There are a few images in my portfolio that always seem to provoke people to ask the same question. Those images are of waterfalls and the questions I always get is: How do you get silky smooth water when photographing waterfalls? Here’s some tips to get smooth water in your shots.
#1. Use the Proper Camera Settings
Shutter Speed – This will be obvious to more experienced photographers, but I remember when I was first starting out I didn’t really understand that the reason some photographs of waterfalls looked so silky smooth and amazing was because the motion of the water caused motion blur during a longer exposure. If you take a photograph of moving water at a fast shutter speed you will freeze all motion and the water will appear much harsher. Individual droplets will be visible. A longer exposure allows all of those droplets to blur out during the time the shutter is open creating a smooth look that most photographers prefer.
ISO – In this senerio you’ll want to make your camera as least sensitive to light as possible. Put your ISO on the lowest setting, usually 100. Lower ISO will also produce less noise and more dynamic range in your image.
F-Stop – A small aperture (f/22) will allow us to achieve a longer shutter speed but will also help make all the parts of the image render in sharp focus.
The shot of Donut Falls above was quite a long exposure, around 10-15 seconds. I was able to have such a long shutter speed without overexposing the image because this waterfall happens to be inside a relatively dark cave. So what do you do if the waterfall is in open daylight and you can’t get a slow enough shutter speed to smooth the water without overexposing the photo?
#2. Use a ND and/or Polarizing filter.
A polarizing filter helps to reduce surface reflections from water but can also help reduce the amount of light that enters your lens. A neutral density filter (ND filter for short) serves the function of reducing light as well. These filters come in many different sizes. Be sure to check the thread size on your lens to determine what size filter you will need to buy for it. Most lenses have the thread size marked on the front of the lens in white lettering. Most of the time it is marked with the ⌀ symbol followed by a number, for example, ⌀ 77mm. This marking would indicate that you would need a 77mm filter to attach directly the your lens. Lenses that require a smaller diameter filter can still take advantage of larger filters by utilizing a step-up ring. These are inexpensive adapters that let you attach one size filter to a different size lens. Just check the numbers and get a filter or filter and step up ring that will work with your setup.
It’s worth noting that anytime you use a filter you will lose some image quality. It’s worth spending a bit more for higher quality filters as there will be less degradation in image quality.
#3. Use a Tripod.
Because of the slow shutter speed required to smooth out the waterfall, you’ll need a tripod to keep the rest of the image sharp. Invest in a solid tripod with a good head that will support your camera and keep in stationary even if you’re setup in a stream. I prefer the Manfrotto MH054M0-Q5 054 Magnesium Ball Head with Q5 Quick Release.
Here’s one more tip for finding waterfalls if you are traveling to a new area. I like to search flickr or 500px.com for the location I will be visiting plus the word “waterfall.” For example, a search in 500px.com for “Utah Waterfall” shows many amazing waterfalls in Utah that other photographers have found and photographed. Most of the time the location will be listed in the information or comments of the photo, or you could message the photographer and ask them to share the location.