Waterfalls are one of my favourite subjects to photograph outside. Slowing them down and shooting with a slower shutter speed is a great way to imply motion and create a dream-like image that evokes serious wanderlust. Here’s your guide on how to shoot the best waterfall photos using shutter speed.
Camera Requirements for Photographing Waterfalls with Slow Shutter Speeds
What kind of camera is best for capturing waterfalls?
You can use any kind of digital camera to create stunning waterfall photos with slow shutter speeds. As long as you have a manual control to change the shutter speed and aperture.
I use a Sony A7RIII which is a high resolution camera, it has a 42mp camera sensor which is great for capturing a lot of digital information. I like shooting on a full frame camera so that I can confidently sell prints and have the ability to enlarge the image.
What kind lens will I need for photographing waterfalls?
I use a 24-70mm 2.8 for 90% of my photographs. I love the general versatility for all kinds of shoots. Waterfalls are no different. Sometimes it’s nice to capture the seen relatively true to the human eye’s “focal length” (about 50mm). Often I should a little wider at 24mm. Having a zoom lens is nice to cover that focal length range that I typically shoot with.
Equipment You’ll Need for Shooting the Aurora
Internal stabilization in cameras and lenses is getting so great that you don’t ALWAYS need a tripod. You should always try to have one when you can though. I can shoot longer exposure photos at waterfalls at about 1/3 second before I get any motion blur from camera shake. Considering a lot of my waterfall photos are captured at 1/6 second, I get away without using a tripod pretty often.
I use a carbon fibre Peak Design travel tripod. It’s so light I don’t even notice it in my pack and it’s worth every single ounce in my bag. You don’t have to have the best tripod out there but something truly sturdy is crucial. Something with an adjustable ball head is great!
It’s really nice to have the option to shoot longer than 1/3 of a second or so. Sometimes I’ll slow down to 2 seconds for really silky smooth waterfalls. In that case I definitely need a tripod.
Neutral Density Filter (ND)
Neutral density filters are measured by the amount of “stops” of light they block from hitting your lens and ultimately camera sensor. For example, a 3-stop ND filter should block about the equivalent of 3 full stops of light on your light meter.
This is really handy for shooting waterfalls during the day when there is a lot of ambient sunlight but you want to slowdown your shutter speed to achieve really smooth waterfalls.
I recommend a 9 stop ND filter or a variable ND filter that can range from 6-9 stops.
You need some kind of means to capture your exposure without causing any camera shake when you hit the shutter release button. Intervalometers are great, and they can also give you the capability to shoot longer than 30 seconds without having to either hold down the shutter release or click the shutter button to begin, or end an exposure.
I don’t like to bring the extra gear with me usually so I just use my camera’s self-timer. The self-timer let’s me delay the capture by 1-10 seconds. 5 seconds is sufficient for ensuring there’s no camera shake.
Planning Your Waterfall Shoot
Waterfalls are really great for shooting during all kinds of weather conditions or time of day, or even season! They’re one of the few subjects outside where little “planning ahead” is needed.
I do like to plan for sun direction. Harsh shadows cast on the waterfall can be really distracting or ugly to look at. If it’s midday, I’d prefer to have the sun backlit (behind the waterfall). In that case it’s nice to know what direction I’ll be shooting the waterfall relative to the sun.
How to Focus Your Lens for Capturing Waterfalls
Setup your composition first. Determine your foreground and then use autofocus to focus on your foreground subject. For example, if you have rock in the river you 5 feet in front of your camera but the waterfall is 15 feet away, focus on the rock.
Set your aperture to a smaller setting. 5.6 is a good start but I’ll often shoot a landscape like this at around f/8 to make sure everything is sharp. Take a test shot and zoom in 100% to make sure your foreground and your background waterfall is sharp.
If your foreground is sharp but your background is still a little soft, close your aperture a little more and take another test shot and review once more.
Camera Settings for the Best Smooth Waterfall Photos
Shutter speed is key here. The greatest variable for how smooth the water appears in your exposure is going to be the speed at which the water is flowing, your distance from the water, and your focal length.
The actual speed of the flowing water will be the greatest variable of the three variables I just mentioned. As a rule of thumb, I usually take my first test shots at 1/6 second. I’ll make any adjustments I need to like closing my aperture more, or making sure my neutral ND filter is providing the right exposure levels.
Preview your playback and see if you like the look of the waterfall at 1/6 second. You can go one of two ways. More smooth, or more definition. I really like having waterfalls evoke a real sense of motion and power. Especially bigger stronger ones. For me, definition in the water is really important.
The slower the shutter speed, the more you will loose that definition. In my experience, in most circumstances, anything slower than 2 seconds is too smooth and the water appears to be too ghostly.
If you’re shooting during the day or even at low light, you shouldn’t have to use your ISO here. If the conditions call for it like blue hour after dusk on a cloudy day, go for it! Raise by increments of 1 until you get a correct exposure with the shutter speed being your priority setting. ISO will have no effect on your waterfall “smoothness”.
Try to avoid shooting wide open. If you’re using a 2.8 lens, maybe try starting at f/4 or f/5.6. Typically I like shooting closer to f/8 for waterfall images with interesting background or foreground. Especially if I think I might print the image or sell the image on my website! Images with sharp features and no bokeh or “fall off” typically look best in prints.
When I’m shooting outdoors I almost always have my WB set to AWB or cloudy. I’m happy to adjust the kelvin in post and save time in the field!
Composition Techniques to Taking the Best Aurora Photos (Insider Content)
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Waterfall Photos Using Shutter Speed Review
Any camera with manual setting will do the trick. Bring a zoom lens for some focal length variety. A good tripod is key so you don’t have to worry about camera shake. Avoid harsh shadows midday. Focus on your foreground subject and then adjust your aperture accordingly so that your entire frame is in focus. Start shooting at 1/6 of a second and then decide if you want to have more motion blur or more definition in the water. Don’t forget key composition rules.