How to Create Amazing Waterfall Photos

Waterfalls have always been one of my favorite parts of the great outdoors. They're perfect at instilling a sense of relaxation while also showing how powerful nature can be - so naturally, they tend to be fantastic subjects for photographs.

I've always loved those smooth, silky looking waterfall photos. When I first started shooting with a DSLR, I wanted every waterfall photo to have that smooth and silky look (long-exposure). However, I've since learned that the long-exposure technique doesn't always lead to an amazing waterfall photo. Sometimes a waterfall looks much more impressive and beautiful when you've used a faster shutter speed.

Every waterfall is different, so here are some things to consider when choosing which style to use as well as some tips on how to achieve both of those styles.

Looking Glass Falls, North Carolina

(Photo above; Looking Glass Falls, North Carolina using a long-exposure technique. Photo below: Rainbow Falls, Hawaii using a faster shutter speed.)

Choosing Between a Long-Exposure or a Faster Shutter Speed

There are several things that are helpful to consider when trying to determine whether to use the long-exposure technique or opt for a faster shutter speed:

  • Shape & Path of the Waterfall - Consider the shape and path of the waterfall. Is the water flowing in multiple directions, across different pathways to the bottom of the waterfall? If so, you may want to consider a long-exposure shot. If the waterfall's shape and path is uniform and straight to the bottom of the falls, you may want to use a faster shutter speed to avoid having the waterfall look like a single white line in your photo that lacks any detail.

  • Weather and Light - The weather and natural light around the waterfall can also play a big part in helping you decide which method to use when taking your photos. If you are wanting to achieve the smooth and silky look of a long-exposure shot, you will want to try and shoot either at the beginning of the day or at the end of the day when the natural light is the softest. Long-exposures can also work in the middle of the day if it is overcast and the cloud coverage is thick enough to keep the waterfall from looking blown-out in your photo. If you are shooting in bright, harsh light, you will likely have more pleasing results if you use a faster shutter speed.

  • Amount of Water - How much water is flowing? If the waterfall is not flowing very heavily, you might consider using the long-exposure method to make the waterfall look fuller. If the waterfall is absolutely gushing, you might consider using a faster shutter speed that will capture the intensity and speed of the waterfall.​

  • Personal Preference - Naturally, your personal preference will always be a deciding factor of which method you should use. I'm a huge fan long-exposures because they are fun to take, and they can often look super artsy (in my opinion). Others prefer to avoid long-exposures because it's not what waterfalls look like in real life.

(Photo above: Akaka Falls, Hawaii // ISO 1250, f/6.3, 1/60").

Perfecting the 'Faster Shutter Speed' Waterfall Photo

Hanakapi'ai Falls (shown below, // ISO 400, f/8, 1/160'') is a great example of a waterfall that is best captured with a faster shutter speed (which is nice, because hiking there without a tripod was hard enough). This waterfall is quite tall, it has a pretty simple and straight path, and it also has a full, steady flow of water. By using a faster shutter speed, I was able to capture the details of how intensely this waterfall flows.

When setting up to take this photo, I set the aperture to f/8 so that both the waterfall and the rocks in the foreground would be in focus. Next, I looked at finding a shutter speed that was going to be fast enough to show some detail along the path of the waterfall, but slow enough that the water would still look like it's flowing and connected.

There's not any magic number that is going to work for every photo, but you can usually start at about 1/100'' and then adjust from there based off what results you see when you take a test shot. In this example, I ended up at 1/160'' because it showed detail along the waterfall while still allowing the waterfall to appear like it is connected and flowing. Once I had set my aperture and shutter speed, I used the camera's light meter to decide upon setting the ISO to 400.

Perfecting the 'Long-Exposure' Waterfall Photo

One of my favorite waterfalls to photograph with a long-exposure is Crabtree Falls (shown below // ISO 50, f/16, 2''). This waterfall works so well with long exposures for several reasons - there are a lot of paths that the water takes to the bottom of the falls, the waterfall is located in a heavily wooded area that often has soft light, and the usual flow of water is not so fast that you would lose all detail by using a slower shutter speed.

Setting up for a long-exposure shot typically will require a little more work. One of the most important steps is ensuring that your camera doesn't move while the shutter is open. You will definitely need a tripod to hold your camera or another sturdy surface to rest your camera on so that your image is free of motion blur from camera movement. When taking your photo, it can also be helpful to use a remote to trigger your camera's shutter. If you don't have a remote for your shutter, try setting your camera up on a time-delay instead, so that your camera will no longer be shaking by the time the shutter opens.

I usually start setting up a long-exposure shot with my ISO at the lowest setting, which will keep your camera from being too sensitive to light while the shutter is open for a longer period of time. I also usually start with an aperture of f/16 just because it prevents too much light from going into the camera while the shutter is open. It's also a nice starting point because it ensures that mostly everything in the photo will be in focus.

Once the ISO and aperture are set, you can start slowing down the shutter speed to about 1 or 2 seconds. From that point, you can start to make adjustments to those settings depending on what your camera's light meter is telling you as well as what the motion of the water looks like in your photos. Ideally, your shutter speed should smoothly connect the different paths of the waterfall.

Whether you prefer long-exposures or faster shutter speed photos, it's important to keep an open mind when photographing waterfalls so that you can use whichever method will be most likely to create an amazing waterfall photo.

Which style do you prefer? Let me know in the comments!

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