You've seen them. Mystical photographs of streams make waterfalls look like they aren’t even from the planet Earth. When I first saw these kinds of photos, I wondered how it was even possible to create them with a simple digital SLR camera. There is a way to make waterfalls and streams as silky smooth as the ones you see in professional photographs. Here is how you do it.
Your First Ingredient: A Tripod
The silky smoothness you see in the water is just one simple effect. It is a motion blur. The hard part isn't getting your photo to blur, it's getting one part of your photo to blur while everything else stays still. The best way to do this, and still have control over the way you frame the shot, is to use a tripod.
A tripod keeps everything in the shot still while the water continues to move. If you can get the exposure correct, the photo will appear just like it would to your eye, except the water will be smoothed over. This is the result of the water rushing by while the shutter is open. Because everything else remains still, the rest of your photo is sharp.
To create this effect, find the waterfall or stream that you want to photograph and setup your tripod with your camera. Next, switch to shutter priority mode (the “S” or "Tv" on the dial) and set the shutter speed to a really slow number like 1/15s or 1/5s. The slower your shutter speed, the more silky smooth your waterfall will appear. Take the photo and see how it turns out.
If the blur isn't to your liking, decrease your shutter speed even more closer to 1/2 second. I wouldn't go much longer than that if in bright light because your camera will end up having too much light to deal with and your photo will be overexposed. When choosing longer shutter speeds, take note of other elements of your image that might also be moving like the wind moving the trees. You'll want to avoid these otherwise the blurry effect will be all over your photo and not just in the waterfall.
While shutter priority mode works in most cases, many photographers prefer to have a little more control over their waterfall photographs. In order to get this level of control, try switching to manual mode. You will be able to control both the aperture and shutter speed and find the combination that will work best for your situation. It just requires a little experimentation.
Use Your Camera’s Light Meter To Get Vibrant Green Colors
I always look for bright green colors when I photograph a waterfall. I have found that when you focus on bringing out the vibrant colors of the local flora, the photograph as a whole tends to stand out. In order to do this, you need to learn a little bit about metering.
Whether you can see it or not, almost all modern cameras have a light meter. In automatic mode, the light meter reads the light levels in front of the camera and determines the ideal combination of shutter speed and aperture for the shot. Most of the time, the light meter gets it right. But if you’re looking to create a specialty photograph like a silhouette, or in our situation when the camera's seeing the reflected sky in the waterfall, your light meter might get it wrong.
Learning how to use your camera’s light meter is the first step to learning manual photography. This is because you can use the light meter to emphasize certain areas of the scene. In automatic mode, the camera tries to evenly expose everything. In manual mode, you get to decide which colors should be perfect while all of the other colors follow suit.
The way to do this is to point the camera towards something green in your shot. Then adjust the aperture and shutter speed settings until the light meter shows you'll get a correctly exposed image. Most SLR cameras show the light meter in the viewfinder. It is usually on the bottom bar in the middle of all of the other settings. On Nikon models, it’s right next to the aperture number, and it looks like this:
What you see in your viewfinder might not look exactly like this. It will be a lot smaller, but the icons will be the same. You will know you have the perfect aperture and shutter speed setting when there are no bars in the positive or negative direction, indicating that you are about to take a photo that will be too bright or too dark.
Then reposition your camera to correctly compose your waterfall. With your light meter settings, the camera will still correctly expose for the green element and it will look the most vibrant.
Putting It All Together For The Perfect Waterfall Photo
First, pick the shutter speed that will give you a smooth waterfall. For now, try 1/15s. Your next step is to find a patch of green near the waterfall, zoom in on it, and adjust your aperture until the light meter indicates that you will get an even exposure. When you do this, you are basically telling your camera to emphasize the greens in the scene.
Once you’ve decided on an aperture and shutter speed combination, put your camera on the tripod and frame the shot how you want to frame it. Focus on the moving water and snap your photo. If you did everything correctly, you will have a lush green scene with a mystically smooth waterfall. Good work!
I encourage everyone who lives near a waterfall to go out and try this today. Let me know how it goes. I want to see what you’re learning from this and how we can improve upon it.
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