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Kuang Si Falls Photography Guide

The lower tiers of Kuang Si Falls resembles the Garden of Eden in morning light.

Arriving at Kuang Si Falls feels like entering the garden of Eden.

Few experiences compare to that first breathless moment when you encounter the staggering beauty of Kuang Si Waterfalls in Laos.  I have been to, literally, hundreds of waterfalls in my life, including some of the most famous ones in the world, and Kuang Si Falls is still my favourite.

The colours and landscape that occur here are unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else. Unlike my first visit 6 years ago, my primary focus when I visited in May 2019 was to attempt to capture the essence of Kuang Si through the art of photography.

Please know that this is not an ultimate guide! This is a photography guide, created purely with photography and Instagram in mind. If you would like more information on getting here from Luang Prabang, prices, day trips, etc I would suggest checking out the Northern Laos Itinerary & Travel Guide.

Photography at Kuang Si Falls; things to consider

As with all nature and landscape photography destinations, the lighting and conditions for our shots are determined by what nature provides. We can’t force the weather or light to cooperate, but there are some considerations to keep in mind that will better your chances at having favourable conditions during your visit.

Vibrant colours fill the scene at a small section of the lower Kuang Si Falls.

Mother Nature used all of her colour palette when she made this place!

When to visit Kuang Si Falls

Many topics will be discussed in this photography guide, but the single-most-important consideration is the time of day you begin! As with most places in the world, the best way to avoid crowds is to be the first one on scene.

I simply cannot stress the importance of being here early if you want to get those perfect Instagram shots. There is a magic that translates to photographs when you are somewhere beautiful, surrounded entirely by nature. Having a group of tourists splashing and making duck faces in the otherwise peaceful, serene water behind you will completely ruin the mood.

Luckily, it is easy to avoid having other tourists in your shots! Not so lucky is that it will require you to set an alarm for 5am and to procure your own car, motorbike, or tuk tuk. As the first round of buses do not arrive from town until 9-10am, arriving by 6am is the best way to guarantee you’ll have the place to yourself!

Trust me, you’ll quickly forget the sleep you lost when you look back at your photos and recall the time you spent bathing in the world’s prettiest natural pools as the sun slowly rose.

A final note on this early arrival; the falls do not officially open until 8am, but the gate is left open and there didn’t appear to be any rule against entering prior to the admissions collection.  We left Luang Prabang around 5:15am and walked right in at 6am.

Natural lighting at Kuang Si Falls

Due to the foliage that surrounds the falls, getting good natural light can be tough. Most of the day, the scene will be scorched in dappled, spotted light. This can look nice if there is a bit of cloud to defuse the sun, but the dotted textures created by sunlight being shredded as it passes through foliage tends to create distracting foregrounds.

Luckily, the best lighting coincides with the quietest time of day; the morning! By arriving at 6am as recommended, you will ensure even, balanced light. You will also ensure no one is disturbing the waters, allowing for longer exposures to create that nice soft water.

Even lighting is especially important for those Instagram shots that include you as a human subject. Shooting later in the day with the sun overhead will create harsh shadows on your face and result in paler skin tones.

There is also a case to be made for shooting in the late afternoon as the sun is setting. This can create some lovely angular light,  but you are more likely to be battling with other tourists.  Additionally, you will be shooting more into the sun during the afternoon, which can be challenging (but beautiful if executed well!)

Gorgeous lighting create a mystical and sacred feeling to the turquoise waters of the falls.

The morning natural light is perfect for creating peaceful captures.

Water level of the falls

The one thing you will have the least control over is the water level. Ironically, the wet season is probably the worst time of year to visit Kuang Si Falls, as the famously exotic waters lose their colour and vibrancy following heavy rains.

If possible, try to avoid July and August in particular as heavy rains are almost guaranteed. During other times of the year, check Instagram stories and recent posts from the Kuang Si Falls hashtag to see recent photos, and try to visit when the water level and colours look good!

Photography equipment for Kuang Si Falls

As this is a photography guide, I am going to be providing some insight and recommendations in this section for those of you who have an actual camera. If you are using your phone, the only gear you may still want to consider is a tripod. This is only essential if you are solo, or if you want to try longer exposures.

Camera & lenses

The most common question I am asked is, “what camera do you use?”.  I try to emphasize that like anything in life, good results in photography come from good practices; good equipment is only one factor in the equation!

With that said, all of these photos were taken with the Sony A7Riii and the Sony 24-105 G lens.  While I genuinely feel like it is the ideal set up for me, I would not recommend this for everybody!  Selecting the “best” photography set up comes down to lifestyle, preferences, interests, and a dozen other considerations.  Recommending “the best” camera and lenses is like trying to recommend “the best” car; if a “soccer mom” (to quote Adam) and a farmer rocked up to the same car lot, I would likely be recommending two very different vehicles!

Tripod

For those of you bringing a DSLR or mirrorless to the party, make sure you also bring a tripod!  This is the single most useful piece of equipment (besides your camera and lenses) for shooting waterfalls!  Having a tripod will allow you to “drag the shutter” to create softer water.  If you are including yourself or a human subject, make sure they are holding as still as possible and try not to have a shutter speed slower than 1 second.

For those of you unfamiliar with these concepts, having a longer (or ‘slower’) shutter speed means that the camera will receive light over a longer period of time.  This will cause motion blur in moving subjects but actually looks very nice when used to soften the flow of water. Below is a clear example from Kuang Si Falls of the difference between a long exposure and a short exposure. If you are not sure how (or if) your equipment can achieve this, simply Google “adjusting shutter speed with the (name of camera or phone here)”.

 

Neutral Density Filter, aka ND Filter

If you are shooting with an actual camera, an ND filter is helpful in getting slower shutter speeds to achieve the results mentioned above. They will also reduce the glare coming off the water. If you are shooting landscape photos and have one available, you will definitely have plenty of opportunities to use an ND effectively.  However, we were able to achieve our desired shutter speeds and results with only a “CPL”…

Polarizing Filter, aka CPL

The one filter I never leave home without! A polarizer, or CPL, allows you to remove glare from anything with a reflection; this is especially useful for scenes with water (or glass). If you have never heard of polarization except with regards to sunglasses, it is actually the same concept! Polarization helps to enrich colours and deepen contrast by removing the harsh glare caused by the sun’s reflection.

I highly recommend having a quality CPL with you at all times. By using one, we can capture the true colour of the water that makes Kuang Si Falls so special, bring out the lush greens in the foliage, and even allow a slightly longer shutter speed. The best CPL and ND filters I have found are the quartz line from Polar Pro.

A side by side comparison showing a polarized vs. non-polarized image
A side by side comparison showing a polarized vs. non-polarized image
(I didn’t think to take a comparison photo at Kuang Si – so here’s one from Koh Tao instead!)

What to Wear

An important consideration whenever introducing the human element to our photographs is what colour and style will stand out, and what mood we want to be conveyed.  You will want to bring a swimsuit for sure, and possibly a summer dress or playsuit if you plan on being in the photos.  If the plan is to put these on Instagram, a large-brimmed hat can also help you stand out from the scenery.

Most of the colours you will be surrounded by will be shades of green that stretch across the tonal range to yellow on one end and blues on the other.  Accordingly, you want to counter those colours to add contrast.  I recommend reds and shades close to it on the colour spectrum.  A white swimsuit could work to stand out against the turquoise water but will be lost against the waterfalls.

Landscape and Instagram photo compositions

Alright, you’ve arrived at the gates. Its 6am and you’re really hoping this was all worth it. Park your car or bike in the lot just outside the gate and walk through the front gates. It will take between 5-10 minutes to arrive at the first pool of Kuang Si. On the way, you may notice some adorable moon bears just waking up as well; skip spending too much time with them for now as we’ll visit them on the way back.

First pools of Kuang Si Falls

Even light on first pools of Kuang Si Falls, while the surrounding foliage bathes in the warm light of morning.
The first view of the stunning pools of Kuang Si Falls.

This first glimpse of what’s to come was enough to take my breath away. As you arrive at this first set of pools, you’ll notice a bridge that cuts across the water and leads to a rough trail. By all means, explore the area, but we will be sticking to the trail on the left. The rough trail across the bridge leads to mostly obstructed views and once lead to the Secret Pools, but those have been shut down with fresh barbed wire (more to come on that, below).

This first glimpse of what’s to come was enough to take my breath away. As you arrive at this first set of pools, you’ll notice a bridge that cuts across the water and leads to a rough trail. By all means, explore the area, but we will be sticking to the trail on the left. The rough trail across the bridge leads to mostly obstructed views and once lead to the Secret Pools, but those have been shut down with fresh barbed wire (more to come on that, below).

Some people like to include the bridge in the foreground of their photo, but you’ll be getting wet for that shot and standing far enough away that the falls will feel small and unimpressive. My favourite Instagram photo compositions for this first set of pools focused more on the landscape and did not include a person.

You will have plenty of better opportunities to put yourself into the photos later on, but if you would like to get the ball rolling here, I suggest being mostly submerged in the water and swimming closer to the falls to give them some scale. If you are standing up or even sitting out of the water, you will look massive in comparison to the small waterfalls.

A beautiful landscape photograph of the first pools of Kuang Si Falls.
Though small, these first tumbles tease at what’s to come…

Second pools of Kuang Si Falls

A few steps along the trail and you will reach the second set of pools. In my opinion, this is the most Instragrammable location of all the Kuang Si waterfalls for the inclusion of the human element (ie, YOU!).

Later on in the day, these pools will be swarmed with people, so I suggest getting the shots you want early. This is why you arrived at 6am!  There are endless compositions here to explore, causing me to spend about an hour at this location alone!

When I began culling the photos from the day, there were three compositions from this set of pools that I considered to be the prettiest:

Travels of Sophie wades through the stunning turquoise waters of Kuang Si Falls.
Taking a refreshing dip at the second pool

This first composition (seen above) used two trees standing in the water as a natural frame to capture the unique colours and scenery.

The second composition, seen below, has the subject sitting or standing on the protruding branch of the tree that reaches over the water from the bank. Standing is a lot more grabbing, but for safety reasons, I recommend sitting.

Travels of Sophie sits perched in a tree above the lower Kuang Si Falls.
Sitting perched atop a broken tree branch above the lower Kuang Si Falls.

This third composition, below, required swimming right up to the falls while the photographer stood up along the bank (near the tree we used for our second composition). I felt this third option made the falls themselves look a bit more impressive.

Third pools of Kuang Si Falls

Just another minute or less up to the trail and you will arrive at the third set of pools. This is the last one you are allowed to swim at, so take advantage now before the crowds arrive!

There were two compositions I liked for Instagram in this third section, and both involve going for a swim. Just to warn you, there are some small fish that will come nibble at you! They are not dangerous, but they may be a bit startling.

Travels of Sophie on the third tier waterfall at Kuang Si

The first composition is a bit uncomfortable but was my preferred of the two. It involves having the subject sit on the falls in the centre, while the photographer stands back and at the side shooting across the waterfall (as seen above).  I loved the range of colours and flowing water that was prevalent in the scene.

The second composition requires you to swim across the pool to the far end, where another small waterfall is crashing in.  There are some rocks to sit on that place you perfectly in front of the falls.  The photographer will need to be back on land near the place we took the first shot, but crouched down to water level and zoomed in tight.  While this may not showcase all of the incredible colours of Kuang Si Falls, it does create a “jungle paradise” kind of vibe!

Enjoying the refreshing waters of Kuang Si Falls

Fourth pools of Kuang Si Falls

On my first visit to Kuang Si Falls in 2013, this fourth section of tiered pools was my favourite place for photos. I absolutely loved the way each tier cascaded from one to the next, the colours in the water and limestone, and how the whole scene came together.  On my return visit in 2019, however, I discovered that they have fenced off this section of pools and put up a small sign that says not to enter.

Visiting Kuang Si Falls in 2013
Visiting Kuang Si Falls in 2013

This section is technically accessible without hopping the fence by simply swimming up from the previous pool. Whether or not you decide to enter that way to include yourself in your photo will have to be left to your ethical stance on the matter.

To that end, many travel blogs say that you should not swim here because it is a sacred site. As I mentioned, this was not the case in 2013 so I strongly suspect that it has not become sacred in the past 6 years.  I suspect that these pools have been fenced off purely for safety concerns, but there is almost no risk of significant injury in such shallow water.

All that said, I do my best not to condone or condemn the actions of my readers, but only to inform.  I do have black and white areas when it comes to responsible tourism, but this spot falls into a very grey area for me.

Cascading layers of rock create a staircase of natural beauty at the fourth tier of Kuang Si Falls.
Cascading tiers of rock form a staircase of natural beauty.

The Wooden Mill

As we move past the fourth pools, you will get your first glimpse of the ultimate prize; the Kuang Si Waterfall. Before rushing off, take a second and appreciate the beauty of the landscape that the water’s descent down limestone rock creates. While you cannot enter the pools here, I loved the feeling in this scene and felt the wooden mill added a sort of charm to the photo.

A small wooden mill adds a charming subject to this beautiful scene in Kuang Si Falls.
The small wooden mill adds a charming subject to this fairytale scene.

THE Kuang Si Waterfall

I will never forget my first time seeing this world wonder, nor my second. Kuang Si Waterfall is a legitimate miracle of nature and is one of the prettiest individual sites I have seen in all my travels.

The obvious shot will be of the falls, taken from the bridge. Many of the access points that were once available to get nearer to the falls have been shut down since my first visit. However, I prefer the 2019 set up as it doesn’t allow for hoards of people to be fighting for their shot in front of the waterfall. Pick a place on the bridge where things feel centred and balanced, and fire away!  If you brought your tripod and there is no other traffic on the bridge, this is a great opportunity for a long exposure.

My absolute favorite waterfall in the world; the Kuang Si Waterfall is a genuine miracle of nature!
The Kuang Si Waterfall is a genuine miracle of nature!

You could try a portrait or selfie style photo from the bridge itself, but you will struggle to capture all of the details that make Kuang Si Waterfall so impressive by limiting yourself to such a small space.

If you would like to include yourself in the photo, you can do so by positioning yourself on the bridge and sending the photographer down the wooden trail to capture a composition like the one below. The bridge does block some of the falls, but I still feel that it makes for a nice photo.

Travels of Sophie standing on the bridge at the final waterfall of Kuang Si
THE Kuang Si Waterfall!

One other angle that I really liked was from further back by the picnic table. In this shot, we zoomed in tight on the falls, using the gorgeous, colourful foliage to frame the falls.

Kuang Si Falls framed by bright red blossoms and green foliage
Kuang Si Falls framed by bright red blossoms and green foliage

Bonus Shot: The Wooden Trail

While it’s hard to turn your back on the grandeur of Kuang Si Waterfall, there was one last composition that I only discovered my partner had captured upon returning home.  Having seen this photo, I wished I had thought to include myself for an Instagram post!  This photo was taken from the bank of the river, looking down onto the wooden path at Kuang Si Waterfall.

The wooden pathway at Kuang Si Falls adds a pop of colors, textures, and leading lines.
Next time, I’ll be here with my dress ready!

The leading lines of the wooden trail guide our eyes to a small tumble in the famously turquoise water.  I loved how this composition included the many shades of green, as well as the textures in the wood, and feel it would have been easy to include a person walking along the path.

By this point, it is likely that the crowds are starting to file in.  After putting the cameras away and enjoying the scenery without a lens, we followed our rumbling tummies back to the car.  On the way out, however, we were met with one last, undeniable photo opportunity…

Moon Bears at the Kuang Si Bear Sanctuary

The adorable, endangered moon bears of Laos were now awake and active, getting up to all sorts of silly antics at the Kuang Si Bear Sanctuary.  I loved being able to snap off some photos of them without having to shoot through a fence, and with a decent zoom, you can really get some great pictures.

The story of the moon bears in Laos and other parts of Asia is a tragic one, but the sanctuary is a cause worth supporting if your finances allow.  For more information on the tragic but hopeful story of the sanctuary, click here.

A moon bear relaxing poolside at the Kuang Si Bear Sanctuary.
These moon bears are such funny and lovable creatures!

What NOT to do at Kuang Si Falls

The Trail to the Top

From the Kuang Si Waterfall, you will see a trail that leads to the top, as well as one across the bridge that goes both directions.  I walked all the way to the top using the trail on the left, then all the way down from the top using the trail on the right.  During an exhausting climb both ways, I did not stop for a single photo! There were no good, unobstructed views of the falls, and the hike was quite strenuous.  There is a pool at the top with a swing, but it’s really not very photogenic with the water definitely being closer to brown than the gorgeous blue of below.

I won’t be so bold as to tell anyone not to bother, but I will say that I would not do it again.

The Secret Pools of Kuang Si Falls

Secret Pools you say?  Well, kind of.  They are not a well-kept secret anymore, but the primary reason I did not include any photos or guidance to these pools is that they were COMPLETELY shut down and locked up tight with fresh, shiny barbed wire.  Eventually, someone will come and cut the wire again allowing people to sneak in, but I draw a much harder line in the ethics debate here.  I am told these pools are sacred, which is more believable at this location than the fourth pools we discussed earlier.

It is uncertain exactly why these pools have been shut down, but I suspect it has to do with safety, religion, preservation, or all of the above.  While I cannot stop you from seeking them out, I would urge you not to bother.  “Best” case scenario, you find them and are able to access them at the risk of upsetting and offending the local people.  Worser case scenarios are abundant, from injury to fines and even potentially death.  No Instagram photo is worth that!

Where to Next?

If you are going to be travelling Northern Laos and want more photography inspiration or general information for your holiday in Laos, check out my Northern Laos Itinerary. Here you will find all of the need-to-know essentials for your visit!

For those of you travelling to Cambodia from Laos, I have also prepared this Ultimate Guide to Angkor Wat; consider it your one-and-done guide to all things Angkor Wat!

Enjoyed my Kuang Si Falls photography guide? PIN IT! 🙂

2 Comments

  1. July 2, 2019 / 3:37 pm

    Hi Sophie,
    Really loving your blog and photographs. They are inspiring! My husband and I are planning a trip to Laos next month and will definitely be using some of the tips we found on your website. We live in Thailand and are going to be traveling all over SE Asia over the next year.
    Thanks for all you’re doing!

    • Travels of Sophie
      Author
      July 2, 2019 / 3:41 pm

      Thank you so much. I’m glad you found it useful 🙂 I hope you have a wonderful time in Southeast Asia, it’s such a beautiful part of the world. Good luck with your blog, it’s looking great! xx

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