Taking “Smooth” Waterfall Photos

waterfall photography

ISO 100, f22, 1/4 sec

Do you ever see those smooth waterfall photos and wonder how the photographer did that? Well, with an adjustable camera, a tripod, and a little trial and error, you too can have smooth waterfall (or rushing stream or even wave) photos, too.

The key to these photos is a long exposure. Your shutter needs to stay open for longer than is typical. As your shutter stays open, the water rushes past and blurs together, instead of freezing the water’s movement like it would if it stayed open for a very short time. When I say long and short, I really need to qualify that.

A typical “short” amount of time might be 1/250th of a second, 1/500th of a second, or even 1/1000th of a second. A “long” shutter speed for a waterfall might be 1/5th of a second, 1/8 of a second, or 1/10th of a second. That is dependent on many things – your ISO, your aperture, and the amount of light on the water itself. In the series just below, featuring my supermodel Jeff at Alluvial Fan in Rocky Mountain National Park, I did the first shot at 1/125th of a second, and then slowed from there. I actually prefer the middle shot of the three, shot at 1/10 of a second.

If all these terms are overwhelming you, don’t panic. I’ll give you a place to start, and then you can use trial and error – the same method I usually do – to make the magic happen.

First, put your camera on the tripod. Set your ISO to between 200-400 if it’s not very bright, and 100 if it’s bright. Put your camera on the automatic mode where it decides which settings to use for aperture (you’re looking for a number between 3.5-22 probably) and shutter speed. Take a picture, checking the settings your camera used. Zoom in on the picture on your playback screen. Notice that the water is probably stopped in motion, perhaps you can even see individual droplets, as in the first of these three photos shot at 1/125th of a second.

Next, move your camera to the manual mode and start having fun. Adjust your settings moving the aperture to a larger number and the shutter speed to a slower speed. So for example, if your camera shot the original photo at 5.6 and 1/30th of a second, you could change it to 8 and 1/20th of a second. Take a shot, zoom it up, and check it out. Keep making changes in the shutter speed to slower and slower. You may need to up the aperture numbers, too. If you have a highlight alert feature, use it to make sure the water isn’t being totally blown out (especially challenging in bright light).

As you slow the shutter, you’ll see the water begin to blur. When you get one you like, take note of the settings, and try starting from that point next time. You may like just a little blur, or you might prefer complete blurring.  This is a matter of personal preference. Play around and take all kinds of shots – it’s the beauty of digital. These photos done at Lower Lewis River Falls in Washington are from a series of about 100 photos I made there, just playing with shutter speed, zooming, framing, etc. If you have a chance to go up there, I highly recommend it.  You don’t even need to be a hiker to enjoy these falls.  I was on crutches when I made these photos!  There’s a short wheelchair accessible path to a viewpoint.

If you take a photo you like, please share it with us on Twitter, Instagram or via email. We’d love to see your work! Enjoy your week or your weekend.


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