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How to Photograph Waterfalls – A Beginner’s Guide

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.

Waterfall photography - Falls Creek Falls
To create extremely long exposures (beyond 30-seconds), you will need a DSLR or Mirrorless camera with the ability to photograph in Bulb mode, like I did with this 165-second exposure of Falls Creek Falls. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 70–200mm f/4 lens, 165 seconds at f/11, ISO 100

I currently use a Fujifilm X-T2 for my landscape photography, which allows me to change lenses, control my exposure, and attach filters.

Lenses

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.

Editor’s Note: Read my article “What lens should I buy next?” before making any decisions on purchasing new gear.
waterfall photography wide lens example
A wide zoom lens allowed me to fit both the tree in the foreground as well as the bridge over the creek. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 24–70mm f/2.8L II IS lens, 20 seconds at f/11, ISO 100
waterfall photography telephoto lens example
A telephoto lens can be useful when photographing waterfalls to give you unique perspectives and compositions. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 70–200mm f/4L IS lens, 30 seconds at f/13, ISO 100

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.

two cameras on tripods showing two different cable release systems
A cable release and sturdy tripod are two items that are extremely useful when photographing long exposures.

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.

neutral density filter for waterfalls example
A neutral density filter allowed me to extend the exposure time of this image to blur both the water and the people in the boat. — Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 70–200mm f/4L IS lens, 1/80th (left) and 30 seconds (right) at f/11, ISO 100
circulal polarizing filter example for waterfall photography
Circular polarizers can help cut through reflections in both water and on shiny surfaces, as you can see in the rocks in this photograph. Canon 6D, Canon 24–70mm f/2.8L II lens, 8 seconds at f/11, ISO 100

Setting Your Exposure

Multnomah Falls - waterfall photography example
An aperture of ƒ/11 combined with a 3-stop ND filter allowed me to photograph Multnomah Falls and sufficiently blur the water. Fujifilm X-T1, Fujifilm 18–55mm ƒ/2.8–4 lens, 2 seconds at ƒ/11, ISO 200

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.

Composition

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.

mossy rocks photographed in a creek
I found a rock with a leaf on it, albeit underwater, to add a small bit of color pop to this detail photograph of mossy rocks in a creek. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 70–200mm lens, 30 seconds at ƒ/11, ISO 100

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.

Skogafoss waterfall in iceland
I enjoy finding creative angles and compositions for my photographs, as I did with this image of Skógafoss in Iceland. Canon 6D, Canon 14mm f/2.8L II lens, 1 second at f/16, ISO 100

Weather and Environment

example of a photo of water taken with long exposure
Overcast days give some of the best light for photographing long exposures of water. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 24–70mm f/2.8L II lens, 10 seconds at f/11, ISO 100

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.

waterfalls in the distance
Sunset and sunlight can also create beautiful, soft, and diffused light for your waterfall photographs. Canon 6D, Canon 24–70mm f/2.8L II lens, 1.5 seconds at f/11, ISO 100

Conclusion

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, Instagram, and see more of her products in the Nicolesy Store.

Photographer Nicole S Young Signature

waterfalls and waves - a comprehensive guide to long exposure water photography book coverIf you want to learn more about photographing long exposures of water, grab Nicole’s book, Waterfalls & Waves: A Comprehensive Guide to Long Exposure Water Photography, available in both eBook and print formats.

She has offered a generous 20% discount for any Digital Photo Mentor readers.

Just use the code DPM20 and get 20% off this book or anything in her store.

  

  • ernldo

    Safety: Its always slippery around waterfalls, wear the correct shoes and be careful. Near frozen falls, crampons, ice spikes, etc required and still be cautious!!!

  • Richard Forsyth

    All this is nice if you have $10,000 worth of equipment, which most of us do not.

    • Jeff Kurtz

      Untrue. You could co most of this with your cell phone. Yes, I have a nice Canon 7D but I haven taken photos which made it to magazines with my phone.. or, go big and buy a nice pocket camera for $75 – $300 at best buy and learn how to use it. Or shop on Craigslist. Tripod for small camera can be under $50. Just be patient and practice.

      • Ravindra Kathale

        You are right!

    • Not true. Any camera (even a P&S or mobile phone), any tripod, and (possibly) an ND filter is all it requires.

    • ernldo

      I have more than ten grand in gear, but I only use a few items….(see below)

  • Matt

    $10,000 worth of equipment is not necessary! I went out shooting waterfalls once, so I am by no means an expert, but left happy with some of the shots that I got. I used a cheap tripod, a Nikon D5100 and for the shot I took just had the kit lens 18-55 and a cheap ND filter that I held in front of the lens because the person that let me use it didn’t have the same filter thread diameter as me. At the time I was using Lightroom 3.6 and made some small adjustments and added a cyanotype filter and voilà
    As I said, not an expert, but I think it is a very nice shot and you don’t need $10,000 to capture some great photos. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/d09f5745533888d0fbf81cd782e33bc847a5fdcfee30c69387b6a52595d8952a.jpg

  • John Nicholson

    Well, they are very nice shots if you like your landscapes flowing with milk (forgetting the honey). Personally I prefer water to look like water. Sorry.

    • Matt

      To each their own! I think that they can both be beautiful given the right situation. There is no right or wrong way here, in my opinion. 🙂

      • John Nicholson

        Absolutely agree – just my preference, that’s all.

      • ernldo

        Correct, why can’t we enjoy both/all?

  • John Sandstedt

    After judging several competitions with Water/Waterfalls as theme, one can become seasick viewing waterfalls shot for many seconds to achieve milkiness. Once in a while, freezing the shot get you a more satisfying results, like if you were shooting a kayak race.

  • Wayne Robert Crofford

    Hi Nicole: with your Canon gear what is your method of metering?

    • I tend to use average or center-weighted metering (not spot metering), and if there is too much contrast then sometimes I will create two exposures: one to expose for the water, and one to expose for the foliate and/or sky. Then I blend the two in Ps.

  • Mark Stanley-Adams

    Here’s a tip for those who might find the cost of ND filters too high. You can simulate the ND filter effect using image stacking in Adobe Photoshop ®. Correctly combining, for example, 30x 1 second exposures produces precisely the same effect as 1x 30 second exposure. Not only can you capture images in bright light without the filter, but it’s also possible to shoot hand-held if your shutter is fast enough. Two things to bear in mind if you do shoot hand-held; firstly, you’d want to keep your shutter speed relatively slow to avoid having to take take enormous numbers of images. Shooting at 1/500 sec would require 500 images just to simulate a 1 second exposure – not very practical, I’m sure you’ll agree. And secondly, you’d need to remember to align the layers when stacking them.

    • Yes very true. You do need to have some PS skills to do so, however.

      • Mark Stanley-Adams

        I certainly agree that it requires some experience with Ps, though it’s still a relatively straightforward process. Here’s an idea; if I were to prepare an illustrated description of the reasoning and method, would you perhaps consider vetting it with a view to possibly posting it as an article on your site? I’d be happy to hear whatever feelings you may have about that.

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