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A wide waterfall pouring down the hill

A Beginner's Guide to Shooting Long Exposure Waterfall Photographs

Waterfalls are a very popular subject for landscape photographers due to the photographers' interest in capturing images with the water, dripping in a silky-smooth condition. Gorgeous results are not difficult to achieve, but for sure, the process will demand a learning curve where practice and patience will matter above all. Here are some basic tips to consider:

3 waterfalls captured at long exposure

What do you need?

  • Neutral Density Filter – There are many options in terms of density, quality of glass, and of course, price. It is recommended to use a 10 stop ND filter that will be the equivalent of reducing the light by 1000x. The result will be having really smooth water or motion blurs that will look like clouds. Again, the amount of smoothness will depend on the amount of light passing through the filter. Fewer stops will make the effect less dramatic, which will of course depend on photographer's choice.  
  • Tripod – The price range could be from cheap to very expensive, depending on the type of material, capacity load, and other aspects. A carbon fiber tripod is normally more expensive than an aluminum-made tripod and more suitable for traveling as it is lighter. However, the most important aspect to consider is, how rigid it is in order to keep the camera safe and stable. You would not want to risk your expensive equipment on a cheap tripod.
  • A remote shutter, we recommend using the MIOPS Smart or RemotePlus – Shooting without touching the camera will reduce vibrations that will be noticeable in the final shot. Also, it means that the photographer could work from a longer distance, focusing on other aspects, such as composition. Working in the nature also drags many times, a reduced working space.

a very tall icelandic waterfall pouring down the hill

Step 1: Compose your image

Is the waterfall wide and will placing the camera horizontally work better? Or is the waterfall long and a vertical composition will be more appealing? Think about the way the water is flowing and frame it properly. Here, it is important to play with basic composition aspects, such as the rule of thirds, distance, balance, among other aspects. It is important to focus through the back-button focusing, deactivate AF, and if possible, control camera settings on Manual mode.

Step 2: Selecting the settings

Normally, a wide-angle lens or telephoto will be suitable for these kinds of waterfall shots. However, camera settings should be similar or at least, taken into consideration as a starting point and should be adjusted according to the current situation.

  • ISO: Usually using the lowest possible value will be better (100 or 200) for a bright day, but it should be boosted when needed.
  • Aperture: This will depend on the desired focal length, the amount of external light, and time of exposure. A good parameter to consider is f5.6. Stopping down, or increasing the f-number, decreases the amount of light that passes through the lens. If the shutter speed is too high, try changing the aperture to a larger number like f11 or even f16, if necessary.
  • Exposure: With a longer exposure time, the colors of the image will be pronounced much more beautifully. Choosing the correct exposure from the beginning will lead you to spend less time in post-production, when editing corrections.

water turns gets a silky smooth texture when captured at long exposure

Composing the shot

When using a strong ND filter, composing the photo with the viewfinder is going to be pretty tricky, since the photographer will barely be able to see anything. The easiest solution is to compose the shot and set the focus before attaching any ND filters to the lens. If the camera has a live view, it might be possible to bypass this issue and it will allow it to digitally zoom on a selective area of the scene to manually set the focus. Most importantly, the focus should be set on manual to avoid the frustration of carefully focusing the shot. 

an arctic waterfall creating a small lake inside ice

Proper exposure

The longest possible time is not always going to make for the best shot, and results will be attached to personal interpretations as to how blurred the image should be. As with any type of photography, using the lowest ISO will be more visually appealing. As for the aperture setting, it may be preferable to use one or two ND filters to obtain a longer exposure time, rather than simply using a smaller aperture as it will increase the depth of field. Checking the histogram will be very helpful to adjust corrections. Remember to choose a long enough shutter speed to capture the motion of the water and adjust the aperture accordingly. It is highly recommended to cover the viewfinder so light can not leak in.

Shoot remotely

Devices such as the MIOPS Smart or Remote Plus will allow the photographer to shoot remotely through the smartphone. From here it is possible to set the length of exposure that will depend on the amount of ambient light that is available at the location. It could be a matter of seconds to some minutes. During this time, avoid touching the camera will be vital to minimizing shakings that could mean spoiling the composition or reducing the sharpness of the image.

water from three different waterfall pouring onto stones

Enjoy the results

Like anything else in photography, shooting waterfalls takes practice, patience, and a lot of experimentation. Shooting long exposure waterfall photographs is great for fun and it is possible to produce amazing results. There is a log of technical knowledge to be remembered initially but settings can be manipulated almost automatically after trying this technique a couple of times. Besides appreciating your own photos and learning from them, it is worth it to look at other photographer´s images to get inspired and understand how these images were taken.

Related Article1:  Long Exposure Photography: Guide and Tips You Should Know

Related Article 2: Long Exposure Explore Site

About The Author Manuel Delgado: 

Manuel Delgado is an award-winning photographer with a specialization in travel and documentary photography. He writes for Contrastly and is a Mentor for NGO Photographers Alliance, having led workshops in Africa with a focus on ethical and humanitarian photography. His work has been exhibited in Europe and the Americas.

Driven by an innate curiosity for his surroundings, Manuel´s process is mainly focused on capturing people in their natural environment; translating through his lens the subtle threads of daily life that are shared across cultures, borders, and races. Depicting people from diverse backgrounds, his work is united by a shared aesthetic that serves to tell each individual’s story. Manuel is currently living in Düsseldorf, Germany. 

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