Ever tried to capture the beauty of a waterfall but just couldn't get it right?
Let's break down how to take a great waterfall photo with 4 helpful hints...
1.0" ƒ29 ISO 100 Falkine Falls Roxboro, NC
The great thing about photography is that you can play around with settings to create different effects for capturing your environment. A popular technique for photographing waterfalls is to allow less light to come in over a longer period of time, creating a soft flowing effect for running water.
The four tips listed below are a great way to start your experimental journey into mastering this technique, but it will take a lot of trial and error.
Be sure to take proper care, wear good shoes, and bring microfiber cloths to keep your lenses clean and dry. Photographing waterfalls can be challenging due to environmental factors like slippery/steep terrain, wildlife & insects, and tricky sunlight. Overcast skies and thick forest canopies provide shade to help avoid splotchy overexposures and create nice even lighting for photos.
2.0" ƒ32 ISO 100 Oak Creek Canyon Sedona, AZ
Tip #1 - Shutter Speed
TLDR: choose a longer exposure
In order to create a nice flowing effect for the water, you'll need to make sure you adjust your shutter speed to allow for a longer exposure. This simply means your camera will take in light for longer.
For example: In an automatic setting, on a bright & sunny day your camera will choose a very short exposure time such as 125 (meaning 1/125 second) while in a darker environment it would default to a longer setting such as 2" (2 seconds) to allow more time for light to come in.
1.6" ƒ22 100 ISO North Fork Cove Creek Zionville, NC
A longer shutter speed can cause blurriness in a photo if the camera were to move at all during the exposure (hence tip #4). When adjusting your shutter speed in a bright setting you have to take care to avoid overexposing the photo. This leads us to our next tip - adjusting the aperture.
Tip #2 - Aperture
TLDR: choose a higher f/#
If you're new to photography don't let this word intimidate you - Aperture simply translates to the amount of light the camera is letting in through the adjustable hole inside - like a pupil for the eye 👁️ and for this technique we want a smaller pupil...
In your camera settings, aperture will appear as the 'f-number.' The f number is derived from a ratio:
[ focal length / diameter of hole ]
& these numbers are always in millimeters (mm).
6.0" ƒ29 ISO 100 Mash Fork Falls Camp Creek, WV
"For example, if a lens's focal length were 10 mm and its entrance pupil diameter were 5 mm, the f-number would be 2. This would be expressed as "f/2" in a lens system."
Now here's where it gets a little hanky...
The higher the f-number, the less light the camera will allow through.
This is because the hole will be smaller.
In order to capture that smooth flow of water you'll need to adjust your camera settings to a higher f-number (aka smaller pupil) to allow less light to enter the camera. This combined with a long exposure time allows the scene to develop slowly while avoiding overexposure.
Tip #3 - ISO
TLDR: choose a low ISO
Okay, stick with me here, last technical term!
ISO refers to the sensitivity of light for your film, or in modern times - digital sensor. I like to think of ISO as a supplement that aids in lower-light situations.
With that said, it's a balancing act... In a higher light environment, your sensitivity (ISO #) should be lower, but in a low light setting your ISO should be higher - to compensate for the lack of light. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive to light the sensor will be:
This sensitivity to light goes hand in hand with image quality. The most detailed high quality images will have plenty of light and therefore only need a low ISO.
So what should your ISO be for this waterfall photo technique? Typically outdoor photography in sunny environments will require a lower ISO due to the high amount of light available.
An outdoor setting combined with a slow shutter speed means we're allowing plenty of light to enter our photo; therefore, we can be less sensitive to light - meaning use a lower ISO - and end up with a good quality image.
1.6" ƒ25 ISO 100 Red River Gorge, KY
Needless to say adjusting all these settings is quite the balancing act that takes patience and passion, but when you get it right you'll be hooked!
Tip #4 - Tripod or the Perfect Rock
TLDR: stillness is essential
Considering this technique involves lower light and a longer exposure, stability is KEY to avoid a blurry photo!
But, if you're anything like me, you don't always come fully prepared with a tripod strapped to your back... like ever... So with that said, you'll need to get creative.
If you don't have a tripod with you - find a good rock, stump, or log that's dry and well-positioned. Grab some smaller pebbles/sticks in case you need to prop up the camera base or lens to ensure the perfect angle. Last step - hold your breath and cross your fingers! 🤞
To see a video example of finding the perfect rock click below ⬇️
Want an Easy Way to Remember These Tips?
Waterfalls are relaxing, meditative, & calming...
This technique mirrors that sentiment! 🧘♂️
Take nice long deep breaths ➡️ Long exposure time, slow shutter speed
Gently close our eyes ➡️ Letting in less light, smaller aperture (or pupil)
Take it all in ➡️ Soaking up lots of light & detail, low ISO
Sit very still ➡️ Tripod, steadiness + balance
10.0" ƒ29 ISO 100 Mash Fork Falls Camp Creek, WV
I can't conclude this post without praising Kevin Adams, a fellow lover of waterfalls and North Carolina waterfalls specifically.
I received his book North Carolina Waterfalls: A Hiking and Photography Guide as a gift from my grandparents on my 14th birthday and it had a profound impact on my adolescence, fueling my love for nature, photography, and exploration. Since then it's been heavily worn, torn, bookmarked, and water damaged and I still cherish it to this day.
You can find Kevin Adam's North Carolina Waterfalls 3rd Edition book ➡️ here ⬅️