In this article, I will share some tips on photographing waterfalls and hopefully teach you how to take advantage of your camera gear when photographing moving water. While it seems like a simple task, taking pictures of waterfalls and making the water look silky smooth can be a little challenging, especially if you do not have the right equipment. Although it is certainly possible to capture waterfalls with your camera hand-held, your best bet would be to use a stable tripod in order to allow for very slow shutter speeds without introducing camera shake.
Waterfall – 5 Second Exposure (Shutter Speed)
NIKON D700 @ 40mm, ISO 100, 5/1, f/16.0
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:
Now take a look at a waterfall that I captured at 6 seconds:
Mt Rainier NP #11
NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 32mm, ISO 200, 6/1, f/9.0
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 Lowest 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) Stop Down / Change Aperture to a Larger Number
Stopping down, or increasing the 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/11 or even f/16, 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
NIKON D700 @ 27mm, ISO 100, 1/2, f/22.0
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
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) Use 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.