Capturing a great shot of silky waterfalls—with the moving water soft and smooth and set against a crisp, focused landscape—can be a bit tricky.
The key to this kind of photo is a relatively long shutter speed. And that's where the challenge lies. The lighting situation may or may not allow for a long enough shutter speed to soften the moving water, at least not without overexposing parts of the image. Additionally, this long shutter speed can cause issues with camera shake, which can result in blurry images.
With all this said, a lot of what it takes to snap a great waterfall picture comes down to having the right equipment.
A tripod is essential when photographing waterfalls in order to keep your camera steady when shooting with a shutter speed long enough to capture the motion of the flowing water.
The bottom line is that without a tripod, your waterfall photo is virtually guaranteed to be blurry. And that's not the shot you want. So you are going to want to use a tripod.
Waterfall photos usually work best with a wide-angle zoom lens, something in the range of about 15-85mm.
A neutral density filter, sometimes called an ND filter, is a dark, neutral gray filter—so it doesn't affect the color of a scene—that reduces the amount of light entering the camera lens, effectively increasing the exposure time. In other words, an ND filter increases the amount of time it takes to properly expose a scene.
For our purposes here, an ND filter allows for a slower shutter speed than the scene would normally require. With an ND filter the shutter can be left open for longer, allowing you the chance to capture the movement of the water without overexposing the rest of the image
Neutral density filters come in varying strengths, based on the darkness of the filter. The darker the filter, the more it reduces the amount of light coming into the camera.
By the way, you may not need a neutral density filter if you are also using a polarizer, since both type of filters cut down on the light entering the lens. It really depends on the lighting and landscape conditions of the water. The polarizer by itself may reduce the light enough to do the trick—allowing for a slow enough shutter speed to capture a silky waterfall.
For more information on neutral density filters, see our earlier post, The Basics Of Neutral and Graduated Density Filters.
Polarizing filters can cut through haze and glare as they reduce reflections from non-metallic surfaces.
A polarizing filter is often touted for its ability to increase the saturation of blue skies. But a polarizer is equally useful when photographing scenes that include water because it can remove glare from wet surfaces. Using a polarizer when shooting a waterfall scene can cut down on the haziness often found around moving water, remove the glare of light reflection off of the water and even help to reveal objects and features below its surface. The polarizer can also make for better contrast within the scene and increase the color saturation of misty foliage and wet rocks.
Another advantage of using a polarizer when shooting waterfall images is that this type of filter, like the neutral density that we talked about above, cuts down on the amount of light getting into your camera's lens. So the reduced light means that you can slow down your shutter speed without overexposing the image. So, depending on the lighting conditions and the speed of the flowing water, a polarizing filter may reduce the light enough to capture the image you want, without the additional use of a neutral density filter.
For more information on polarizing filters, see our earlier post, The ABCs of Polarizing Filters.
A remote shutter release can be helpful in capturing waterfall images that are tack sharp.
Whenever you press your camera's shutter release, it's inevitable that the camera will move, even just a tiny amount. But that tiny amount can be enough to ruin your picture.
A remote release lets you press the shutter button without touching the camera. So it allows you to keep your hands at a distance at that all-important moment when the photo is taken, minimizing the chance that your hand will introduce camera movement and cause a blurry image.
If you don't have a remote release, you can also use your camera's self-timer to snap the picture with your hands away from the camera.
When composing your waterfall images, you may very well find yourself working in thick brush, on uneven terrain and in a position where you can't see the horizon. In those kinds of conditions, getting your camera level can be especially tough.
That's where a bubble level comes in. A bubble level is an inexpensive gadget that attaches to your camera and works like a carpenter's level to help you situate the camera to a horizontal position.
Waterfalls are, by their nature, wet! There's a lot of moving water and that can spray misty droplets all over the place. Add in a bit of wind and there's wetness everywhere, including on the front of your lens.
One idea that can help is to bring along a clear UV filter. Fit the filter to the front of the lens to keep the water off as you are setting up your equipment and composing the shot. Then, when you're ready to snap the picture, remove the filter and go for it!
As we mentioned above, waterfall photography can be a misty, wet, spray-ridden and damp proposition. A lens cleaning cloth can come in handy in these kinds of conditions.
The best shutter speed for a particular scene depends on the weather, the lighting, and the speed of the water flow. So you are going to need to experiment to find the best setting for the landscape and the lighting conditions.
The goal is to use a shutter speed slow enough to soften the motion of the water paired with an aperture setting (f number) big enough to provide the depth of field needed to keep the entire scene in crisp focus.
I usually find my best shots use a shutter speed that lies somewhere between 1 and 3 seconds. But when the water is flowing quickly, I've gotten good shots at shutter speeds as fast as ½ a second.
So experiment and take a few shots at different shutter speeds to see how it looks and then adjust accordingly. Or start out at about 1/5 of a second or so and gradually decrease the shutter speed until you get a look that you like.
And while we're talking about shutter speeds, I find that the easiest shooting mode to use when photographing waterfalls is shutter priority mode.
Shutter priority mode is a semi-automatic shooting mode where you choose a shutter speed and the camera selects the corresponding aperture setting needed to get the correct exposure.
By using shutter priority mode, you are able to control the shutter speed while still relying on your camera's built-in auto exposure function to ensure that your image is well exposed.
Waterfall scenes include elements that may confuse your camera's onboard computer. Since waterfalls naturally appear white, these scenes contain bright highlights and areas of varying contrast, even on overcast days. These are conditions that can wreck havoc with your camera's ability to determine proper scene exposure and appropriate white balance.
By setting your camera to shoot in the RAW format, you allow yourself more leeway in terms of the corrections that you can make to the image in post production. Shooting in RAW gives you the option to tweak and adjust the exposure and white balance to your liking, after the fact.
Like most photographic subjects, you'll find that the right lighting makes for better waterfall photos. But this is especially true given the unique exposure challenges in shooting waterfall images. The time of day and the weather conditions play a big role in the success of these images. So consider this before heading out.
The best times to shoot a waterfall are in the golden hours around sunrise and sunset, and on an overcast day. The soft, diffuse, even lighting will help reduce heavy contrast in your images and will allow for the longer exposure times needed to capture the silky motion of water.
Set your camera to its lowest ISO setting.
This will make the image sensor less sensitive to light, allowing for slower shutter speeds. Shooting at a low ISO also ensures finer detailed, higher quality images since reducing the ISO also reduces noise and graininess in your images.
The term vignetting refers to a darkening of a photo in the area around its border.
Vignetting can sometimes happen when a filter is used on a wide-angle lens. In that case, the large area of view captures the filter's outside ring, which blocks the light around the edges and creates black corners on the image frame.
Waterfall photos are prone to vignetting issues because of the lens and filters often used for this kind of shot. This is especially true when two filters—a polarizer and a neutral density filter—are used at once.
Vignetting can be minimized by using either a filter system that's larger than the diameter of the lens or by using ultra thin filters. But even then, you can still run into vignetting problems.
So I just don't worry about it. Instead, I make a point of leaving a bit of breathing room around the edges of my composition and plan on cropping out the offending dark corners later in post production.
For more information on getting the perfect waterfall shot, here are some links and two great videos that I think you'll find helpful.
This first video is from the always-helpful Gavin Hoey. In it, I think you'll find it helpful to see the process Gavin goes through to set up his waterfall shot. And, by the way, this shot is taken with only a polarizing filter to allow for a long shutter speed.
And here's one from Mark Wallace. Mark uses both a polarizer and a neutral density filter to capture a waterfall that looks silky and smooth.
Note that in this video, at about the 3-minute point, Mark talks about rotating the neutral density filter to cut out reflections on wet rocks. But the filter that he is rotating is actually the polarizer.
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