Ever since getting my first neutral-density filter, landscape photography has had a whole new meaning.
Where water was once “frozen” in my images, it could now be transformed into a silky, cotton candy-like entity throughout my photographs, creating soft water “clouds” over the rocks and other obstacles it passes by.
Living in Portland, Oregon, just a short drive from the Columbia River Gorge – one of the country’s most prolific waterfall destinations – means that I get a lot of practice photographing waterfalls.
Here are some tips to help get you started creating your own beautiful long exposure waterfall photographs.
Choosing a Camera
The specific camera you use is not important, but it is a good idea to use one that allows you to set your shutter speed to several seconds or minutes.
A camera that can go fully manual and has a Bulb setting is a good option as well. DSLRs and Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras are ideal, but not a requirement.
I currently use a Fujifilm X-T2 for my landscape photography, which allows me to change lenses, control my exposure, and attach filters.
I tend to prefer zoom lenses when I am photographing waterfalls, both wide and telephoto.
I use a filter holder on the front of my lens, and because I only use a handful of lenses means that I change my lens less frequently, making it easier to swap the filters back-and-forth.
Right now, my current go-to lenses for waterfalls are; the Fujifilm 10–24mm, Fujifilm 18–55mm, and Fujifilm 50–140mm.
Use a Tripod and Cable Release
For long exposures, a tripod or any method to stabilize your camera hands-free is a must.
You will also want to have a tripod and head that are sturdy and reliable. I often find myself standing in a stream with my tripod legs in the water, and the last thing I want is to have my camera fall into the water too!
A cable release is also a good investment to help you minimize camera shake from pressing the shutter button on your camera.
Neutral Density Filters and Polarizers
Neutral density (ND) filters allow you to block the light coming through the lens, which tricks your camera into requiring a longer exposure time. They are very helpful for getting that cotton candy look in water images, especially if you are in an environment that has a lot of light.
Circular polarizing filters can also be useful, as they allow you to reduce the reflections in the water and shiny surfaces.
Setting Your Exposure
There is no magic number to set your aperture and shutter speed to get a good long exposure water photograph. A shutter speed of a few seconds might be all you need to get the look you are after.
I do, however, tend to keep my aperture set somewhere around f/11 to f/16, with my ISO at its lowest native setting (that’s ISO 200 on my Fujifilm cameras, consult the user manual if you aren’t sure what it is for your camera).
Then, if the shutter speed is too fast for my scene, I will add ND filters to the front of my lens to block some light and increase the exposure time.
Photographing waterfalls is no different compositionally than any other landscape photograph.
Foreground elements can help add depth to your scene, and adding color can also be a nice touch. Also, if you are photographing a waterfall then it’s likely that you are also nearby a creek or stream.
One of my favorite things to do is find detail shots amidst the mossy rocks, as well as other landscape photographs incorporating the creek near the waterfall.
Weather and Environment
I find it best to head out on cloudy and overcast days to get an ideally exposed waterfall photograph. On sunny days, the light will add hot spots to your exposure, whereas a soft, diffused spread of light will distribute the light evenly.
If you are in the right environment, sunrise and sunset can also be ideal times of the day to photograph waterfalls, which can help add color to the scene.
I hope you found these tips helpful to get some great waterfall shots on your next outing. Please share your thoughts, questions and images in the comments section below.
Nicole S. Young is a professional photographer and author living in Portland, Oregon, USA. She specializes in food, landscape, underwater, and travel photography. Nicole also operates the Nicolesy Store where she creates books, presets, and tutorials on photography. You can find Nicole on her blog or her Instagram.