How to Photograph Waterfalls in Yosemite

Photographer Grant Ordelheide showcases his photos of waterfalls and gives you tips on how best photograph these cascades.
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Yosemite's grand cascades draw admirers from all over the world. Here's how, when, and where to see the best of them—and professional tips from our photographer for capturing unforgettable images of the tumbling water.

LeConte Falls on the Glen Aulin Trail

Laconte Falls by Grant Ordelheide

Laconte Falls. Shot details: Canon 5D Mark II camera, 17-40mm lens at 40mm, ISO 400, f/10, 1/800th second

LeConte Falls and nearby Waterwheel Falls a short distance further on the trail, both showcase a phenomenon that occurs during high runoff: Water splashes backward after hitting a ledge or groove in the granite, circling back on itself to form a "waterwheel." LeConte has several medium-sized water wheels, while Waterwheel Falls has a giant one sometimes reaching a height of over 30-feet tall.

See it: Take the Glen Aulin 10.6 miles from Tuolumne Meadows to reach this backcountry tumbler.
When to go: July through September for snow-free hiking
Pro tip: Use a polarizing filter to darken the blues of the sky and reduce reflections from the bright granite.

Bridalveil Fall from Tunnel View

Bridalveil Falls by Grant Ordelheide

Bridalveil Falls. Shot details: Canon 5D Mark II camera, 70-200mm lens at 89mm, ISO 50, f/14, 20 seconds

Tunnel View is one of the park's most celebrated Valley vistas, encompassing Half Dome, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Fall.

See it: Just east of Wawona Tunnel on Wawona Road. Or hike the .5-mile Bridalveil Fall Trail.
When to go: May for peak flow
Pro tip: Shoot before sunrise or after sunset. Changing temps in springtime often fill the valley with eerie fog.

Vernal Fall from the Mist Trail

Vernal Falls by Grant Ordelheide

Vernal Falls. Shot details: Canon 5D Mark II, 70-200mm lens at 100mm. ISO 50, f/13, 1/125th second

The thunder of 317-foot Vernal Fall, just downstream of the even larger Nevada Fall, is a must-hear highlight of the park. Though Vernal Fall cascades over the surrounding granite year-round, flow slows down in late summer. The fall may even split into two or three separate waterfalls as the season winds down.

See it: Hike 2.7 miles from Happy Isles. Or, for a different view, drive to Glacier Point for the distant vista.
When to go: Hike the Mist Trail in May for peak flow; Glacier Point Road is open late May to November.
Pro tip: Use a telephoto lens to compress the foreground and background elements (in this case, the person and the water), making them appear closer than they actually are and adding drama to the shot. Don't forget about action shots. Yosemite's landscapes are riveting, but photos of your friends and family hiking, camping, and swimming will really help complete the story of your park trip. Run ahead and shoot as the subjects approach.

Yosemite Falls from Glacier Point

Yosemite Falls.

Yosemite Falls.

Yosemite Falls—which consists of 1,430-foot Upper Yosemite Fall, the 675-foot middle cascades, and 320-foot Lower Yosemite Fall—is one of the tallest waterfalls in the world.

See it: Take Wawona Road to Glacier Point Road, about an hour from both Yosemite Valley and Wawona.
When to go: Drive there in late May for peak flow, or cross-country ski to the point from December through March for solitude.
Pro tip: Love the silky look of the waterfalls in this shot? Get it by shooting in low light. Dial down the aperture to a small point so that you can use a long exposure, creating a smooth, blurry look.

White Cascade (also known as Glen Aulin Falls)

White Cascade by Grant Ordelheide

White Cascade. Shot details: Canon 5D Mark II camera, 17-40mm lens at 22mm, f/18, 1.6 seconds

White Cascade tumbles alongside Glen Aulin camp, one of the park's beloved High Sierra Camps. These five collections of high-altitude tent cabins lie along a life-list, 49-mile loop trail, making a tour of the park's high country accessible without a heavy backpack. From Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, hikers wind along the Tuolumne River, climb to May Lake, and peer into Yosemite Valley, passing prime swimming holes and scenic granite domes along the way. Park concessionaire DNC Parks and Resorts runs an annual lottery for these coveted bunks; apply in fall for the following summer's trips.

See it: Hike the Glen Aulin Trail 8 miles to the waterfall and Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp.
When to go: Late June through September, when the High Sierra Camps are open for overnight stays and meals.
Pro tip: Add a sense of scale to your photos by including a person (or tent) in the foreground. These details help place Yosemite's grand landscapes in context. Try different perspectives: Shoot from far away with a telephoto lens and up close with a wide angle.

Nevada Falls on the Upper Mist Trail

Sunset at Nevada Falls. Photo by Grant Ordelheide

Nevada Falls Sunset. Shot details: Canon 5D Mark II camera, 17-40mm lens at 17mm, f/13, 1/13th of a second

Nevada Fall pours 594 feet down a granite wall beyond smaller Vernal Fall. In summer, it's also accessible from the 211-mile John Muir Trail, which cuts across the Yosemite high country (bypassing Vernal Fall).

See it: Continue on the Mist Trail past Vernal Fall to hit Nevada Fall at mile 2.7. This cascade is also visible from Glacier Point (see above).
When to go: May for the biggest water.
Pro tip: Follow the "rule of thirds" by not placing your subject smack in the middle of the shot. Instead, try arranging the subject (like this waterfall) to one side.

Grant's Waterfall Photo Tips

›› Shoot cascades in the morning, evening, or on cloudy days—anytime they're not in direct sunlight. Flat light reduces contrast and gives you the option of using a longer exposure.

›› Experiment with exposure times. Long exposures blur the water for a soft look, while fast shutter speeds can show texture and emphasize the waterfall's power.

›› Keep a small absorbent towel handy to wipe off the mist and droplets that will form on your lens. A waterproof camera cover can also be helpful. Budget option: Use a shower cap.

Filter It

Graduated neutral density filters (also called split neutral density filters) that are half dark and half transparent are helpful when the sky you are photographing is significantly brighter than the land. To expose both land and sky properly, turn the dark half over the sky and the transparent half of the filter over the terrain. To use, attach the filter to the front of your lens with a rotating filter holder.

When to Use a Tripod

Anytime you are shooting in low light, a tripod can help ensure crisp images. A good rule of thumb is to use a tripod when your shutter speed is lower than 1/60 of a second or when the shutter speed is slower than the focal length. For optimal results from your digital equipment, set your camera at a low ISO and a mid-range aperture of f/8 or f/11. As you'll have to carry your tripod into the backcountry, invest in the lightest tripod you can afford (and that can support your camera with its heaviest lens). Even point-and-shoot users can benefit from a small tripod, like the flexible GorillaPod models (joby.com).