Waterfall Photography: How do you do that?

April 02, 2018  •  2 Comments

Have you ever seen photos of waterfalls and wondered, “How do they make the water look so smooth?”

Well, that soft “cotton” look to the flowing water isn’t all that difficult to achieve, but you do need to understand the basic exposure controls of your camera (aperture, shutter speed, ISO), and possess a few important, if not essential, accessories. Basically, the effect that you see is achieved by leaving the shutter of the camera open for what amounts to a slow-ish speed (slow by photography measures). By allowing the scene to be recorded over a longer period of time, the movement of the water records on your digital sensor as a “blur”. This is what gives the water its smoothness in the image.

One of the greatest challenges to waterfall photography is to not allow too much light to be recorded, resulting in an over-exposed image. Steps must be taken to address this, particularly on sunny days when a lot of sunlight is hitting your scene.

Here are a few tips to help you get that mystical look to your waterfall photos. These are general guidelines, and settings may vary depending on the actual scene, and the photographer's creative intent / vision.


Eastatoe Falls - NCEastatoe Falls - NC © Copyright David Simchock0.4 sec at f/8.0, ISO 100 1. Use a tripod. Since you will need to allow your shutter to be open for a reasonable period of time, you'll need to stabilize your camera such that you do not get "camera shake" blur on the parts of the image that you want to keep sharp (e.g., the land mass and rocks around the flowing water).

2. A cable release or remote control will also help to minimize camera shake (which can occur by the simple act of pushing the shutter release button – even if you are using a tripod!). If you don’t have either, no problem, just use the self-timer on your camera (and set it to the two-second setting).

3. Another accessory that could be useful, if not essential, for this type of photography is a “neutral density filter” (ND filter) or, at the very least, a polarizing filter. Both will help with achieving the correct exposure by preventing too much light entering the camera during a long exposure. The primary purpose of an ND filter is to block light from coming into the camera. They come in different grades ("shades of grey"), depending on how much light needs to be blocked. This may be required on a sunny day, or if you desire very long exposures. A polarizing filter will also block some light (not as much as most ND filters), but its primary purpose is to polarize the light (e.g., deepen saturation, remove glare, etc.). If you have not invested in a neutral density filter, but have a polarizer, use it. If you are serious about your waterfall photography, then invest in a set of neutral density filters, or a single variable neutral density filter.

Note that it is not recommend to "stack" filters on top of one-another as they could get stuck together, so remove your UV filter (if you are using one) prior to adding an ND or polarizer to your lens, and do not stack ND and polarizing filters.


4. Find a location for your camera / tripod that you think will give you the desired composition of the scene, keeping in mind the foreground and background elements surrounding the waterfall scene. Select a lens, and set up your camera on the tripod at the height that gives you the desired composition. Note that if you raise the center post of the tripod, you may bring in unwanted shake/vibration to your camera, so only raise the post if needed. Also, if you are set up in flowing water, take note the the flow of water around your tripod legs can cause vibration, resulting in a blurry images in areas where you want sharp focus.

Setting Up Your Camera

5. Set your camera to "manual" exposure mode. Once you learn the ins and outs of your camera, you can get away with alternative modes (Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority), but it is best to use the "M" mode for this type of work. From this point on, your objective will be to set up your exposure controls to give you the desired result, while not over-exposing the image (due to too much light being recorded), while also giving yourself the desired depth-of-field for the shot (e.g., likely a deep depth-of-field where both your foreground, subject, and background are in sharp focus). 

6. Set your ISO at its lowest setting (e.g., ISO 100). This low-light pixel sensitivity will help to limit the amount of light being recorded by your camera's digital sensor, allowing you to keep the shutter open for a longer period of time.

7. Is you have an ND or polarizing filter, attach it to the lens, then set your aperture at, say, f/16 to give you a deep depth-of-field. If your lens allows, you may be able to use an even narrower aperture (e.g., f/32), further limiting the light coming into the camera (longer shutter speed), while providing a deep DoF. Actual aperture setting may vary depending on the scene, and the depth-of-field demands.

Big Creek - GSMNPBig Creek - GSMNP © Copyright David J. Simchock2.5 sec at f/22, ISO 200 8. With your light meter on "matrix" (Nikon) or "evaluative" (Canon) or equivalent for other models. Adjust your shutter speed until the light meter is lined up in the center. Take note of the shutter speed that gives you this correct exposure. Your target shutter speed to get the "cotton" appearance should be somewhere around, say, 1/15 sec or slower. You might find that 1/15 sec is not slow enough. If you have your ISO at its lowest setting, and aperture at its narrowest setting, but your shutter speed is still faster than 1/15 sec, then you will need to decrease the amount of light coming into the camera with a stronger ND filter. 

9. If your lens has Vibration Reduction / Image Stabilization, turn it off while using your camera on a tripod (check manufacturer's recommendations for best advice).

10. With everything in place as described above, take a test shot. Review the shot on your camera's rear display to see if you are getting the desired effect with the flowing water. Once set up, your best bet is to experiment with different shutter speeds, keeping the composition in tact, to see what you like best. The slower the shutter speed, the more blur. "Fast" shutter speeds will tend to "freeze" the water flow. There is nothing wrong with this "look" if that is your creative intent. You'll likely need to make a final assessment at home while viewing the shots on a computer monitor.

Remember, if you deviate from the metered setting above, increasing your shutter speed will cut down on the "blur" effect, and will also cut down on recorded light, so you'll need to either raise your ISO a bit, or open your aperture, keeping in mind that raising your ISO may reduce image quality, and opening your aperture will change your depth-of-field. 

If you slow down your shutter speed, you will allow light into the camera for a longer period of time, causing more water flow blur. But, to prevent an over-exposure, you'll need to use a stronger filter (or, step down your aperture further if possible). Note that excessively long exposures may result in the scene's highlights being blown out (i.e., completely white with zero detail). Try to find a balance where you get the desired blur, but without over-doing it.


11. Quite often, due to the danger of having "too much light", waterfall photography is best on overcast days when sunlight is minimized. And, like most landscape photography, mornings and evenings may present the "warmer" light, although on sunny days shadows and high contrast may not make for the best overall composition.

12. Whenever you are using narrow aperture settings on your lens, shooting scenes with a lot of white / light areas (e.g., the water of a waterfall, or the sky in a landscape), you may notice "spots" in these areas on the recorded image. This is very likely being caused by dust/dirt on your camera's sensor, and can make for some very frustrating time in your post-processing removing these flaws (e.g., using the healing brush in Lightroom or Photoshop). If you are experiencing this problem, have your camera's sensor professionally-cleaned. Alternatively, you can do it yourself, but be sure that you understand how to do it properly, as you can cause damage to your camera if not done correctly. NOTE: These "spots" are, indeed, present at wider apertures as well and in all types of scenes, but they become so blurred or mix in with the image content that you might now see them. Best bet is to take all measures to prevent dust and dirt from entering the cavity of your camera, paying particular care when changing lenses. Avoid changing lenses in dusty or misty environments, and do not leave the camera body cavity "open" for extended periods of time!

Let's go shoot some waterfalls!

Shooting waterfalls is one of the most enjoyable forms of landscape photography, and it can produce stunning results. Even if you don’t have easy access to a full-fledged waterfall, you can still practice the technique on any flowing water, be it a local stream or a fountain. With spring soon to be in full bloom, what better time of year to be outside than now with your camera, particularly here in Western North Carolina, aka "The Land of Waterfalls"?

Are you visiting Western North Carolina any time soon, and would like private photography instruction, including shooting waterfalls? Contact me!

Catawba Falls - NCCatawba Falls - Old Fort, NC © Copyright David Simchock3.0 sec at f/20, ISO 100



David Simchock Photography
Thank you for your comment, Michele. I'm pleased that you , and others, find it helpful. Just one thing to point out to you re your comment... Please do not be confused between an "ND" filter (neutral density) and a UV filter (ultra-violet light). What you are using to protect your lens is very likely a UV filter, not an ND filter. They are very, very different. A UV filter is, for the most part, clear and does not block any light. ND filters, on the other hand, come in varying degrees of "grey" and that greyness is what blocks light (intentionally).

So, if you are interested in photographing waterfalls, you may want to add an ND filter or two to your bag (and do not stack them on top of your UV filter!).
Michele Warren(non-registered)
I just wanted to thank you for the above tutorial on shooting waterfalls... very comprehensive, yet simple to understand, knowing re how exposure works... but I did not realize info on nd filters, I just keep one on my lenses to protect them , lol
I live now in Linville Falls, & the only Falls I have photographed! Wow, it was exciting!
I experimented with my shutter speed til I got the desired affect , both in SS priority mode & then on to manual mode.
I have arthritic wrists & fingers & cant hold a heavy camera & lens, so I bought a Nikon d3100 years ago, then last fall, retired (RN)
Treated myself to a d5500. Love the touch screen, wider monitor & swing out screen when shooting the moon, or low down for insects / Flowers. Sorry I have rambled on, but wanted to thank you David
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