How to Photograph Waterfalls

How to Photograph Waterfalls

Today I am going to show you how to photograph waterfalls. Some people like them crisp and clean, others like them smooth and silky. I’ll show you a range from smooth to crisp.

If you have the knowhow, you can make waterfalls look smooth and dreamy. All you need is either an ND filter, or the inclination to go out towards dusk to get the shot.

You need a sturdy tripod, and a camera with a self timer. If you have an ND filter, you can go out in the middle of the day, if not, you can still take these kinds of photos, you just have to be patient and wait for the sun to set.

Without an ND filter

If you like the water to be crisp and clear, you can just shoot it with a high shutter speed. The higher the speed, the more the camera will freeze the shot. Here are a selection of photos where I change the aperture from it’s widest to its narrowest. You can see as I close down the aperture, the shutter speed gets longer and the water becomes slightly smoother.

If you want to get the water really smooth and you do’t have an ND filter, you have to wait until dusk, when the amount of light drops. This together with a small aperture will give you smoother water.

You can actually do an exercise like this one (point to corner) where you shoot from about an hour before sunset until about an hour after sunset. This will teach you so much about how your settings will change as the shutter speed copes with the dropping light.

With an ND filter

Depending on what ND filter you have, you can go out at different times of the day.

I have a 3 stop a 4 stop and a 10 stop with me today. I have circular filters at the moment, but I am building up my collection of lee filters. When I’m travelling, I just like to keep as little kit as needed so these three seem to be ok for what I need.

If you have a 10 stop filter, you can make waterfalls look silky smooth in the middle of the day, with the weaker ND filters, you are more limited to dusk and dawn, so that is why it’s good to have a few different strengths. You can then play around with the aperture to bring the shutter speed down as much as you need.

So this is what you’ll need to get the silky smooth waters:

A tripod

A camera

An ND filter

A shutter release cable (optional)

An ND chart

Set the camera up on your tripod and find your composition before putting the ND filter on. Once you’ve found a composition you like

Switch to manual mode

Set the exposure

Set your focus

Switch to manual focus

Switch the self timer on or attach the shutter release

Attach the ND filter

Check on your ND chart to see what you need to change the shutter speed to to get the same exposure.

Take a photograph

Depending on what ND your using, you may have to play with the Aperture to change the shutter speed, to get the water how you want it.

Here are some examples of different ND filters and different shutter speeds, where I’ve changed the aperture to maintain the exposure I want. I have the camera set to change the settings in 1/3 stop increments on all three of the main settings, Aperture, Shutterspeed and ISO. Then, if I change the aperture by three clicks, I can compensate this by changing the shutter speed by three clicks. Then I know I have the same exposure.

One thing to be wary of is that the water is normally white, if there is enough of it. In this case, it’s surrounded by dark foliage so you need to watch your exposure on the waterfall so you don’t over expose it.

Also, if you don’t like how the water surface reflects or how the wet rocks reflect, you can use a circular polariser filter to get a different effect. (Go through the different positions of a polariser to see how it effects the reflections).

If you shoot mirrorless, get your zebras on at 100 and make sure there are no zebras showing, then you know you won’t have overexposed the waterfall. If you’re still using a DSLR, turn on your blinkies, and check the image after taking it to see if it overexposes the whites.

And that’s about it. You may prefer the silky look of long exposures or the crisp clear look of high shutter speeds, whatever your preference, you can get it. I tend to expose waterfalls for about a second. It gives the feeling of motion in the waterfall but doesn’t totally smooth them out.

If you got something from this video, head over to my YouTube page and subscribe for weekly tutorials hints and tips in photography.





Back to Top