Waterfalls are such a classic photography subject and, without question, one of my favourite landscape subjects. I am just two weeks away from my annual Faroe Islands workshop with Conor MacNeill and Zoe Timmers and I am most looking forward to photographing some of the waterfalls that fall directly into the sea. Learning how to photograph waterfalls can be a challenge, but with some practice you should discover it’s far easier than you’d suspect!
Let’s take a look at the key equipment and concepts required to land these images!
Essential Equipment to Photograph Waterfalls
Photography, in general, is always dependent on carrying the right gear for each subject. My suggestions are never meant to be a fully exhaustive list, as many photographers will opt to carry a wider variety of lenses, filters, and miscellaneous gear. This list is greater than the bare minimum, too, as it’s merely my take on what I want to carry to photograph waterfalls throughout the day. If you don’t have access to neutral density filters, simply shoot during lower light periods and not during the day. Anyway, here’s the gear that I consider essential for photographing waterfalls:
- Camera – Ideally a dSLR or mirrorless model; however, any camera will work
- Lens – Ideally a wide angle lens, but anything from 35mm or wider
- Tripod – There is just no getting away from this annoying tool
- ND Filter – either 100mm square filters for the Lee system or screw on ND filters
When to Photograph Waterfalls
Waterfalls make great subjects almost all day! I’ve photographed them under the stars and the milky-smooth water provided a nice bit of foreground contrast. I’ve also photographed them, with the help of an ND filter, during the middle of the day. Still, I personally find the best time to shoot waterfalls is during blue hour, followed closely by overcast weather! The reason these two conditions work is they provide even lighting throughout a scene.
Blue hour is the period between nautical and civil twilight, which begins roughly 90 minutes before sunrise and 30 minutes after sunset. During this time of day, you’ll be able to shoot long exposure images without a ND filter and you’ll find even light throughout the entire scene. It’s called blue hour because the light is typically cool and blue, so it is often necessary to adjust the white balance when shooting at this hour.
Cloudy days are great, because the even light lasts much longer than during the all-too-short blue hour. Although it’s overcast, it can still be bright outside, so this is where an ND filter will often be necessary to slow the shutter speed.
How to Photograph Waterfalls
Waterfall images aren’t too much different than any other landscape, so it’s safe to make a few assumptions with our camera settings! We only have three main camera settings – ISO, Aperture and Shutter speed – that form the exposure triangle, so there is no reason to over think it. The most important camera setting for photographing waterfalls is the shutter speed, because it dramatically changes how the water appears in the image.
Setting the Shutter Speed
Not to fast and not to slow is just about perfect. It’s simply not possible to dictate a shutter speed, as it varies with each location. To make the silky-smooth water effect requires a slow shutter speed, but powerful waterfall will still require a shorter shutter speed than a trickling cascade. It’s also possible to run the shutter too long and loose all detail and texture in the waterfall. It truly depends on the desired look and feel.
To get started, try experimenting between 1/8″ and 8″. At very powerful or fast moving waterfalls, it might be necessary to shoot with an even faster shutter speed, while at smaller waterfalls it might be possible to push for a longer exposure. If it’s too bright outside to achieve these slow shutters, use an ND filter. It’s important to remember that all of these shutter speeds are considered long exposures, so using a tripod is critical to capturing a sharp image.
The following two images are roughly the same (I recomposed slightly) but the shutter speed is quite different:
Camera Settings: Nikon D750 | 16-35mm lens @ 30mm | 10 second shutter speed | f/8.0 | ISO400 | Lee 10-stop ND Filter
Camera Settings: Nikon D750 | 16-35mm lens @ 35mm | 1/50 second shutter speed | f/11 | ISO400 | 2-stop ND filter
Helmcken Falls is incredibly powerful and it has plenty of great texture in the falling water. Using the longer 10-second shutter speed, the waterfall becomes smooth in the image. Using the faster 1/50″ shutter speed kept much of the detail in the water. This is an extreme case, as the two shutter speeds are 10-stops apart; however, it’s an excellent example to prove it is important to experiment with different shutter speeds at each waterfall location.
The following three images, from Athabasca Falls in Jasper National Park, show the drastic difference between between 1/8, 1/4 and 1/2 second shutter speeds can have on the same scene. These one-stop increments truly affect the overall look and feel of the image.
At 1/8 shutter speed, the water isn’t quite smooth enough. It doesn’t quite have the silky effect that I was hoping for, but it was an easy starting point.
At 1/4 second, the water definitely has a smoother texture, which is close to what I wanted for the final image.
And finally, at 1/2 shutter speed ,the water has the exact look I wanted. Silky smooth, yet with some texture detail.
Choosing the Aperture
The age-old saying, F/8 and be there, isn’t too far off the mark, but it’s impossible to predict what aperture is required. It varies with every scene. Most landscape images include plenty of depth of field, meaning the foreground and background are both in focus. To achieve this, it’s often necessary to shoot between f/5.6 and f/11. When shooting close to a subject, it’s often important to shoot with a smaller aperture (bigger f/stop number). From further away, the lens will often focus on infinity, so even a fast aperture will result in good depth of field throughout the entire frame.
For photographers without access to ND filters, it’s also possible to use the aperture to help achieve a slower shutter speed. At f/22, the shutter speed will be four stops slower than at f/5.6, which means 1/30″ becomes 1/2″.
Setting the ISO
As with most landscape images, it is important to shoot the lowest ISO possible. Always use the camera’s native ISO as the starting point. It is almost always either ISO 100 or 200, depending on the camera. The reason this is the best landscape setting is simple. It’s the ISO with the least amount of noise and the most dynamic range. When required, incrementally increase the ISO only to balance the exposure triangle while maintaining the desired shutter speed and aperture.
Edit and Share the Results!
Can you name this small waterfall in Iceland? It’s located shockingly close to Reykjavik…
After capturing images with a variety of shutter speeds, import them into lightroom and edit your favourites. Make sure to note which shutter speeds worked for your desired outcomes so that you’ll have an easier time shooting similar situations in the future.
As you experiment with photographing waterfalls, make sure to share your best results! Popular hashtags on instagram for waterfalls include: #chasingwaterfalls, #waterfallswednesday, and #waterfallphotography!