Waterfalls are amazing subjects for long exposure landscape photography. In this article, I will share some tips and tricks on shooting waterfalls. While it might seem like a simple job - taking pictures and making the water look silky smooth - it can be challenging, especially if you do not have the proper guidance and equipment.
The choice of shutter speed has an extremely high impact on the image. You might not even need a filter to begin capturing the motion of water in your shots. However, I find waterfalls to be tricky to photograph at times because of this. The different shutter speeds have such a big impact that the entire mood (and story you tell) of your image quickly changes. So, consider what you wish to convey.
If you are shooting a huge waterfall with lots of power you might want to use a quick shutter speed to capture its raw power and beauty. While a smaller waterfall might be more appealing when you use a slow shutter speed (long exposure). Experimentation is always the key when working with shutter speeds. However,
Use a Slow Shutter Speed
In order to make the water look smooth, you need to use a slow shutter speed. 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.
How slow you need to set your shutter depends primarily on the movement of teh water and the effect you want to create. I mostly use shutter speeds ranging from 1/10th of a second to several seconds. I always take several testshots at different shutterspeeds to see what I like best.
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.
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.
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. Since you are shooting landscapes using an aperture around f/11 and f/16 it is always a good idea so you are probably already doing so.
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 and differ by the amount of light they let through. They Typically range from ND2, ND4, ND8, ND16, etc to ND1000, where each subsequent one gives an extra stop of light.
Keep your lens dry
This advice is overseen by a lot of photographers. Especially big, wild waterfalls ofter cause an environment with lots of small water droplets in the air. When you get to close to the waterfall you risk the danger of these droplets getting on your lens potentially ruining your image.
When I shoot waterfalls I always protect my lens from getting wet with a plastic bag and/or a cloth. But even then chances that you get drops of water on your lens are huge so I keep a dry cloth within reach.