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.
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.
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.
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.