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Picking A Shutter Speed For The Best Waterfall Pictures

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Picking A Shutter Speed For The Best Waterfall Pictures

A lot of people ask me how I get such great-looking pictures of waterfalls. What makes the water look so smooth? The answer is always the same. It’s in the shutter speed. You can make water look like anything you want if you know which shutter speeds to use. Fast-moving, slow-moving, it doesn’t matter. Here’s a clever way to pick the right shutter speed for photographing waterfalls.

What kind of waterfall do you want?

There are many different types of waterfall photos. Waterfalls can be smooth, they can be rough, and they can be somewhere in between. You can stop fast-moving water in its tracks, or you can smooth it out into something almost cloud like. Your shutter speed determines all of this. Fast shutter speeds stop motion. Slow shutter speeds blur it. So if you want to know which shutter speed to use, you first need to know what sort of effect you are trying to achieve.


A lovely example of getting the shutter speed right.
Photo by: Paul Bica

Fast-moving waterfalls

When the water is moving really fast, and you want to capture a sense of motion, it pays to use a fast shutter speed. At 1/500 of a second, you can completely freeze a waterfall. I like to do this when the water is gushing over the top of a ledge. It also helps to use a fast shutter speed in the middle of the day, when the sun is very bright.


The image is taken using a fast shutter speed to give the water a more sharp and refined look.

Most of the time, freezing the waterfall doesn’t make it look all that spectacular. There are a few instances in which it does, but it’s fairly rare in my opinion. I think smooth waterfalls tend to look a lot better than frozen ones. Here’s how to pick the right shutter speed for slowing water down and smoothing out.

Slow and smooth waterfalls

You can get the smooth look by using a slow shutter speed. Once you’re in the 1/30 to 1/5 of a second range, the entire photograph becomes one big motion blur. If the water is already moving fast, it blurs even more. It’s hard to say there is an ideal shutter speed for slowing water down. You really need to experiment to get the results you want. Even so, the number is probably in this range.

Toward 1/30 of a second, water still has a somewhat cohesive look. Once you start to get into the one fifth of a second range, the water blurs into itself and resembles a sort of seafoam.

Your ideal shutter speed is somewhere between these two values. The problem is that many things can have an effect on the final result. For example, the speed of the water. Fast-moving water creates more of a motion blur than slow-moving water. Keep this in mind when picking your shutter speed.

Also, don’t forget your tripod. You are effectively creating one big motion blur. If you more your camera while taking the picture, the rest of the image will be just as blurry as the waterfall. Do your best to keep your camera stable.


It’s hard to judge exactly which shutter speed is best.
I suggest trying out a bunch of different ones in the
1/30th to 1/5th of a second range.
Photo By: Hamed Saber

Camera Modes Can Help

It would be wrong of me to say “pick this shutter speed, and it will work.” Photography is rarely ever that simple. Instead of trying to go for an exact number, you’ll need to experiment. Shutter priority mode will help you along the way. This semi automatic mode allows you to pick your shutter speed. Your camera then picks the aperture, allowing you to focus on achieving this photographic effect.

You can find shutter priority mode on most digital SLR and high end point and shoot cameras. You typically access it by twisting the top dial to the “S” Setting. To change the shutter speed, you will want to spin the horizontal dial left or right. Some cameras require you to press the shutter button first. That is how it works on most Nikon digital SLR camera models.

I hate to say it, but there is no magic bullet for shooting waterfalls. It takes a lot of practice, and a lot of experimentation. I have given you the range. Now you need to make it work.

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About the Author ()

David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.

Comments (18)

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  1. Ananda says:

    Great hints.Thax so much

  2. @rob,

    If you have bright sunlight, you’re not going to be able to slow the shutter down enough to take a photo. It’s just too bright for your camera’s sensor. Yes, you should use the lowest ISO possible, but as you said, you can’t go below 100.

    The answer is to either use an ND filter (I discuss that here) to let less light into the camera. Or take the photo later in the day when there is less light around.

    I hope that helps.

    David.

  3. rob says:

    further to last msg , i was trying shutter speeds first
    1/30 to 1/5 , but no matter what other settings i fiddled with i couldnt get the brightness down
    any tips for the panasonic tz40 ?
    thanks again , love your site , rob

  4. rob says:

    hi love your website it taught me so many tips , thaks . i went away recently and wanted to take a waterfall pic . when the moment came i set up my brand new model panasonic tz40 as instructed by you , but the whole thing was almost white , totally ‘over exposed’ i think the term would be . no matter what i did , letting the shutter stay open would not get a good picture . it was strong daylight . also the sea was the same , wouldnt make it happen . can you tell me what setting i should be using . a guy i asked who had a fancy camera saud maybe my iso needed to be lower than 100 but i couldnt make mine go less . anyway , any chance of one fo your awesome tips please mate ;-) where did i go wrong ?

  5. @Craig,

    Thanks so much for your kind words.

    Yes, I have covered white balance previously: Your white balance might be to blame and How to get the perfect white balance every time. I also cover the different white balance modes, and when to use them in my Digital Photo Secrets course

    David.

  6. Craig Grantz says:

    I enjoy your tips and seems I can always pick something up in all your posts.
    I don’t know if you covered this but what about switching white balance to cloudy on those dreary days or in shade.
    Also I have toyed with setting WB to different indoor lighting.
    Your thoughts on not using auto WB would be appreciated.
    Keep up the good work.

    Craig
    aka cabldawg71

  7. Gina says:

    I always used to read article in news papers but now as I am a user
    of web therefore from now I am using net for posts, thanks to web.

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    video clips to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with pics and videos, this website could certainly be one of the most beneficial in its niche.

    Great blog!

  9. Byron says:

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  11. Les Cornwell says:

    Thanks, Aaron, that looks like a solution! I know there are these adjustable ND filters by Singh Ray and LCW, but the results I saw with the latter (haven’t seen any pictures made with a variable Singh Ray) were disappointing.
    Nevertheless, I guess this is to be preferred over having to buy a number of ND filters of different strengths.

  12. Aaron Romero says:

    Sergio and Les, yes you will definitely need to have an ND filter. I suggest you get the one with levels 1-7 all in one filter. Those are the ones that you twist the ring to be able to change the intensity of the filter. This way, you can control your shutterspeed depending also on your available light.

  13. raj says:

    thanks…………!!

  14. Les Cornwell says:

    I have the same question as Sergio above. To get such slow shutter speeds in broad daylight requires the use of a filter. I’ve tried a circ.pol filter, and whilst this is OK to avoid reflection (and shoot ‘through the water’) it appeared insufficient to blur a waterfall. Hence, a strong ND filter will be required. Any suggestions?

  15. Henry K says:

    Thanks David for this post which is informative and therefore helpful. David, looking at the picture on the top right, i notice that the guy holding the camera appears to be left-handed and the shutter release on the camera is on the left. Are there cameras for left-handed people as well? Good!

  16. When there is plenty of light around, how do you manage to have your meter match your low shutter speed with an aperture that gives you enough depth of field? Do you need a neutral density filter? or a polarizer?

  17. Alyn McConnaha says:

    Comment: It is nearly ALWAYS the skill of the Photoigrapher; ALMOST NEVER the equipment. THERE IS ALWAYS “luck.” a GOOD PHOTOGRAPHER CAN GET A GREAT PICTURE WITH A PINHOLE CAMERA.

  18. Alyn McConnaha says:

    Aha: caught you on a grammr question–again.

    “I only have a camera-phone.” vs.” I have only a camera phone.” The second example is more precise, though either is acceptable. ;-)

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