Teachable Moment - Waterfall Photography Technique

 

There are certain subjects that seem to draw photographers like moths to a lightbulb. Any time we see a waterfall, something deep inside us calls upon us to reach for our cameras. For some reason, freezing the movement of the water isn’t as satisfying as recording it as a nice, smooth blur. So, how do we do this? I’ll unpack this below…

The shutter is one of the functions that allows light into the camera. The longer the shutter speed (how long the shutter is open for) the more light can enter the camera. Shutter speed also affects how movement is captured in a photograph. A fast shutter speed, like 1/1000th of a second, freezes movement while a slow shutter speed, like 1 second, allows movement to record as a blur. So, the key to blurring the movement in the waterfall is to set a slow shutter speed.

Each situation is unique but generally speaking I’d say around half a second would be the minimum shutter speed you’d need to smooth-out the water. In my experience, however, 1-2 seconds is a good length of time to record a nice, soft blur in a waterfall.

The simplest way to do this is to set the camera to Shutter Priority (S for Nikon, Av for Canon) and dial-in the shutter speed you want, lets say 1 second. Now, the camera will give you a shutter speed of 1 second (the display should show 1”) and it will automatically set the Aperture to balance the exposure.

Simple, right? Well, not really. In bright conditions the camera simply won’t manage to balance a long shutter speed like 1 second (in daytime conditions, too much light will enter the camera, even at a narrow aperture setting like f/22). This is when Neutral Density filters come in handy.

A Neutral Density (ND) filter is a dark piece of glass which you can place in front of your lens. The darkening effect means you can use a longer shutter speed, sometimes 1000x longer, depending on the strength of the filter. For example, if your shutter speed without a filter is 1/30th of a second, a 10 stop ND filter would increase your shutter speed to 30 seconds. That’s a bit over-the-top for a waterfall but with a 6 stop ND filter 1/30th of a second becomes 2 seconds - now we’re in waterfall territory!

A timely gust of wind added a little more drama to this shot at the Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye

A timely gust of wind added a little more drama to this shot at the Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye

OK, you’ve found your waterfall, framed-up your composition, worked out your settings, added your ND filter (if necessary) and gotten to a shutter speed of about 2 seconds. You’re ready to shoot but at this shutter speed you’ll need to steady the camera as much as possible. This means using a tripod, of course.

Another tip here is to lock-up the mirror on your camera. If you’re using an SLR camera there is a mirror inside the camera body which mechanically moves up and down just before and after the exposure. This can introduce movement into the camera so it’s best to lock-up the mirror if you can - check your manual! Finally, use a remote release to fire the camera so you don’t introduce movement when you press the shutter release button. If you don’t have a remote release you can set the self-timer so you can click, step away and let the camera take the picture automatically.

Recap:

  • Aim for a shutter speed of about 1-2 seconds

  • Use Filters to achieve this if you have to

  • Take a few moments to steady your tripod

  • Lock-up the mirror inside your camera

  • Use a remote release or self-timer

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As always, make the equipment work for you and not against you. Shoot in Manual mode if you can but if you’re not quite there yet then try Shutter Priority. On a couple of recent workshops I’ve had clients who’s tripods were so flimsy there was no possible way to get a steady long exposure. You don’t need the most expensive gear but if your tripod’s legs aren’t rigid then you’re fighting a losing battle - more on tripod technique in a future article.


Do you have a great waterfall photograph? Share it in the comments. Let me know if you have any questions and please share the article if you found it helpful. 

GD.