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Photographing Waterfalls

Taking Pictures Of Waterfalls And Other Moving Water

Stunning Fall Color in the Pacific Northwest - Gorgeous Photos printed on metal

In landscape photography, you generally don’t work with moving subjects, so you can choose your exposure settings based upon the aperture that will give you either the depth of field you desire, or the optimal sharpness for the lens you are shooting with.  However, when shooting moving water, nothing is more important than choosing your shutter speed.  If you use a fast shutter speed (1/60th sec or shorter) you will have the freedom to shoot without a tripod, but your waterfall pictures will stop the water in mid air and leave your photos looking busy and chaotic.

Long Shutter Speed Waterfall Photos

To achieve a smoothly flowing, peaceful waterfall picture, I recommend using between ¼ of a second to a 1 second shutter speed. You will absolutely need a good, sturdy tripod for this.  You also want to use a remote shutter release or the self timer function in your camera, so that the vibration of pressing your shutter will not blur your photos.  Once your shutter opens, the light reflecting off individual water drops will move across your camera’s sensor, in effect painting the light across the image.  This gives the smooth flowing effect that is so tranquil to view.

Two factors play into just how the final waterfall picture looks, the speed of the water, and the shutter speed.  The faster the water is moving, the quicker your shutter speed can be. This is where digital photography makes it easy to get the effect you want. Take several photos with different shutter speeds and then compare them to see the different effects you get. I like it when there is an overall smoothness, but there is still detail and variation in the water. If your shutter speed is too long, everything will blend together into a solid color.  This is all up to personal preference, so feel free to play and experiment to find the style that you like the best.

Deep in the Hoh Rainforest with professional landscape photographer Peter James

Most cameras with any manual controls have what’s called a “shutter speed priority” setting.  This utilizes your camera’s auto exposure system to automatically set the proper aperture setting based on the shutter speed you choose.  In this mode you can easily experiment with changing your shutter speed settings without changing your overall exposure.  That is unless there is too much light.

Too Much Light

Bright light does not work for long exposures because it overexposes pictures even at the smallest apertures.  Therefore, the best time for waterfall pictures is morning and evening, and especially when the waterfall is not being hit by direct sunlight.  The only way to get a good exposure with a long shutter speed and bright light is to use neutral density filters to reduce the brightness.  Neutral density (ND) filters are essentially sunglasses for your camera.  They are designed to reduce the light coming into your camera evenly across all spectrums of light.  However, my experience is that most ND filters do shift your color somewhat, so you may want to compensate for that either in camera or in post processing.

Other Moving Water Pictures

Peter James photos capture the dance of light on Nature's peak moments. Nature is Art.

Because the speed of the water is such an important factor, when taking pictures of other moving water such as rivers or waves which are much slower than waterfalls, you will want to use a much longer shutter speed. I use anything from 2-5 seconds to get a nice smooth look on a river or beach. At dusk, when there is the least amount of light, you can shoot very long exposures like 1-5 minutes to create dreamlike effects making water appear as smooth and tranquil as you can imagine.  Again, the secret to experiment and, of course, have fun with the adventure!


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