How to Photograph Silky Smooth Waterfalls

This post is for the photographers and curious lurkers out there. Zach and I often get asked how we photograph waterfalls to look silky smooth. In this post, I’ll explain the technical side and give you a few tips to try out shooting waterfalls on your own. 

The equipment

First and foremost, you’ll need a DSLR camera, tripod, remote control and neutral density (ND) filters. If you don’t have a tripod already, I recommend getting one that is over four feet tall or so — you’ll want to be able to shoot over fences and guardrails. 

The environment

Shooting during the right time of day, or in overcast weather, is key for getting a great waterfall photo. If the waterfall has patches of bright sunlight on it, you’ll get what are called “hot spots” (overexposed bright white spots) wherever the sun hits the water. Be very careful to avoid these and overexposing the water in general because there is no way to bring overexposed areas back to life in photoshop. 

If it’s an overcast day, you’ve lucked out and can shoot at any time of day. Otherwise, you’ll need to be aware of the direction the waterfall faces and when the sun will be shining on it to avoid that time frame.

The settings

To get silky smooth water, you’ll need to be using a long shutter speed (this is where the tripod comes in handy). We usually have the shutter speed set anywhere from 3 to 20 seconds depending on the amount of water flowing. Since your camera will be letting in a lot of light through the open shutter, place your ISO at 100 and your aperture at 22. Using these settings without a neutral density filter would, in most cases, let too much light in and cause the image to be overexposed. This is where the ND filters come in.

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Neutral density filters 

ND filters act like sunglasses for your lens, allowing you to shoot longer photos even when it’s bright out.

I love our Format Hitech filters. They have mounts that can fit a range of lenses, but Zach and I prefer the screw-on filters for individual lenses since they’re so much faster to get on and off a camera. Our most used filter is the 1.5 density.

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Remote

Long exposures can pick up the camera shake from your finger pushing the trigger button, so you’ll need to use a remote to fire your camera.

As for what remote to buy? Save your money and spend $15 on a cheap remote off Amazon. Our cheap remote has lasted through a few drops and it has worked consistently over the last couple of years.

Even with our tried and true cheap remote, I couldn’t resist trying a Bluetooth remote that connected with our phones. Save yourself the trouble and don’t do this. The remote fails to connect to our phones more often than not and cost $100 more than our first remote. Software updates on your phone routinely cause these remotes to stop pairing as well.

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Tips

Before you put your filter on, there are two things you should do first. First, frame the shot. It’s much easier to see everything in the frame when you’re not looking through a tinted lens. Next, set your focus, then switch it manual focus so your camera is at the ready (reset the focus any time you want to move).

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Putting it all together

Now, try it out! I recommend trying to shoot your first waterfall on an overcast day, long before dark. Give yourself plenty of time before the sun sets to experiment without pressure of dusk looming. If you have any questions, leave them in the comments. Happy shooting!

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