Photographing Waterfalls in Rocky Mountain National Park

Water flowing over Ouzel Falls, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Water flows down over Ouzel Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park. The use of a polarizer allowed for the color to pop in the foreground rocks. I also spent a good deal of time experimenting with shutter speeds before I capture the right amount of flow and detail in the water of Ouzel Falls. Technicial Details: Canon EOS 1Ds III, 24-105mm F4 IS L, Circular Polorizer.
Most photographers visit Rocky Mountain National Park hoping to come away with some spectacular shot of a sweeping mountain vista, or an iconic alpine lake with a perfect mirror reflection. While I feel you on that desire, sometimes weather, wind, or a line of other photographers with the same ideas may prevent one from capturing those idyllic scenes of Rocky.

Don’t fret however, when things aren’t working in your favor when it comes to photographing some of the more iconic spots like Dream Lake, or the Rock Cut there are plenty of other locations one can train their camera on.

Rocky Mountain National Park is filled with literally hundreds of waterfalls, cascades and bubbling brooks. These water features are ideal locations to photograph on windy days, cloudy or rainy mornings, or when you just want to get away from photographing the more iconic and crowded locations in Rocky. Here are a couple of quick tips for photographing waterfalls in Rocky Mountain National Park.

1. Typically you want to photograph water in either cloudy diffused light or prior to any direct sun hitting the waterfall or water feature. Diffused light allows for even lighting over the entire scene and prevents contrasty, harsh lighting that will blowout highlights or remove detail for darker areas. Your camera can only capture so many stops of light and dark, bright sun or direct lighting just makes this range more extreme. If you photograph water in Rocky Mountain National Park on a clear blue sky day prior to feature being illuminated by direct sun, expect to play with and tweak your white balance settings when processing your raw files.

2. Use a circular polarizer filter when photographing water features. Circular polarizing filters help to minimize both glare and reflections emanating from the scene. Use of a circular polarizer helps to keep the detail in both the rocks and foliage as well as to help tame bright spots present in the water. The circular polarizer will also help make colors pop by removing flare and reflection from the surfaces being photographed. Keep in mind circular polarizers require an additional two stops of exposure compensation. This can sometimes be a hindrance but it may also be a benefit as it will allow for longer exposures which create the dreamy motion effect on the water feature being photographed.

3. Experiment with both shutter speeds and ISO when photographing water. Your shutter speed will greatly affect how the motion of the water is captured. Every photographer has there own tolerances for how dreamy and silky than want the motion of the water to be represented in their final image. In general you want to capture the motion of the water while retaining some detail in the overall flow of water. Very long exposures not only create the dreamy look, but may create ‘hot spots’ of very white water that can cause a distraction to the overall image. Adjusting your camera’s ISO will help increase or decrease the shutter speed required and the correlating amount of motion capture in the water.

4.Work the scene and composition using both wide and telephoto compositions. Waterfalls and water features are great because there are literally hundreds of possibilities. Encompassing the waterfalls in the overall scene with a wide angle lens may result in an beautiful image, but using a telephoto lens to isolate and capture smaller areas of the waterfall will result in unique and original compositions as well.

5. Visit the water features and waterfalls at different points in the season. You would be surprised how different any given waterfall may look depending on the overall flow of water. Obviously the spring runoff will generate very large amounts of water flow through the feature. More pleasing compositions may actually open up as the flow of water subsides later in the season. Also, capturing waterfalls under a fresh snow, or first deep freeze will allow one to capture more unique images.

So the next time your photographing Rocky Mountain National Park and the weather or the wind is not cooperating at the more iconic locations, just get out your topo map and find some water to photograph.