, such as those with multi-levels and steps, would be better shot with a telephoto lens to highlight details.

Waterfall, shot with telephoto lens

Hraunfossar, Iceland
EOS 5D Mark III/ EF70-200mm f/4L USM/ f/16/ 4.0 sec/ ISO 50


6. The Inclusion of Iconic elements 
If the waterfall is beside a mountain, include it in your composition too. Use the waterfall as the foreground element that leads towards the landmark.

Iconic elements: Mountain and waterfall

EOS 5DS/ EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM/ f/16/ 1/4 sec/ ISO 100


I hope these tips will provide a jumpstart to photographing waterfalls. Research the nearest waterfalls in your area. In the Philippines, some waterfalls worth visiting are in Laguna, around 2 hours drive from Metro Manila. They include the Pagsanjan Falls, Kalayaan Twin Falls, Liliw Waterfalls and others.

Happy shooting!

For more tips on photographing waterfalls, read:
Photographing Waterfalls: To Freeze or to Blur?
Waterfall Photography: Accentuating Your Photo with a Rainbow

For more stunning landscape photos by Edwin Martinez,  check out our Photographer's Blog:
Capturing the magnitude of landscapes with Edwin Martinez


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Edwin Martinez

Edwin Martinez
Edwin Martinez is widely respected as one of the finest landscape photographers the Philippines has ever produced. His vast experience shooting different locales in his home country and abroad - in Iceland, Canada, The American West, among others - have cemented for Edwin an undisputed distinction of expertise in the field of photography. He is a Canon Philippines Brand Ambassador, a National Geographic adventurer contributor and constant presence in both local and international photography publications. Furthermore, he is also major partner in Iceland’s number one photography tour and workshop,  Edwin is also a dedicated mentor to photographers, whether it is in the workshops that he teaches or the photography tours that he guides to the most challenging and stunning locations around the world under Wide Horizon Photo Adventure. Edwin is a sought after speaker and instructor and also shoots for several high profile companies. He is an inspiration for this generation's band of photographers and many wait for photos from his next adventures.