Waterfalls are absolutely one of my favorite things to photograph. I first started shooting over ten years ago, and every creek, stream and river I’ve encountered since has become the focus of a photograph. I didn’t always know what I was doing though. I always wanted to achieve images like the ones I saw on Instagram and Flickr. The ones with the beautiful silky water pouring over rocks or cascading over ledges. It took a couple of years of photographing waterfalls to start getting the results I wanted. And now, I’m here to share some tips and tricks to help you achieve your own gorgeous waterfall shots.

What You Need to Shoot Waterfalls

Kirkjufell, Iceland
How to shoot waterfalls

You’ll hear this over and over again in the photography world – gear doesn’t make the photographer. It’s all about how you use it. This is mostly true. With how good camera phones have gotten in the past decade, there are a ton of cool things you can do with them now. However, there are still some things that are better achieved on a regular old DSLR camera. My personal opinion is that photographing waterfalls is one of those things. Your gear doesn’t have to be expensive. So if you’re on a budget, that refurbished starter kit camera will work just fine.

The Camera

Any camera that allows you to control shutter speed, aperture and ISO is great for photographing waterfalls. I shoot on a Nikon D750 or Nikon Z6 ii, but any DSLR or mirrorless camera will work. I used to say to stay away from phone cameras and point-and-shoots, because they don’t allow as much control over settings. However, phone cameras are starting to allow much more control over how you take your images.

The Lens

To be perfectly honest, the lens isn’t super important here. Whichever lens you have with you will probably work. I shoot on Nikon’s 14-24 mm f2.8 lens or their 16-35 mm f4 lens. Both are wide angle lenses that work great for landscape and architectural photography. But, if all you have is your kit lens or prime lens those will work too.

A Tripod

Keeping the camera steady while photographing waterfalls is super important. To get the water looking silky smooth while still getting a sharp image, the camera has to be held still. No matter how steady your hand is, it’s really difficult to get a steady shot at longer shutter speeds. This is where your tripod comes in. I use a Manfrotto carbon fiber tripod most days, but while traveling I use Manfrotto’s Be-Free travel tripod. Now, if you don’t have a tripod, don’t worry. I have also been known to use rock piles or clumps of dry grass to hold my camera steady while shooting waterfalls. I’ll occasionally even balance it on a ledge while holding the camera strap.

Bonus: A Neutral Density Filter

A neutral density filter isn’t absolutely necessary for photographing waterfalls. However, it can be super useful. Neutral density filters help you control your exposure by limiting the amount of light that hits your camera’s sensor. Less light means a longer shutter speed, which means smoother water for your waterfall shots. Neutral density filters come in different exposure ranges and different sizes. I use this guy attached to my 16-35 mm lens when shooting on my D750. When I’m on the Z6 ii I use the 14-24mm lens and this filter to help darken my scenes and get those silky smooth waterfalls. *Beware, filters come in different sizes. Your lens cap will tell you what size your lens is and will correspond with the size of the filter.

Photographing Waterfalls: A Guide to Camera Settings

So now that we have the gear covered, let’s talk about how to photograph gorgeous, silky smooth waterfalls you see all over Instagram and Flickr. We all know gear isn’t what makes the photographer, but knowing how to use the gear can make all the difference. When it comes to photographing waterfalls, your camera’s settings are super important. Aperture, ISO and Shutter Speed all work together to create the correct exposure for your lighting situation. In AUTO Mode this is all taken care of for you, but when you’re photographing waterfalls you’ll want more control over these settings.

Not sure about camera settings? Check out our handy-dandy guide to getting out of AUTO Mode.

Aperture

Your lens’s aperture is the f-stop number and determines the depth of field of your image. It also determines how much light is hitting your camera’s sensor. A larger f stop number means the aperture of your lens is smaller and less light is getting through to the sensor. A smaller f-stop number means your aperture is larger and more light is hitting the sensor (I know it’s confusing so here’s a guide). Why does this matter when you’re shooting waterfalls? Because your f-stop also helps determine your shutter speed. And if you’re going for silky smooth waterfalls you need a longer shutter speed. If I’m shooting a waterfall in bright daylight, I’ll set my camera to the largest f-stop number (smallest aperture) I can. With my camera and lens, this is f22. This allows me to have a much slower shutter speed which makes for gorgeous waterfall shots.

ISO

Disclaimer: The “techy” side of photography isn’t something I’m super great at explaining in technical terms, so I will lay it out as simply as I can. The following isn’t exactly what ISO is, but rather, what it seems like it is, and what I was told it was in my first and only photography class. If you’re newer to photography, my hope is that this explanation will help you start to get a grasp on the technical terms and maybe start to understand how to use your camera outside of AUTO Mode.

ISO is what could be described as your camera sensor’s sensitivity. A lower ISO means your camera’s sensor is less sensitive which means your image will appear darker. A higher ISO means your camera’s sensor is more sensitive and your image will appear brighter. Typically, if you’re shooting bright scenes you want a lower ISO so your image doesn’t appear blown out (over exposed). And if you’re shooting darker scenes (especially handheld) you want a higher ISO. This will help your image not be too dark (under exposed) and help reduce camera shake so you can get a sharper image. This allows you more control over your shutter speed. Since waterfalls require a longer shutter speed, you’ll want a lower ISO. I usually set mine around 100.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the most important setting when it comes to shooting waterfalls. If you set your shutter speed too fast, you won’t get the super silky looking water. If you’ve set your other settings correctly, you should be able to go for a longer shutter speed. I usually aim for at least 5 seconds, but a shutter speed as short as 1/3 of a second can work too.

I typically set my shutter speed last. In everyday life, I shoot in Aperture Priority Mode with my ISO set to a specific number so I normally don’t even think about my shutter speed. I let the camera handle it for me. When I’m photographing waterfalls, I will usually try it in Aperture Priority Mode first. If I’m not getting the results I want, I’ll then go to full Manual Mode to adjust the shutter speed.

Some Tips for Photographing Gorgeous Waterfalls

Skogafoss, Iceland
How to shoot waterfalls

A lot goes in to getting amazing shots of waterfalls, besides your cameras settings. Here are some extra tips to get even more incredible shots of your favorite creeks, streams and rivers…

Seriously, a Pile of Rocks Will Do

When it comes to the less “techy” side of photography, this is when I really come to life. And that includes tripods. I bring one with me to every professional shoot I do because I have to, but if I’m on a fun day hike or exploring a new area, I usually leave my tripod behind. This is where a pile of rocks comes in handy. Because you’re using longer shutter speeds to shoot these gorgeous waterfalls, you camera has to be absolutely steady. If you don’t have a tripod, the next best option is a pile of rocks. Just pile them up around your camera (and so they aren’t blocking your lens) and shoot away! This will help keep your camera sturdy and make sure you’re not getting any shake from hand-holding. Just make sure to hold onto the neck strap, just in case!

Shoot at Twilight

Golden hour and twilight are my absolute favorite times to shoot. The shadows are softer, there’s still enough light left to shoot, but that light has a more golden tone to it. And if the clouds are right, you can get lucky with an absolutely amazing sunset. There’s also the added benefit of there being less light, which means (you guessed it) slower shutter speeds. Besides golden hour and twilight just being prettier than regular old daylight, they’re just easier to shoot in.

Shoot on a Cloudy Day

I know a lot of you probably don’t like cloudy days, but I love them. I look forward to them and try to plan my shoots accordingly. After golden hour and twilight, cloudy days are my favorites. Part of this is because I love the dark and moody look that cloudy days give. Another part of it, is that cloudy days allow for softer shadows and more even tones. And yet another part, is that it makes photographing waterfalls that much easier. Like twilight and golden hour, cloudy days mean there is less light which means it’s easier to get those slower shutter speeds without blowing out you images.

Try Shooting Brackets

Shooting in brackets is what photographers call shooting multiple exposures of the same photo. Some photographers do this to make sure they get the exact right exposure of the image. Some do this so they can blend the exposures together later to get the perfect image. We call this second method HDR. You’ve probably heard all sorts of bad things about HDR, but it can actually be pretty great if it’s done right. When it comes to photographing waterfalls, HDR isn’t necessary, but the brackets can be super helpful. If you’re not sure how slow your shutter speed should be, you can set your camera to shoot multiple shutter speeds so you can see which ones work best.

Try Hand Blending Your Brackets

“Blending your Brackets” sounds a bit confusing, but it’s actually not too bad and there are several ways to do it. There are tons of image processing programs that can do it for you. My favorite is Lightroom Enfuse.

You can also try hand-blending your images. This sounds a little scary and requires some Photoshop skills, but a bit of practice goes a long way. So, why would you hand-blend instead of just using a program? Let’s say it’s a super sunny day out and that’s the only chance you have to photograph a certain waterfall. You set your camera up to shoot a bracket of five images, but only one or two of them come out with the water looking silky and smooth. The problem is that the rest of the image is completely blown out.

This is where the hand-blending would come in. In Photoshop, you would stack one of these images on top of one that was closer to the correct exposure. You could then “mask in” the parts of the image you wanted to correct. Now, you have an image that’s correctly exposed and has an amazing looking waterfall.

Not Every Waterfall is the Same

Seljalandsfoss
Photographing waterfalls

In case it’s not clear by now, I love shooting waterfalls. I love capturing the silky-smooth motion blur of the water as it comes careening over the edge or burbling through the rocks. However, silky smooth water isn’t always necessary in your waterfall photos. Sometimes, it’s perfectly fine to capture a waterfall exactly how you see it.

Photographing Waterfalls on Your Next Adventure

The tips found in this little guide work wonders for literally any kind of water. Whether your shooting little creeks and streams, or raging rivers and rapids, knowing how to get silky smooth water, will help you capture these subjects. These tips also work great for lake and ocean scenes too. You don’t have to confine yourself to just waterfalls. And if you don’t have a massive waterfall nearby and aren’t planning to visit one soon, any old creek will do.

Like this post? Feel free to share us on Pinterest!

Author

Hey there! My name is Leah and I'm a photographer, blogger and wanderer from north Texas. I've been doing photography for nearly a decade now and absolutely love it. My day job is real estate photographer and in my free time you can often find me at a park taking pictures of leaves and flowers. Outside of that my fiance and I love to travel. We spent nine months backpacking through Europe and now spend our free time attempting to plan and going on shorter trips both in the States and abroad.

Write A Comment

Pin It