10 Steps to Perfect Waterfall Shots

OK. The real title should have read: 10 Steps to Perfect Smooth and Silky Waterfall, Cascade and River Shots but that was just too long! 🙂

I just love taking photos of water, especially moving water. And autumn is my favorite season to shoot waterfalls, streams and cascades. The weather’s cooling down, the trees turn to fire and it’s cloudy more often. And since autumn is upon us, I thought I would share with you what you need to do to get that perfect waterfall shot.

This article is part of my “STEPS” series of tutorials. You can check out all my other articles from this series HERE.

One of the steps that I’ve omitted below is scouting. I figured you would already know where your water sources are but if you don’t… scout! 😉

Step 1 – Gear Up. Unless you find an urban waterfall fountain, you’ll most probably be out in nature. And to get that perfect shot, you migh have to get your hands and feet wet. So dress the part. It can get cold in autumn so bring a pair of gloves (in case you move rocks and branches in the cold water), waterproof boots and a plastic garbage bag or two to put your photo bag on.

Step 2 – Slow Shutter Speed. Have you noticed that in most of the amazing moving water shots the water appears to move and looks like slik and everything else around is sharp and static? The trick to that is to set your camera up for a slow shutter speed. So let’s say your shutter speed is at 10 seconds, the only thing moving is the water and that’s how you get that wonderful effect.

How do you set your camera up, you might ask? Simple. Put your camera in aperture priority mode and crank your f-stop to the highest number ans see what shutter speed that the camera gives you. Then you can set your camera in manual mode, put your aperture to its highest number and set the shutter speed to what the camera indicated and take your first shot. You can then adjust your shot to your liking by tweeking your shutter speed. If you<re still not comfortable using manual mode, you can stay in aperture priority and adjust your EV Compensation button.

Step 3 – High f-stop. As mentioned in step 2, to get nice flowing water, the first thing you need to do is boost your f-stop as high as it can go. Each lens is different so the number will vary. Why do we do this? The higher the f-stop number, the less light that comes into the lens. If you have less light coming in, you’ll need a longer shutter speed to get a properly exposed shot. And that’s what we want.

Step 4 – Low ISO. Another way to get as dark a scene as possible to have the longest shutter speed possible is to ensure that your camera’s ISO is at its lowest number. This will vary between 50 and 200 depending on your camera make and model.

Step 5 – Weather. I was mentioning in my intro that one of the reasons I like taking waterfall shots in autumn is that it’s cloudy more often. That wasn’t an attempt at humor. If you want to get that lovely silky water look, as you know from step 2, you need a long shutter speed. If you have bright sunshine, it’ll be that much harder to get long shutter speeds without overexposing your shot. So the best time to take photos of moving water is when you have think cloud cover.

Step 6 – Time of day. Again, what you’re looking for is a dark scene to get that magical long shutter speed. So if you can’t order up a cloudy sky, try shooting at dusk or dawn. Remember to pack a flashlight!

Step 7- Use filters. The last thing you can do to get a dark scene is to add lens filters. There are 2 types of lens filters that I recommend for this type of shot. The most important one is the ND (neutral density) filter. This filter’s main purpose id to darken a scene. You can get ND filters in various degrees of “darkness” and, by experience, I recommend you get one that’s darker (between 5 and 10 f-stops) rather than lighter. Why? Because you can always reduce your camera’s aperture number to let more light in if your shutter speed is too slow. If you have the funds, you can also get 2 or 3 different ones and stack them on top of each other when needed.

The other filter is the polariser filter. Why? Mainly because it reduces the glare in the water which might prevent overexposed hot spots. i often stack my polariser filter on top of my ND filter.

Step 7 – Your three legged friend. So you think you can do this on your own? Don’t even think about it! Remember the golden rule: if your shutter speed is slower than 1/60 second, use a tripod. If not, you won’t just get blury water. Make sure you have a sturdy one because you might be putting it in some good current and that last thing you want is to give your camera a cold bath. I recommend this one by Manfroto.

Step 8 – Trigger happy. Using a trigger, whether it be wired or wireless, will prevent small camera shake when pressing the trigger.  I have both a wired and a wireless trigger but I seem to be using my wired one more since it’s smaller and doesn’t require the use of the camera’s hotshoe which gives me creative lighting options.

Step 9 – Composition. If you haven’t yet read my Introduction to Photography Composition, I invite you to do so before going out to your water source. It has great tips and great ideas. But I’d like to emphise that you take your time to feel and study your scene. Walk around. Take snapshots of various angles before setting up.

Step 10 – Light it up. I kept this one for last since its more of an option. But having a flashlight or a speedlight or 2 with some colored gels could make for some very interesting and creative shots. Try it out!

To sum it all up, basically what you need to get that perfect flowing water is a dark scene to get a long shutter speed. And you get that dark scene by increasing your f-stop number, lowering your ISO number, shooting when it’s dark outside and using lens filters.

Show us your flowing water shots on Yanik’s Photo School’s Flickr Group! 🙂

14 responses on "10 Steps to Perfect Waterfall Shots"

  1. Very good blog post. I absolutely appreciate this
    website. Stick with it!

  2. I don’t know if it’s just me or if everybody else experiencing problems with your website. It appears as if some of the written text in your content are running off the screen. Can someone else please comment and let me know if this is happening to them too? This could be a problem with my browser because I’ve had this happen previously. Cheers

  3. Thank you for the tips, this is very helpful….

  4. awesome tips. Thank you, more please

  5. thank you for including me, I have never blogged before. I am learning lightroom 2 now after wasting 2 yrs with apeture. I wasn’t for me. I used to paint but I live in my motorhome now and wet canvas cannot wait. My camera is my canvas. I have portraits from China to Spain. I may never show them but they are in my heart and I remember the moment I captured each of them. The art of what we do is so wonderful that I cannot go anywhere without my camera. With your help I am able to take each of my photos, my children, and bring out the best in them and take them to their potential. I am able to see what was in my eyes when I saw them hiding in front of everyone. My eyes as a painter are now part of this wonder called photography but that sounds so technical. It is really a partnership. The camera image is the canvas and lightroom is my brush. Every time that I find a new way to make these images into the art that is their destiny, I know that I am on the right path.

    ………………………………………………………….thank so much…………..zander

  6. You are right about being prepared but the less you carry and setup the better. I have for years taken crisp pictures before anti-shake was invented. I used the auto shutter device and set it for 2 sec and never shake the camera pushing the button myself. This also good for getting in the picture obviously. I also use a monopod for steadying the camera and self-defense. I like your site………………….zander

  7. nice steps, all 11 of them! 🙂 you have Step 7 twice..

  8. great and nice tutorial i need more pls 🙂 thank you so much

  9. @ Barbara

    No I haven’t tried them but they do look very practical! I might just have to get one. 🙂

  10. Excellent tips. Have you tried the Singh-Ray Variable Nuetral Density Filter? I was reading in Scott Kelby’s book that he swears by them.

  11. great and nice tips i need more pls 🙂 thank you so much

  12. @Jamie

    You,re right! fixed it! Thx! 🙂

  13. Thanks again Yanik! Although you seem to have forgotten a link or something for the Manfroto Tripod.. 😕

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