The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Victoria Falls
While the Victoria Falls are neither the widest nor the highest waterfalls in the world, they are undoubtedly the largest. At 1,708 meters wide and 108 meters high, they combine to form the largest single sheet of falling water anywhere on earth.
Scottish explorer David Livingstone might have been the first European to set eyes on the Victoria Falls on the 16th of November, 1855, but he never took any photographs of it. That is not very surprising though, since he “discovered” the falls a mere 30 years after the first permanent photograph was produced by French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. After naming the falls in honor of Queen Victoria, Livingstone wrote that “No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It has never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
The angels in flight probably didn’t take any photographs either.
It is not known who did take the first photographs of the falls, but whoever it was, he (or she) was in the fortunate position to capture a unique composition with every single exposure. These days, Victoria Falls are visited and photographed by thousands of people every day, which means that we are now forced to work a lot harder to find and capture our own unique and interesting compositions.
Not only are we challenged to find never-seen-before compositions, but we are also challenged in a number of other ways, most notably by the water spray, which billows up from the gorge and rises to a height of over 400 meters. It was this spray that inspired the early Batoka people to name the falls Mosi-oa-Tunya – translating to “The Smoke that Thunders” – and which can be seen from up to 48 kilometers away.
Keeping your camera and lens dry under these conditions is quite a challenge when the falls are at their smallest during the dry season. Keeping your gear dry during the rainy season is practically impossible.
You might think that an umbrella would be a handy tool to maintain a dry lens, but in fact, it is quite useless. As you approach the edge of the cliff opposite the falls the spray shoots upwards like inverted rain, soaking everything and everyone in its path.
There is simply no way to keep your lens dry here – you may as well be shooting in a drive-through car wash.
When to Go to Victoria Falls
The first thing to consider when planning a photographic trip to Victoria Falls is when to go. It might seem like a great idea to time your visit to coincide with the rainy season (from late November to early April) so that you could capture the falls at their peak flow. But you will probably be very disappointed if you do. There is so much spray in the air during those months that it is impossible to see the bottom of the gorge. In exceptionally wet years the spray is so heavy that it may not even be possible to see the top of the falls.
The only way to photograph the falls during these months is from the air, by chartering a helicopter, which in turn offers additional challenges like the difficulty of shooting through the highly-reflective Plexiglas windows.
Although they might not be as impressive during the dry season as they are in the rainy season, if the purpose of your visit is to photograph the falls, then you are best advised to plan your trip for October or November, when the spray levels become more manageable and taking decent photographs becomes possible once again.
There are fortunately a number of benefits to planning your visit to coincide with the end of the dry season. It is only at this time of the year when the direction of the sunrise and sunset aligns perfectly along the length of the gorge, which means that this is also the best time of the year to see rainbows.
If you plan your trip to coincide with the full moon, you might be able to book a guided tour to witness the delicate lunar rainbows, created by the light of the moon reflecting in the water particles of the misty spray. This unique event is also visible on the nights before and after the full moon and is the only time when the gates to the rain-forest park on the Zimbabwean side of the falls are opened to the public after sunset.
Where to Stay at Victoria Falls
While the views of the falls are undoubtedly more spectacular from one of the 16 viewing points in the national park on the Zimbabwean side, visiting the falls from the Zambian side does have some advantages. The tickets to enter the park are a lot cheaper on that side, and the accommodation in the nearby town of Livingstone is also more varied and generally less expensive.
If you decide to visit the falls during the rainy season you should definitely consider staying on the Zambian side. Not only is the spray a lot more manageable on that side, but it is only here where you are able to safely walk right up to the edge of the falls, enabling you to capture images of the water cascading down into the gorge.
During the dry season, however, the falls often dry up completely on the Zambian side, forcing you to cross the border into Zimbabwe if you want to get a proper look at them. You will have to present your passport when crossing the border, but these days you are issued with a day pass so that you won’t need to apply for a visa in advance.
While it might be a bit more expensive to enter the park on the Zimbabwean side, this side definitely offers many more photographic opportunities. It isn’t possible to obtain a multiple-entry pass, however, so if you do plan to spend several days shooting in the park, be advised to budget accordingly.
You will also be asked to present your passport when purchasing your park entry tickets, so don’t leave that in your safe back at the hotel when visiting the falls. Most of the accommodation on the Zimbabwean side of Victoria Falls is situated in the town of Victoria Falls (the town and the falls both have the same name, which does sometimes get a bit confusing). You will be able to find a wide variety of hotels here, from budget backpackers to the luxurious 5-star Victoria Falls Hotel.
While many of these hotels are within a short walking distance of the falls, there are also plenty of taxis to take you there if it’s too far to walk and you don’t have your own transport.
Capturing Unique Compositions
So now that we know the best time of year to visit the falls and where to stay, how do we go about capturing beautiful photos and unique compositions of the world’s largest waterfall? Most of the photographic opportunities present themselves at the 16 viewing points, which are strategically situated along a circular path around the park. All of these viewing points are set a few meters back from the edge of the gorge, so your view of the falls will always be limited. Fortunately, there are still a few spots where you can look down into the bottom of the gorge.
On busy days when more people enter the park than normal, you might also have to wait patiently behind a big group of tourists for your brief opportunity to take a photograph or two. Despite the breathtaking views of the thundering waterfalls, unfortunately, the constant spray, the limited compositional possibilities, and all the tourists jostling for position mean that capturing great images of the falls is much more difficult than you might imagine.
So how does one go about finding and capturing unique and interesting compositions here?
One of the best ways to achieve this is when you position yourself where the least number of other people stand when they view the falls. Although most of the viewing points closer to the edge of the gorge have protective stone barriers, there are still a few great spots with amazing views that most people don’t bother to access.
The photo above was taken from a small ledge within spitting distance of the “Devil’s Cataract” – the most powerful part of Victoria Falls. This might seem like a very dangerous spot for me to be standing, but there was a large ledge right below me and just out of the frame. Reaching this exact location is only possible during the dry season.
Due to the constant spray, the grass and rocks are very slippery, so you should remain a safe distance from the edge at all times. Victoria Falls has claimed many lives in past decades, with the numbers increasing in recent years thanks to Instagram and all the other social media platforms that seem to encourage selfies taken in dangerous places. Only one lucky person has ever survived a plunge over Victoria Falls.
Another way to ensure that you make the most of your photographic opportunities is to have a wide range of focal-length lenses in your bag. It might be tempting to use your widest lens in an attempt to capture as much of the falls as possible, but the perspective distortion in wide-angle lenses means that distant objects always look a lot smaller through the lens than they do in reality. And since we are attempting to capture unique photographs of the largest waterfall on the planet, it seems a pity to reduce the significance of those falls by shooting them with a wide-angle lens.
You could consider fitting a zoom lens to make the falls look even bigger than they really are, but then your field of view becomes more limited as you zoom in, thereby restricting your view to a mere slice of the falls.
The best way to capture a unique composition of Victoria Falls is to think outside the frame. Don’t limit yourself by what you can see through the camera’s viewfinder. Rather choose the best focal length for the scene that you are attempting to capture, and then take as many photographs as necessary to entirely capture that scene. Stitching several images into one panorama is quick and easy these days, and you will always end up with a much higher resolution image with a panorama than you will with a single photo taken by the same camera.
More pixels = more details = higher quality.
The above photograph was created by combining two (landscape-format) images – both captured with a 50mm lens – and stitching them one above the other into a single vertical panorama (or vertorama). This might not be an entirely unique composition, but the longer focal length used in an attempt to accurately capture the size of the falls, along with the wide-angle view, has helped me to create something a little bit different from everything else.
So now that you have found the least-trodden place to set up your tripod, and have spent a few moments thinking about which of your lenses would be best to capture the scene, all that remains is to mount your camera to your tripod, press the shutter, and capture the images.
To protect your camera from the inevitable spray factor, it is recommended that you place it inside a plastic bag (with a hole cut in it for the lens to point out). Your lens will get wet, that is inevitable.
Even on the best days during the dry season you might only have a window period of five or ten seconds before the first drops start wetting your lens. This might be enough time for you to remove the lens cap, take a single photo and replace the cap, but when you’re shooting multiple images for a panorama, you will have to accept that you will be wiping your lens dry between every single photograph.
Shoot, wipe, shoot, wipe, shoot, wipe, shoot, wipe — that should become your mantra while photographing Victoria Falls.
The photo above is a horizontal panorama, made up of three landscape-format images shot at 24mm.
Other Photographic Opportunities
Even if your primary motivation for visiting this region is to photograph Victoria Falls, there are also plenty of other interesting things for landscape photographers to point their cameras at. The calmer sections of the upper Zambezi provide ample opportunities to capture reflective images, especially towards the end of November when the first storm clouds of the season are starting to gather and grow in size.
Several local tour operators also host sundowner cruises along this stretch of the Zambezi, which should appeal to both landscape and wildlife photographers. These cruises usually have an “all you can eat and drink” policy – so be warned – they might become a bit rowdy towards the end.
Besides the sunset cruises on the upper Zambezi, you might want to consider a game-viewing drive through one of the nearby nature reserves or explore the bush on a horseback safari. These activities all offer an abundance of interesting things for anyone to point their camera at.
More adventurous (and less photographically-inclined) visitors could entertain themselves by tying their legs to a bungee cord and launching themselves from the 111-meter-high Victoria Falls bridge which spans the gorge right below the falls. Alternatively, they could experience the full force of the raging river below the falls by running the rapids in large inflatable rafts. They could also try the gorge swing and/or the flying-fox zip-wire, or they could take to the air by chartering a helicopter or microlight.
And then there is the “Devil’s Pool”.
This natural rock pool can only be accessed from the Zambian side, and only during the dry season. It’s no larger than a small swimming pool, with only a thin rocky ledge preventing you from plummeting over the edge. Those of us who are bordering on the insane can join a guided tour to this small pool, to leap from a rock and hopefully not get sucked over the edge. You will be charged well in excess of $100 for the pleasure of nearly dying.
Less adventurous visitors can avoid the adrenalin rush and spend their time shopping for curios at the local markets, relaxing next to a fishing rod, or playing a leisurely round of golf. Whatever your thrill, you will definitely find it at Victoria Falls.
This truly is one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
About the author: Paul Bruins is a semi-retired South Africa-based professional landscape photographer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. For the past 20 years, Bruins has worked to explore and photograph every corner of his hometown and country. He has organized and hosted a number of photographic exhibitions, workshops, and tours around the world. His photos have also won numerous competitions and awards and have been published in calendars, magazines, and books. You can find more of his work on his Flickr and Facebook.