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How to Photograph a Waterfall for Beginners

November 15, 2020 4 min read No Comments

Did you know that there are countless tricks on how best work your camera to capture some award-winning photos? In this blog, I will go over some of the best ways to photograph a waterfall for a beginner photographer or any aspiring enthusiast!

The type camera you use is not absolutely essential, however it is essential to use one that allows you to manually work the settings. To create too long exposures (beyond 30-seconds), you will need a DSLR or Mirrorless camera with the ability to photograph in Bulb mode. I use a Nikon D810 for my photography, which allows me to change lenses, control my exposure, and attach filters.

Lenses

When photographing waterfalls, I tend to prefer using zoom lenses, both wide and telephoto. This allows you to capture more or less of the scene that you want to photograph. It is always good to have options when you are trying to capture the perfect photo. I suggest you take both a wide-angle and telephoto zoom lenses to photograph waterfalls. Strong flowing waterfalls can release a lot of moisture into the air, which might land on the front of your lens or even potentially damage your equipment. Use a telephoto lens such as Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II to photograph falls from a distance and a wide-angle lens such as Nikon 16-35mm f/4.0 VR if the falls are smaller and you are standing close to them.

1. Use a slow shutter speed

To capture that perfect “eerie” effect on a waterfall, you need to use a very slow shutter speed that will be upwards of several seconds. The reason why you want to use a slow shutter speed is because it will make the subject appear smooth and blurry, which is precisely what you want. Fast shutter speeds only freeze the running water when you can see “bubbling.”

2. Use a tripod

If you want to capture moving water and make it look smooth and elegant, you will need to use a tripod. Because of the long exposure time for many, it is nearly impossible to handhold the camera without seeing camera shake in your photo. I’ve done it once but it was rather uncomfortable, so save yourself the pain with a tripod. Before I invested in a tripod I used to use a stone or any other object I could find, but it was rather limiting. If you do not yet have a tripod, I highly recommend getting one as soon as possible.

3. Change Aperture to a Larger Number

Stopping down, or increasing the f/ number, will limit the amount of light that is absorbed through the lens. If your shutter speed is too high, try changing the aperture to a larger number like f/16 or even as high as f/22, if necessary. Changing aperture is the last thing you can try on your camera if you do not want to spend the money on a good ND filter.

4. Use the Lowest ISO

Once you set your camera on a tripod, you need to continue decreasing your shutter speed. lowering the camera ISO to the a smaller value, like ISO 100, will increase image quality and reduces the shutter speed. For example, lowering camera ISO from ISO 400 to 100 on a DSLR decreases the shutter speed by three full stops, so if you were shooting at 1/250th of a second, you would end up with a shutter speed 1/10th of a second.

5. Use a Neutral Density Filter

This is what we call troubleshooting. 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. This 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 out there and most of them differ by the amount of light they let through.

Post-Processing

I always suggest shooting in RAW. Because you have more control over the final image without damaging the file. So, open that smooth waterfall photo in your favorite image editing program and tweak the RAW file to ensure the exposure, white balance and other factors are perfect. If you’re still not happy with the level of blur in the water, the Photoshop blur tool can smooth it out a bit as well. However, I suggest you challenge yourself, try to capture the perfect image in camera rather than rely on post-processing. This will help make you a better photographer.

One of my favorite things to capture is waterfalls. They are beautiful, eye-catching images, no matter how many times they are photographed. It also presents a fun challenge to photographers—smoothing out the water with a long exposure during the daytime is quite tricky, but with the right camera settings, it’s possible to take photos that make people ask, “How did you do that?

Just remember that there is no magic number to set your aperture and shutter speed to get a the perfect long exposure water photograph. A shutter speed of a few seconds might be all you need to get the look you are after – it is all about practice. Practice makes perfect and you will learn the different weather conditions and how to work your camera accordingly.

If you enjoy this blog post feel free to also follow my Instagram at @TheBackpacker_Mom.

Phylicia Stitzel

Two things I love the most...Photography and traveling! Join me on my adventures as I travel the world and share my experiences, top places to visit and how to travel on a budget!

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