Capture stunning waterfall pictures with our step-by-step guide to exposure, motion blur and more…
If you’re into landscape photography – and let’s face it, most of us are – late autumn can sometimes be a pretty torrid time of year, partly because of the wet weather, but mostly because the light is just so unpredictable, and what light there is tends to be a bit cold and flat.
Happily, though, there is one landscape subject that’s perfectly suited to being captured in flat, even light, and that’s waterfalls.
Read on to find out why, and to discover the settings you need to capture stunning waterfall pictures and artful images of tumbling cascades…
How to shoot waterfall pictures
Step 01: Keep an eye on the weather
Weather is critical, but not for the reasons you might think. Direct sunlight is more of a hindrance than a help, because it casts dark shadows and creates blown highlights in the white water.
As well as being distracting, the contrast between these shadows and highlights makes it impossible to get a balanced exposure.
Rain is also a factor: too much water flowing over your fall will result in images with wide expanses of featureless white water.
What you’re looking for is gaps between the trails of falling water, as this helps to add texture and contrast.
SEE MORE: 6 ways to keep shooting when it rains
Step 02: Get set up
For successful waterfall shots, you’ll need to mount your camera on a sturdy tripod, and to use a remote release to fire the shutter – or your camera’s self-timer function if you don’t have one.
It’s also a good idea to set mirror lock-up right at the beginning of the shoot, to reduce the risk of unwanted vibrations from so-called mirror slap during the long exposures required for waterfall pictures.
Finally, if you’re shooting in daylight, even on cloudy day, you will probably need a filter to enable you to set slower shutter speeds (see Step 05).
Step 03: Set the exposure
Once you’ve composed your shot, it’s time to set the exposure. The best way to do this is to set your camera to Manual mode, and then dial in your lens’s smallest aperture (this will probably be f/22 or f/29).
Next, adjust the shutter speed so the exposure level indicator lines up with the ‘0’ on the exposure scale. On an overcast day, this will probably be in the region of 1/4 sec.
As you can see from our example image, this is slow enough to blur the water, but not slow enough to make it appear wispy.
Step 04: Evaluate the exposure
To evaluate your initial exposure, check your camera’s histogram view. As you know that the very brightest areas of falling water are actually supposed to be white, with very little texture or detail, you can expose your shot so that your histogram is as far to the right as possible, without the highlights being clipped (i.e. bunched up at the right hand end).
If your histogram is too far to the left (i.e. under-exposed), simply decrease the shutter speed to let in more light; if it’s too far to the right (i.e. over-exposed), increase it to let in less light.
Step 05: Slow everything down
If you’ve set your camera’s lowest ISO and your lens’s smallest aperture, the only way to reduce the shutter speed still further is to attach a filter.
A Circular Polariser will reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor by two ‘stops’, so for a correct exposure you’d need to increase the exposure time by two stops (so 1/4 > 1/2 > 1 sec).
To slow things down even more, you’ll need a Neutral Density filter – these come is different strengths, and for every stop of light that’s blocked, you need to double the exposure time.
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