How to photograph waterfalls

By Caroline Schmidt. Posted

Waterfalls are one of the most magical aspects of landscapes and are a firm favourite among outdoor photographers. Water is a powerful element for photography that can be used to create dynamic compositions, and in some cases to apply creative exposure effects ranging from completely freezing water, to capturing it as an ethereal blur, plus everything between.

The exact amount of blur that can be captured depends entirely on the filters you have to hand. With no filters, on an overcast day, you may be able to achieve an exposure of around one second, although you may find you can’t even get close to this. A polarising filter can reduce exposure by up to two stops, and are also great for removing reflections from water while achieving slightly longer exposures. While for truly long exposures, ranging anywhere from a few seconds to minutes, you’ll need a Neutral Density filter.

Neutral Density filters block light without affecting colours in the image, hence their name. They are available in a variety of strengths, measured in stops of light. So called ‘extreme’ ND filters, such as the Lee Filters Big Stopper, block an incredible ten stops of light. There are even filters available to filter up the 16 stops! More extreme NDs do create colour casts however, although this can be removed using a custom White Balance. So while they are considered ND filters, they’re not truly neutral.

We’re going to shoot extreme long exposures of waterfalls using a ten-stop ND filter, so for this technique you’ll need a DSLR or CSC with an ultra wide-angle lens or standard zoom. You’ll also need a tripod and remote release to keep the camera locked in position, and of course a ten-stop ND filter. If you don’t have a filter you can still use a weaker ND filter, or a polarising filter.

1 Use a tripod

When shooting any long exposure, it’s best to use some kind of support, and for very long exposures a sturdy tripod is essential. Set up your tripod making sure the feet can’t slip to avoid any kind of movement. You’ll also need a remote release to avoid touching the camera when releasing the shutter in Bulb mode. If using a weaker ND or a polariser then attach this now, but if you’re using an extreme ND then hold fire.

Step 1

2. Compose the shot

Turn on LiveView and cover the viewfinder using the eyepiece cover or your hand, before composing your shot using the LCD screen. This will avoid light leaks through the viewfinder, which can create dull spots on your image. Mirrorless users won’t need to do this. Find your composition and lock off the tripod. Now activate the virtual horizon to make sure the camera is level and you’re all set.

Step 2

3 Select settings

Set the camera to aperture-priority mode and choose an mid-to-narrow aperture at ISO 100. If you’re not using an extreme ND then you can now shoot away using aperture-priority mode. For extreme ND users, take a test shot, apply exposure compensation if necessary, and make a note of the exposure settings. Transfer these over into manual mode, but set the shutter speed to Bulb.

Step 3

4 Manually focus

Switch your lens to manual focus and turn on LiveView. Zoom into the waterfall itself using the magnify controls on the back of the camera. Now rotate the focusing ring on the lens until the image looks sharp on the LCD screen. With a waterfall that’s close to the camera with nothing behind it, this method works perfectly. Now turn off LiveView and attach your extreme ND filter.

Step 4

5. Calculate exposure

My test shot was at 1/8sec. Shutter speed simply doubles for each stop, so for ten stops I counted 1/4sec, 1/2sec, one second, two seconds, four seconds, eight seconds, 15 seconds, 30 seconds, one minute, two minutes. Two minutes was the perfect exposure. Use a watch or phone as a timer, and release the shutter with a remote, locking the shutter open for the duration.

Step 5a

More articles from Digital SLR Photography magazine

Subscribe