Waterfall Photography for Beginners

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Waterfall Photography for Beginners image

 photo by surakit sawangchit via iStock

Waterfalls are a favorite subject of travel, landscape, and outdoor photographers. Waterfall photography is generally done in two different ways. One way is with the water frozen in time, which is the simpler way, and the other is with the moving water blurred artistically, a little more technique is involved for this method.

How to Photograph Waterfalls

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 photo by LuisALouro via iStock

Learning waterfall photography for beginners will require stepping just a little bit beyond the fantastic automation of our modern digital cameras in terms of creatively adjusting camera settings for waterfalls. In addition, knowing some waterfall composition tips and what extra accessory equipment can be used is going to be useful.

Some of these waterfall photography ideas will be similar to the beginner photography tips you already know. We’ll apply these tips and techniques you’re familiar with to waterfall photography settings and techniques.

Waterfall Photography Gear

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 photo by freemixer via iStock

First off, the camera and lenses you already own have all of the capabilities, setting, and features needed for creative waterfall photography. An entry level DSLR or mirrorless camera with its kit lens provides amazing levels of sharpness and color fidelity. 

As long as the camera allows adjusting the exposure controls, you’re good to go. If you have extra lenses, you have all of those options open to you in waterfall photography as you would in any other landscape scenic opportunity. 

A couple of extra accessories will be very useful for waterfall photography, a tripod and lens filters. The most useful lens filters for photographing waterfalls are graduated neutral density (GND), neutral density (ND), and circular polarizer (C-Pol) filters.

The tripod choices are numerous as well. We can use a full size, heavy duty tripod, lightweight travel tripods, a monopod, or some of the interesting tripod alternatives we’ve reviewed on PhotographyTalk.com.

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Waterfall Photography Settings

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 photo by deepblue4you via iStock

Adjusting the camera settings for waterfalls is how we make our images with either the motion of the falling water frozen and sharp or blurred. Both methods will result in good photos, we can capture both styles of images in the same photo trek.

Frozen Water Movement

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 photo by Vershinin via iStock

As mentioned earlier, the image with water motion frozen and sharp is the simple way to get the picture. You can even leave your camera in fully automatic exposure mode and the camera settings for a daylight exposure will usually have a moderate lens aperture and relatively fast shutter speed.

At the distance we likely will be from the waterfall in order to capture the full scope of the falls, or at least a large part of it, we’ll probably be at the wider angle end of our zoom lens and the scene will be accurately recorded. 

These images will be nice, showing us and our friends the lovely waterfall we found. But we can do just a little bit more photographically to capture a superior image to those snapshots, even a spectacular view. 

Slow It Down

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 photo by mwpenny via iStock

The biggest difference you will see between many fine pictures of beautiful waterfalls and waterfall photography images that stand out and get attention is the moving water showing as a soft blur. 

There is one thing to do in order to create that soft blur: slow down the shutter speed. Everything else about blurred motion waterfall photography settings revolve around that one camera exposure setting. 

Depending on the speed and volume of the waterfall, how far away it is from camera position, and what the day is like, there are any number of different shutter speeds that can be used. For a moderately blurred waterfall motion, a shutter speed we could probably hand hold with our camera image stabilization feature. 

For that style of image, the shutter speed could be around 1/8th to 1/30th of a second. In order to achieve that shutter speed, take the camera out of full automation or programmed auto and instead choose aperture priority or shutter speed priority.

Use the Exposure Triangle

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 photo by Ahmed Benzerguine via iStock

One of the earliest beginner photography tips learned by most people is the Exposure Triangle. The Exposure Triangle shows that there are three variables that control photographic exposure. Shutter Speed, Lens Aperture (AKA F-stop), and ISO.

Change any one of these and either one or both of the other settings will need to change to keep correct exposure. So, if a scene meters at ISO 400, 1/250th of a second, and f/8.0, then in order to get a shutter of 1/30th, we need to change lens aperture to f/22, ISO to 50, or a combination of what our camera might have available such as ISO 200 and f/16 to use that 1/30th shutter speed.

Creating More Blur

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 photo by surakit sawangchit via iStock

To capture a waterfall photography image with significantly blurred water motion, we need shutter speeds or exposure times measured in full seconds if possible. This means we need a very small lens aperture, smaller than f/22, or a very low ISO, significantly lower than ISO 100. 

However, most entry level cameras only go to ISO 100 or 200 on the low end, when we’re wanting about ISO 12 or lower. We might look at a smaller f/stop or lens aperture, but most current lenses only stop down to f/22 when we need f/64, f/128, or smaller. What do we do about this?

Lens Filters: Polarizer

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 photo by Koldunova_Anna via iStock

This is where the lens filters mentioned earlier become a valuable tool for our waterfall photography settings. ND filters and C-Pol filters add density to the light path of any lens on which they’re mounted.

Adding density means subtracting light, more or less. You can get a more detailed explanation in some of our other articles specifically teaching filter use or exposure control. What it means is that we can now slow down our shutter speeds since we need to in order to get proper exposure for the scene. 

A C-Pol filter adds about 2 stops of exposure density, maybe a little less depending on the exact filter. Polarizers also help control reflections from still water, plant leaves, glass, and other things. 

In addition, polarizers control contrast and can be used to deepen color contrasts such as making white clouds pop out from a dark blue sky. All good things for any landscape photography images we’re capturing. 

Lens Filters: Neutral Density

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 photo by Solovyova via iStock

ND or neutral density filters can be found in various strengths from about 4 stops to 10 stops. Being neutral in color, the only thing they affect is exposure. We can find C-Pol and ND filters in regular screw in mounts or we could invest in a filter holder system. 

A filter holder system is a good investment for anyone planning on doing a lot of landscape photography, as we can find scores of uses for shooting with multiple filters that can result in amazing pictures.  

If we want to try graduated ND filters, a filter holder system is pretty much a necessity. For many waterfall photography situations, a full ND filter is generally more useful than GND filters.

How Slow Can We Go?

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 photo by surakit sawangchit via iStock

The camera setting for waterfalls can be greatly affected by C-Pol and ND filters. Taking the exposure example we discussed earlier, ISO 400, 1/250th of a second, and f/8.0, let’s see what shutter speed or exposure time these filters can give us.

We already changed our settings to ISO 200 and f/16 to use that 1/30th shutter speed. Adding a C-Pol filter with about 2 stops of density gives us a shutter speed of 1/8th. A 10 stop ND filter results in a shutter speed of 32 seconds, which we now usually refer to as exposure time instead of shutter speed. Same thing, just better wording for long times.

Using that same scene, if we added a C-Pol filter to a filter holder and also mounted a 10 stop ND filter (filter holder systems allow multiple filters to be mounted together), we could end up with an exposure time of 128 seconds, over two full minutes! That’s more than enough to seriously blur any water motion.

Obviously, any exposure times that length will require using a tripod or other method to ensure absolutely no camera movement during the time the shutter is open. An electronic remote release, wired or wireless, is also a good idea.

Composition Tips

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 photo by roman_slavik via iStock

You’re probably already using some of the composition tips and techniques for landscape photography such as Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, and Negative Space as you capture waterfall photography images.

An important consideration besides the exposure settings for waterfall photography is the implied motion of the viewer’s attention within the photographed scene. Waterfalls are often arched somewhat into a slight curve, which tends to suggest motion. 

So, if we have negative space and have the leading line of the waterfall  moving into it, the more balanced use of thirds would have us placing the majority of space with the waterfall arch or curve moving into it. A waterfall placed on the other end, with the majority of space behind it, feels less natural than having it flow into the 2/3rds area of the image.

You Can Do It

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 photo by Marilyn Nieves via iStock

Waterfall photography is a lot of fun to do, and even more fun when we show our images to others, in person or online. You can use these tips and techniques with the camera and lenses you have now, plus you can do even more with just a few extra photographic accessories.

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