Updated: March 2, 2022
Waterfalls are truly a staple of landscape photography. There is just something breathtaking about them that draws us in, whether in person or in a photograph.
Waterfalls also give us the opportunity to play with motion, using our cameras to capture movement in different ways than our eyes are able to see.
We can create vastly different photos depending on whether we want to freeze each water droplet or allow the motion to blur.
The key to getting these different effects lies in adjusting your camera’s shutter speed. Slow shutter speeds will create silky smooth water, while fast shutter speeds will freeze every drop. You can choose whichever effect you’d like based on the shutter speed you use.
This will require taking your camera out of automatic or “program” mode. To change the shutter speed you’ll either need to be in shutter priority mode or full manual exposure mode.
If you’re new to this, I recommend experimenting with a variety of shutter speeds to get a sense for how it works. A good starting point is 1/2 of a second to blur flowing water and 1/500th of a second to freeze it. Adjust up or down from there depending on how fast the water is flowing.
It will usually take several shots to dial in the exact shutter speed that will get you the creative effect you want, so don’t be afraid to try many variations.
Here are some additional tips for photographing waterfalls:
Use a tripod. Particularly if you are trying to blur water, you’ll need to stabilize your camera in order to use long shutter speeds. It’s also a good idea to use a remote trigger or the self-timer to avoid shaking your camera when you take the shot.
Use a polarizing filter. This type of filter is very useful for cutting glare on water and wet rocks and is perfect for waterfall photography. You can learn more about filters for landscape photography here.
Wait for the right conditions. If you want to use slow shutter speeds to blur water, you will need low light levels. The ideal time to shoot is early or late in the day. You won’t be able to achieve a slow shutter speed during the bright midday hours unless you use a neutral density filter to cut the amount of light reaching your camera’s image sensor. Cloudy or shaded conditions will also give you better results.
Pay attention to the details. If you use too slow of a shutter speed you may end up losing all the detail in the water, creating a pure white streak. In the field, as you’re reviewing a photo on the back of your camera, I recommend carefully inspecting the water to see if you are achieving the level of detail that you’d like. If the waterfall is bright white with zero detail, you might want to try a slightly faster shutter speed.
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Watch your exposure. Waterfalls can be tricky to expose for. You can use your camera’s histogram to gauge your exposure, making sure it isn’t too bright or too dark. You can also turn on your camera’s “highlight clipping alert” to be sure that you don’t accidentally overexpose the water as you’re experimenting with slow shutter speeds.
From an artistic standpoint there is also a lot to consider when photographing waterfalls. The tendency is to try and include the entire waterfall in your frame. However, this isn’t always necessary. Sometimes a simpler and stronger composition can be created by focusing on one particular portion of the falls. As an example, for the image below I decided to angle the camera downward in order to include a mossy rock in the foreground and only a small part of the waterfall itself.
If you’re photographing a large waterfall, including a person wearing bright colors can be a nice way to add a sense of scale and additional interest to the scene.
You can also try including the stream or river leading up to the falls. This can be used as a leading line to bring the viewer into your photograph.
Lastly, waterfalls can make for beautiful black and white images! White water set against dark rocks can really pop, creating a contrast that is perfect for black and white.
I hope this gives you some ideas you can put to use. Not only are waterfalls a lot of fun to shoot, they are also a great way to learn some of the more technical details of your camera that can open up a world of creative possibilities!