I am frequently asked how to get that smooth silky water effect when photographing waterfalls. It is not difficult to do, but it does involve a few important steps to capture the silky motion of the water in your photographs. It also helps if you are photographing under the right light conditions and you are using a tripod.
I have found the “best light conditions” for photographing waterfalls are:
- Overcast or cloudy days with a white sky for even diffused light without noticeable shadow
- Foggy or misty weather
- Near sunrise or near sunset when the sun is low in the sky
- A time when the entire waterfalls is in the shade or shadow
- Avoid the times when part of the waterfalls is lit with direct sun and part is in shadow
The photograph below is another view of Whitewater Falls near Cashiers, North Carolina taken with a wide-angle lens shortly before sunset. The waterfalls is completely in shadow, so it is evenly lit. And the warm afternoon light is gently lighting some of the surrounding trees.
Photographing with a slow shutter speed is the key for getting the water to look smooth and silky. You want the water to have “motion” during the exposure. Use a tripod and start with a shutter speed somewhere between 1/8 of a second and 4 seconds. How silky the water looks in the photograph is going to depend on the volume of the water and the speed of the water coming over the falls.
I would suggest taking several photographs at different shutter speeds and see which shutter speed you like best. I have not found one “magic” shutter speed that works for all waterfalls. The image above was taken with a shutter speed of 1/4 of a second. Under some conditions (like when you are shooting with a wide angle lens close to slow moving water) you may need to slow the shutter speed way down to 8 to 30 seconds.
Several tips for being able to use a slow shutter speed in daylight conditions without overexposing your photograph:
- Use the lowest ISO speed on your camera. I usually select an ISO of 50 or 10
- Use a small aperture like f16 or f22
- Use a polarizing filter (it reduces the amount of light going into your camera and it also eliminates some of the reflections on the water)
- Use a 2 stop ND (neutral density) filter
This panoramic photograph of Looking Glass Falls (near Brevard, North Carolina) was taken using a 2 second shutter speed at f22.
I would recommend setting the camera to Manual mode. That way you can control both the shutter speed and the aperture. And don’t forget to use a cable release or remote shutter release to prevent camera shake at these slow shutter speeds.
The same waterfalls can look quite different depending on the time of the year and weather conditions. The greatest water volume is usually in late spring or early summer due to spring showers and snow melt. By late summer the water volume may be reduced to a trickle.