Snapping the perfect waterfall picture is like a rite of passage in landscape photography. Capturing that fast-moving water in a creamy blur is based on the basic concept of long exposures, however shooting waterfalls often presents a unique set of challenges. After all, long exposure photography is typically reserved for low lighting—shooting waterfalls in daylight often means the right exposure often can’t be achieved with just the camera settings, at least not with the desired depth of field.
So, how do the pros do it? What’s the secret behind capturing jaw-dropping waterfall pictures? Learn what you need, what camera settings to use and how to troubleshoot common issues in our ultimate guide on how to photograph waterfalls.
What Do You Need?
Waterfall photography often requires a bit more than just a camera.
A good lens is a must. If the waterfall is easy to access, a wide-angle lens will help capture the entire scene. But if the waterfall is difficult to access and the landscape prevents you from getting too close, a telephoto can come in handy too.If you’re going for that smooth, creamy water, a tripod is a must. Shooting waterfalls typically requires a slow shutter speed—if you try shooting handheld, your entire image will be a blur. Even if you prefer the crisp, frozen-in-time look from a faster shutter speed, tripods still help keep the image sharp. Avoid using a cheap, $20 tripod—even a small gust of wind can introduce shake, so opt for a model that’s well built, with fewer leg sections for even more stability.
For shooting waterfalls in the daylight, you’ll also need the right filters. The best lens filters for photographing waterfalls are polarizing filters and neutral density filters. Polarizing filters help control the reflections off of the water and also can enhance a blue sky. They also darken the image a bit. But often, achieving that long shutter speed when shooting in the daylight often requires a neutral density filter, which limits the amount of light coming in so you can use a longer shutter speed without overexposing the image. Neutral density filters often come in kits, with different levels of darkness for the most flexibility.
While it’s not something you can find at a camera store, patience comes in handy. Taking the time to find the best composition or waiting for the right weather is necessary for capturing that jaw-dropping photo.
Getting Set Up
The photo starts long before the image is snapped with the set-up process. Start scoping out potential compositions as you hike up to the falls. Do you want to stay back a bit and capture the entire view? Or head up close and capture more detail? Consider both optiona as you choose a location to set up. Keep an eye out for elements that could be included in the foreground, as well as distracting elements that should be eliminated from the background.
Waterfalls also create natural lines—pay attention to the shape the waterfall makes as you work on the composition. Including a curve in the falls draws the viewer’s eye throughout the image. Waterfall doesn’t have a curve? Scope out different angles—shooting a bit from the side can add interest to a simple waterfall.
While both close-ups and wide-angle shots have their place in shooting waterfalls, be sure to include something within the frame that isn’t moving—like rocks or foliage. Other moving objects are often distracting, so frame the image with some of the still scene as well.
Once you find an angle and location you like, set up that tripod. Add your polarizing filter and twist the filter, watching how the reflections change to settle on the best position. Keep that neutral density filter kit handy, too. For more control over post processing, switch the file type from JPEG to RAW (or RAW + JPEG) before you start shooting.
Camera Settings For Shooting Waterfalls
There are no hard and fast rules for the best camera settings for shooting waterfalls—but a few basic tips can help you find the settings that work for your particular scene. Different times of day and different weather conditions will impact what settings achieve the right exposure; you may shoot the same waterfall under different settings depending on the time of day or how cloudy it is. We’ll explain how to shoot a waterfall in manual mode, though beginners could also shoot in shutter priority mode and simply select a shutter speed. Let’s start with ISO. Since you’ll be using a long exposure, you likely don’t need the camera to be extremely light sensitive. During the day, keep the ISO setting low (i.e. ISO 100) to prevent noise and to allow for that longer shutter speed. If you’re shooting a waterfall at dusk or dawn or even by moonlight, you may need to bump up the ISO a bit.
Aperture controls how much light is let in, as well as the depth of field. Waterfall photos typically use a narrow aperture (or a large f-stop number) because it keeps more of the scene in focus and also allows for that longer shutter speed when shooting waterfalls in the daylight. Using the narrowest aperture your lens has allows for the most flexibility with shutter speed, and keeps the scene sharp. If you’re shooting at dusk, you can use a wider aperture, though above f/8 is ideal to keep the scene in focus.
That smooth, creamy water is captured through a long shutter speed. Remember, everything that moves while the shutter is open will become a blur—that’s how that cascading water becomes smooth. So, while balancing the exposure with the aperture and ISO is important, shutter speed is essential for shooting waterfalls.
With your ISO at the lowest and your aperture at the highest, the shutter speed that balances out the exposure should be relatively slow. Use the exposure meter to guide your decision on where to set the shutter speed. Ideally, the shutter speed should be a least ¼, though slower will get much more blur for that moving water.
Preview your photo—is there enough blur? If not, you’ll need to slow your shutter speed down. But wait—if your ISO is already at it’s lowest and your aperture at it’s highest, how do you use an even slower shutter speed without overexposing the image?
Troubleshooting Common Problems
The challenge with shooting waterfalls is that they’re often shot during the day, yet daylight conditions often don’t allow for a shutter speed that achieves enough of that smooth, white water blur. When your ISO is at the lowest, the aperture at the highest, and you’d still like to slow down the shutter speed even more, there are a few things you can do. You could try a different day, with cloudier weather that limits the light. Or, you could shoot at a different time of day, early in the morning or around sunset.
But you’ve already hiked there, and, chances are, you’re traveling and can’t come back another day. That’s where neutral density filters come in. They block out some of the light, so you can drop down that shutter speed even more, even if it’s bright outside. Neutral density filters come in a variety of different levels. For example, an ND 2 limits the light coming in by one stop, an ND 4 limits the light by two stops. So, an ND 2 filter will allow you to cut your shutter speed in half. The darker the filter, the slower the shutter speed you’ll be able to use.
So, to achieve that slower shutter speed, add a neutral density filter. You can add a light ND 2 if you’d just like a bit slower speed, or an ND 8 if you need a drastic reduction. Some filters can also be stacked together to limit the light even more, just be careful, since circular, screw-on filters will add vignetting to the edges of the image when stacked. The flat neutral density filters that are attached through a holder don’t suffer from this issue as much when stacked, but they also tend to be a bit pricier.
When shooting in RAW, you have more control over the final image. So, open up that smooth waterfall photo in your favorite image editing program and tweak the RAW file to ensure the exposure, white balance and other factors are perfect. If you overexposed just a bit to get the right shutter speed, the RAW file can be edited back to the proper exposure. If you’re still not happy with the level of blur in the water, the Photoshop blur tool can smooth it out a bit as well.
Waterfalls make beautiful, eye-catching images, no matter how many times they are photographed. But, they also present a challenge to photographers—smoothing out the water with a long exposure during the daytime is quite tricky, but with the right camera settings and a neutral density filter, it’s possible to take photos that make people ask, “How did you do that?”
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