How to Photograph Waterfalls

In this article, I will share some tips on how to capture beautiful waterfalls. While it seems like a simple task, photographing waterfalls and making the water look silky smooth can be a little challenging, especially if you do not have the right equipment. Use the tips below to understand how to get this effect and capture beautiful waterfall pictures.

Waterfall - 5 Second Exposure (Shutter Speed)

1) Your goal – slow shutter speed

In order to make the water look smooth, you need to use an extremely slow shutter speed of several seconds or longer. Slow shutter speeds create the “ghosting” effect, making the subject appear smooth and blurry, which is exactly what you want. Fast shutter speeds only freeze the running water, making the scene look too ordinary. Here is an image of falls that I captured with a relatively fast shutter speed of 1/250th of a second:

Rifle Falls

Now take a look at a waterfall that I captured at 6 seconds:

Mt Rainier NP #11

The image looks more dramatic and the silky water looks more appealing and pleasing to the eye.

2) Use a tripod

If you want to capture moving water and make it look smooth and soft, you need to use a tripod, because it is not possible to hand-hold a camera without introducing camera shake when using extremely slow shutter speeds. While you could set your camera on a stone or some other object, you would still be limited by how much you can move and what part of the waterfall you could capture. If you do not yet have a tripod, I highly recommend getting one as soon as possible – I recently wrote a detailed guide on how to choose and buy a tripod, which will hopefully help you with the selection process.

3) Use the smallest ISO

Once you set your camera on a tripod, you need to continue working on decreasing your shutter speed. Lowing the camera ISO to the smallest number not only increases image quality, but also decreases the shutter speed. For example, decreasing camera ISO from ISO 800 to 100 on a Canon DSLR decreases the shutter speed by three full stops, so if you were shooting at 1/200th of a second, you would end up with a shutter speed to 1/25th of a second.

4) Change aperture to a larger number

Changing aperture to a larger f/ number decreases the amount of light that passes through the lens. If your shutter speed is too high, try changing the aperture to a larger number like f/10 or even f/16 and higher, if necessary. Changing aperture is the last thing you can try on your camera, if you do not want to spend the money on a good ND filter (see below).

Great Falls National Park

5) Use a neutral density filter

If you have already tried decreasing your camera ISO to the lowest number and you have already adjusted your aperture to the largest f/ number and you still cannot get to multiple seconds of exposure, it means that you are most likely shooting in bright-day conditions and there is still too much light entering through the lens. The only way to decrease the amount of light going through the lens, is to use a filter in front of the lens that blocks a large portion of incoming light. “ND” or “Neutral Density” filters are specifically designed for this purpose – to only let a small amount of light into the lens in order to decrease the camera shutter speed. There are many different types of Neutral Density filters out there and most of them differ by the amount of light they let through. I personally use the B+W 77mm ND 1.8 and B+W 77mm ND 3.0 circular filters.

BW 77mm ND

B+W 77mm ND 3.0 Filter

Most ND filters have a number at the end that says something like “ND 0.3″ or “ND 1.8″. These numbers represent the amount of light the filter stops. For example, an “ND 0.3″ filter would block one stop of light, while an “ND 1.8″ would block 6 stops of light. What do these stops mean? Let’s say you changed your ISO to 100, changed your aperture to f/16 and you still have a fast shutter speed of 1/250th of a second. If you use the “ND 0.3″ filter, your shutter speed will drop to 1/125th of a second. If you use the “ND 3.0″ filter, your shutter speed would drop all the way to 4 seconds, transmitting only about 0.1% of light! That’s a big change from 1/250th of a second freezing water action to a silky-smooth water with just one filter.

6) Take wide-angle and telephoto lenses

Take both wide-angle and telephoto zoom lenses to photograph waterfalls. High and powerful waterfalls can release plenty of water into the air, which might land on the front of your lens or even potentially damage your equipment. Use a telephoto lens such as Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II to photograph falls from a distance and a wide-angle lens such as Nikon 16-35mm f/4.0 VR or Nikon 24mm f/1.4 if the falls are smaller and you are standing close to them.

Red Stream

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Pasquier
    April 27, 2010 at 12:23 am

    The opening B&W image is spectacular!

    • April 27, 2010 at 10:26 am

      Thank you Pasquier, appreciate the feedback! :)

  2. 3
    ) Kayla
    May 13, 2010 at 10:59 am

    Do you have any tips about ghosting people images? and how to make them look real but clear and not blurry?

    • May 24, 2010 at 1:06 am

      Kayla, for ghosting people, you should use a Neutral Density filter (something like B+W 6 stop ND filter). For making people clear, use a faster shutter speed (you might need to bump up camera ISO for that).

  3. 4
    ) jacob
    May 17, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    thank you so much for posting this, i was having a hard time trying to figure out how to slow shutter speed and blur and i was missing the filter. THANKS!

    • May 24, 2010 at 1:08 am

      Jacob, you are most welcome! Let me know if you have any questions.

  4. 7
    ) Robert Gomes
    August 1, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Hi Nasim,

    I’ve noticed that you talk about shooting in Aperture mode (F/16 or F/22) in order to achieve slow shutter speeds. Why wouldn’t you simply start shooting in Shutter Priority mode? And then adjust shutter speed until the desired effect takes place?

    Thanks!

    Love the first photo!

    • August 18, 2010 at 12:48 pm

      Robert, the problem with shooting in shutter priority mode, is that once the aperture is maxed out (smallest or largest), your exposure will get screwed up – your images will either get overexposed, or underexposed.

      It is best to use aperture priority and an ND filter in front of the lens that stops the light.

  5. 8
    ) Nuran Afrasiyabov
    August 7, 2010 at 8:56 am

    hi there!
    how are you doing? hope everything is fine.
    today i went to the beach, to take some photos and test my nikon d5000. there sun was shining bright. everything was just fine, but when i tried to make some slow shutter speed shoots, i was disappointed with result. images were plain white! setting was: exposure mode – shutter p. l iso-200 l f-number – f/22 l exposure time – 1/6 . nikon d5000 with default kit on it. exposure compensation changed to -5, but no luck!
    i know that there was a looot of light, but is there a way to get this kind shoots ?
    thank you very much! by the way your wife makes delicious meals:)

    • August 18, 2010 at 12:51 pm

      Nuran, why were you shooting in shutter priority mode? Read my response above – shutter priority does not stop down the light. It simply increases the aperture to the maximum number allowed by the lens and then the image gets overexposed, if the amount of light is too much. If you want to use slow shutter speeds during a bright sunny day, your only option is to use a Neutral Density (ND) filter.

  6. 11
    ) Hooman
    November 9, 2010 at 3:00 am

    Hi Nasim,

    I found your website very interesting and full of useful and informative tips and lessons in a very simple words. I really enjoy reading the posts on different issues. thanks a lot for sharing such valuable information which make me more interested in digital photography.

    you recommended to use a ND filter in bright-day conditions to reduce light and I am just wondering if negative EV setting have similar effect and may do the job by preventing the light and letting lower shutter speeds?

    one more question: did you use such a filter in taking the shot displayed in section four? (Washington-DC-019.jpg)

    thanks

    • November 17, 2010 at 6:39 pm

      Thank you Hooman!

      No, exposure compensation will not do the same thing ND filters do. It basically changes exposure, while ND actually stops the physical light from entering the lens. And yes, I used an ND filter for the water shot during the day…

  7. 13
    ) viru
    December 2, 2010 at 7:03 am

    Hi There,

    Nice site, good info. I am sure you would know the following tips, may be some reader can benefit.

    if you are looking for 1 to 1.5 stop reduction and dont have ND filter, you can use a polarizing filter that you might have.

    No matter which mode you use (shutter/aperture priority), keep an eye on the exposure indicator. Only that is going to tell you if the picture is going to be over exposed. If you max out on settings, your options are to use a filter to reduce light or wait for a cloud to pass by, blocking the sun.

    If there are trees/plants are in the picture, they will all be blur. An easy way to over come this issue is to take another picture without moving the tripod at normal shutter speed and merge them in photoshop to get the best of both.

    Thanks,
    Viru

    • December 3, 2010 at 3:23 pm

      Viru, thank you for posting some additional tips, those are very useful!

  8. 15
    ) khalil mannaa
    February 11, 2011 at 8:44 am

    hello There,
    question here… i have a Nikon D300s and i found an option called mirro-up , for a situation same to comment No. (8) does it work if i use mirro-up instead of ND filter? if yes just please state how.

  9. 16
    ) kautilya save
    October 27, 2011 at 10:41 am

    isnt there any way to directly decrease camera’s shutter speed…….by manually.setting it with a tripod……….hope i get…..the ans to my que!!…

    • October 27, 2011 at 11:04 am

      How would you decrease the camera shutter speed by putting it on a tripod? A tripod has nothing to do with the camera shutter speed.

      • 18
        ) kautilya save
        October 27, 2011 at 11:13 am

        quite amaze by ur fast response……….but i m begginer to cameras…i dont own any dslr but when i had read that d5100 has 30 secs exposure so how can we used that exposure…….i m really confuse abt exposures & shutter speed……
        & 1 more que….is that which lenses shld i buy dx format or fx format…..which lens are compatible with d5100 ^& or both lenses r compatible…..wat u recommend buying dx or fx lenses…..coz nikon gives more fx lenses priority……more lenses available…….

        • October 28, 2011 at 2:04 pm

          Kautilya, I would first buy a DSLR + lenses and then start learning about the camera + exposure.

          As for cameras and lenses, I have many articles on this subject. Do some reading and I am sure you will find the answers.

  10. 20
    ) kautilya save
    November 2, 2011 at 10:06 am

    just known this site for a week & i m loving ur articles……..i m quite learning all of ur beginneer’s guide & it is helping me a lot………i m gonna buy nikon d5100 …soon …withing 2 months approx…..BTW …thanks for sharing ur pro photography knowledge to others who are interested in this field………
    kautilya save
    india….

  11. 22
    ) dSaint tOrino
    November 12, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    Hi there!
    I absolutely find your website very useful. Thank you for sharing your tips. I should’ve read this before I spent my weekend in a mountain resort. Now I’m dying to get back there and try your tips. I guess I’ll practice in a faucet first. Hehehe.

    Hope to see more tips from you. Have a good one! :)

  12. 23
    ) Ryan
    April 24, 2012 at 11:04 am

    What Type of lenses would you recommend for this kind of photography

    Thanks :)

  13. 24
    ) Jeff Zacharuk
    July 29, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    I have a Sony a35, my first dslr camera. This past week was the first time i really got to use its many functions, i spent the week in beautiful Waterton National Park in Canada.

    I was trying to take a picture of a waterfall but could not get the silky smooth look from a distance. When i zoomed in i could get the picture i was looking for but when i tried to get the entire area surrounding the waterfall it turned out like crap. Everything on either side of the waterfall was painfully bright, almost white.

    Im new to the world of iso,aperture,etc so im sure i was doing alot of stuff wrong. Could this have been because i was not using a tripod? Is there a way i can post my picture?

  14. 25
    ) Colleen K
    October 9, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    Thank you Nasim Masurov for the great explanation and sharing your beautiful photographs. I especially enjoyed the black and white shot. I will be passing on your web page information to my friends in our photo venture camera club.

  15. 26
    ) Colleen K
    October 9, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    Thank you Nasim Mansurov for the great explanation and sharing your beautiful photographs. I especially enjoyed the black and white shot. I will be passing on your web page information to my friends in our photo venture camera club.

  16. 27
    ) Colleen K
    October 9, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Sorry about misspelling your name.
    Thank you Nasim Mansurov for the great explanation and sharing your beautiful photographs. I especially enjoyed the black and white shot. I will be passing on your web page information to my friends in our photo venture camera club.

  17. 28
    ) Christina Baker
    January 14, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    I bought my Husband an Olympus VR-340 camera for x-mas. It has a 3 inch monitor w/o a viewfinder on the top. When he wants to take pictures of his dog hunting and all he sees is bright light, and can not focus on the subject. I am assuming he needs some kind of special filter or set his mode on the camera different. I have an older Olypmus with a small viewfinder and monitor, and it takes great outdoor pictures. I always use the small viewfinder to take my pictures and not switch over to the monitor to take them. Again my Olympus is 8 years. old and is a 10x. His is also a 10x, and that is why I bought this one. I did not pay a lot of money for it, and maybe that is what I paid for. Not a good camera. Any suggestions??
    Thanks,

    Chris Baker

Leave a Comment