Photographing the mighty Iguazú Falls
Updated: Jan 21
The breathtaking Iguazú Falls or Iguaçu Falls are waterfalls of the Iguazu River shared between Brazil and Argentina. Together, the 275 waterfalls make up the largest waterfall system in the world. The name Iguazu means “big water” in the Tupi-Guarani language spoken by the indigenous people of the area.
I visited both sides early January 2019, first the Argentinian side, where I spent 3 nights in total and then we took a taxi over to the Brazilian side of the falls for another night. The reason behind this was the fact, that there are more trails on the Argentinian side and also I knew I won't be able to enter the park outside of the opening hours for the sunrise/ sunset shots.
Sadly, even booking the last night in the expensive and modern Melia hotel inside the park does not mean that you can access the falls... There is a guard in the area preventing the hotel guests from entering the trails outside of the official hours. The views from the hotel are still spectacular!
On the other hand, the beautiful Belmond Hotel on the Brazilian side is right at the falls and you can walk around the trail after the crowds have left and stay out all night if you wish, although I would not recommend it! You can still get amazing shots at sunset and sunrise, and with the extreme spray you can't stay way too long dry at the falls anyway (not to mention the camera gear!) If I ever had a chance to return back, I would not hesitate to stay inside the park again. It is expensive, but well worth the investment!
How much time will you need for shooting the waterfalls? It depends, what do you want to photograph and how much time you have in total. I would recommend to spend at least two full days on the Argentinian side and one day (with overnight inside the park) on the Brazilian side. I usually do location scouting the first day trying to mark the areas I like on my map. Also, both sides get super crowded in the morning! You will need to be fast if you want to use a tripod. I used wide angle as well as telephoto lenses to capture the falls and the wildlife. Be very careful when swapping your lenses, do it in a dry area. The park opens at 8 am and closes at 6pm. 80% of the falls and most of the walking trails are on the Argentinian side.
The Argentinian side
The Upper and Lower Trails are better in the morning (the morning sun lights up the falls), Devil's Throat is better in the afternoon, when the sun is behind you. I have visited this viewing platform twice. On day 1, there was a refreshing spray and I got a "bit" wet, but still managed to take some shots despite the crowds. Don't forget to pack your microfibre cloths. As many as you have! Also a camera sleeve, shower cap, dry-bag - to protect your gear from the spray and an umbrella come handy! Don't forget the mosquito repellent,too!
Mastering the shot: for those beautiful rainbows pack a polarising filter and a few lens cloths are a must. You will need to wipe your filter after every shot. First I was shooting handheld with faster shutter speeds but soon I realised I can be much more efficient if the camera is sitting on a tripod and I can wipe the lens with one hand and click the shutter with a remote control in my other hand. Later I tried longer shutter speeds at around 1-2s using an ND filter or a narrow aperture for a silky look.
Protect your gear from spray with a shower cap or a camera sleeve. It was as crazy as it sounds, but eventually I got a clean shot with no spray! Just be patient! In the meanwhile I parked my boyfriend with my camera bag at the nearby bench out of the wet area. Needless to mention, I got soaking wet! :)
On day 2 in the afternoon, I walked to the platform with big hopes to capture the rainbows even better than during my previous "practice day"- but it felt like stepping into a shower! Lots of spray and a squeaking crowd!:) I did not even unpack my camera! There was zero chance to get any decent shot at Devil's Throat that afternoon. It was fun, though!:) The park closes at 6pm, but the guard will send you away at around -5.10 pm, so that you can catch the last train at 5.30pm. Keep this in mind and don't arrive too late...
Key lesson: in case you see a rainbow, stop and shoot! The weather is changing quickly - rainbows are appearing and disappearing all the time! Same happens with the spray! Don't miss your chance! Both, wide angle and telephoto lenses are great to capture their beauty.
Try Black and White
You may not be lucky with the rainbows and sometimes the spray will create a hazy landscape lacking colours. Try to shoot some silky long exposures and convert them into black and white.
As previously mentioned, staying in the Melia Hotel on the Argentinian side, does not mean you can enter the trails outside of the visiting hours. We had a room with beautiful views of the distant falls. During my stay, the sunrise was around 5.50 am, with the light being quite harsh already at 9 am, I knew I have to be on the trail as soon as possible. There was only one waterfall, I did not manage to photograph during my previous 2 days due to the crowds - that was the amazing Salto Bossetti.
I got up super early hoping I could sneak in, packed my gear and was sipping my coffee on our balcony, watching the sunrise and the guests who were trying to get to the trail, but were sent back by the security guard... Sometimes between 7- 7.30 am I noticed a young couple walking past the guard towards the trail...In a split second I found myself dashing out of the hotel through the path past the guard's chair, I swear I could hear my heart beating! Perhaps he had a coffee break or just decided to let us in shortly before the official park hours... Only one part of the trail was open - the short path leading to Bossetti Falls! The couple was already returning for breakfast ... After crossing (and carefully moving aside) about 100 spider webs and greeting a few yawning Coatis I found myself at the falls! I could not believe my eyes! I saw in the distance two maintenance guys fixing the railing on the Upper trail above me... but there was nobody at the Salto Bosetti platform. MY FALLS! I took a few shots, got incredibly wet and after a moment my camera stopped working (I guess it was the humidity and the spray:) - which was a sign to stop shooting and start enjoying this incredible moment!
I felt like in Jurassic Park and I thought for a moment I am in a dream! ...until the moment my other half turned up with some cofee - he assumed there must be something much more important than answering the walkie-talkie so he came to check up on me! Thanks for the coffee!! -Yeah, I am a coffee addict!:)
PS: My camera recovered after a while...
The Brazilian side
You can take a taxi or a bus to the Brazilian side of the falls, but you need to stop for passport control. We booked the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas for a night inside the park, so we had a free shuttle to the hotel from the park entrance and we did not need to pay the fee. You can walk the relatively short trail with a few platforms from the hotel and stay until sunset. Or even after!
If you decide to stay in the hotel, stay in the park as long as you can. You will get different views of the falls and if you are lucky, a bit of colours in the sky at sunset! I have made an attempt to capture the beautiful night sky - unfortunately the humidity and the spray were preventing me from getting any decent night shot... But the night sounds of the jungle...!
Equally beautiful is the sunrise at the falls, you will see much less people on the trails early morning and you can capture some amazing rainbows as you will head back to the hotel for breakfast!
Fauna and Flora
Animal, plant life and vegetation are abundant at Iguazu Falls. More than 2,000 species of plants and animals call this lush rain forest home. If you are lucky, you will spot a few! Have you telephoto lens ready!
The Coatis (members of the raccoon family) are the real stars of the park. You can find whole families (with cute little babies) roaming around the waterfalls, but mainly seen near the food area. Please don’t feed or touch any animals! You can read everywhere that it not allowed and it is not only for the health of the animals but also for your own safety. Keep your food in your bag or eat it quickly when outside as we saw some coatis attacking people, who were teasing them! They look cute and will try to beg for any food, but keep in mind, it can kill them...;((
There are many beautiful butterflies around the falls (especially the wonderful 88 Butterfly), lizards and the almost invisible Common Potoo- the strange nocturnal bird like a mix between an owl and a nightjar.
The Great Dusky Swifts (Cypseloides senex) nest within the vertical rocks behind the cascading water. If you decide to stay after sunset, you can witness flocks of these birds flying through the falls! It is truly spectacular!
There is a Heliport just outside of the park at the Brazilian side, which offers flights above the falls. We went to ask for the flight options but they said a big storm is approaching, the pilot is ready and we can do the 10 min flight if we wish! I had absolutely no time to prepare my gear so just grabbed my camera with the wide angle lens I had on (16-35mm) and we took off in less than a minute:) If I knew the little window at the front will be open - I would have used a polariser, but as said there was not time to think:D
The flight was super short and seeing the falls from a different perspective was just insane! I was shooting most of the time at 35 mm, so if you have a lens between 24-70mm, that would be even better! Don't forget to take off the lens hood and keep your camera and lens inside the helicopter. I was trying to keep the shutter speed fast at around 1/1000s (for the sharp shots) and the aperture at 8 with the ISO set on 400. If you have a polariser, keep it ready in case you can open the window. On the photo below you can see the path leading to the platform at Devil's Throat on the Argentinian side. Five minutes after we have finished our flight a huge storm arrived with strong winds and lots of tropical rain! We were sitting at a place just across the road with chilled beers in our hands and were very grateful we had a chance to see one of the new natural seven wonders of the world.
Conclusion: Photographing the Iguazu Falls was quite challenging, but well worth the effort! Yes, you will get wet, but it is part of the adventure! At the end, I only selected a handful of shots for my final gallery, mainly due to the fact, that the light was very harsh during the day and shooting at sunrise and sunset was not an option, at least not on the Argentinian side, where os the majority of the falls... The Iguazu falls are truly unique! Don't forget to capture a few videos of these thundering falls, too..
You can see my photo album here