Photographing a waterfall is one of the mainstays in landscape photography. There’s something about the milky smooth flow of water captured by a camera. Surprisingly, it’s not that difficult to do. All you need are a waterfall and a few tools.
There is one key to photographing a waterfall and that is to make sure you’re use a long exposure. Using a long exposure means that a greater amount of water will flow over the crest of the falls while the shutter is open and because of that, the moving water will blur. The blurring water will be rendered silky smooth.
It’s desirable to have the flowing water blurred but in most instances, you’ll want the rest of the scene to be pin sharp. To achieve this, you’ll need a tripod and likely a remote shutter release to ensure that the camera is rock steady during the exposure.
Shutter Speed – As we’ve determined, when photographing a waterfall, we’re mainly concerned with controlling shutter speed. Because of that, set your camera to shutter priority mode and dial in a shutter speed of at least 1/2 of a second — usually you’ll want a shutter speed considerably longer than that. Ten (10) seconds or more is common.
ISO – Use your camera’s lowest ISO — this can vary from 50-200 depending on your camera model.
Aperture – Since we’re mainly concerned about using a long shutter speed and low ISO, the aperture, when the camera is in Shutter Priority Mode, will automatically be set by the camera to whatever will make a balanced exposure.
In bright conditions, despite dialing in the lowest ISO and using a smaller aperture, you still might not be able to obtain a shutter speed slower than 1/2 of a second. In those conditions, you’ll need a Neutral Density (ND) Filter. An ND filter inhibits the light from passing through to the camera’s sensor affording you, on a bright day, the ability to use a longer shutter speed.
ND filters come in increasing strengths and are often sold in sets. A common set has three filters offering one stop, two stops and three stops of light reduction and can be stacked to give a six stop reduction.
If it’s too bright, you would simply screw on an ND filter to reduce the light entering the lens. The filter will allow less light to pass and won’t affect color — at least the better filters don’t. Some of the cheaper ND filters may cause a color shift so try to buy quality when it comes to this filter.
One final tool you’ll want to bring is a micro-fiber cloth to wipe down any mist from the waterfall that may deposited itself on your equipment.
Setup your tripod in the area where you want to capture the waterfall, attach your camera and focus the shot. Put you camera in Shutter Priority Mode and dial in a five (5) second exposure. If it’s too bright outside and you can’t get a proper exposure, use an ND filter so that you can achieve a shutter speed of five seconds.
With your camera secured on the tripod, and focus and exposure set, use your remote shutter release and take a shot. Now try some exposures on either side of that exposure — say three (3) and ten (10) seconds. If you like either of those two images better than the five-second exposure use that exposure as your starting point in any other images you might take.
Don’t be hesitant to experiment with the shutter speed. Take some shots as fast as 1/2 of a second and if possible, slow it way down and take some at 30-60 seconds.
Believe It Or Not, That’s It
That’s all you really need to do to photograph a waterfall. For fun and variety, experiment with an extremely long exposure. I’ve taken shots with exposures approaching two (2) minutes. Just remember you can’t hand-hold your camera steady enough. You definitely need a tripod, a remote shutter release and probably a set of ND Filters.