Choose a cloudy day
Preferably you would like to have a photo with a clear blue sky. But for photographing waterfalls it is better to choose a cloudy day. Although you will get a photo with a gray and cloudy sky, the sunlight is less bright and you have more daylight. This will help you to extend the shutter speed.
The best time of the day
The best time of the day to photograph waterfalls is in the morning or in the evening (if there is still daylight). Then, in contrast to the rest of the day, the light is less harsh and bright. In addition, photographing around sunrise or sunset is a good option in terms of light and this moment of the day gives you some special photos.
Step 1: Determine your location and composition
Before you start capturing the waterfall, it is important to determine a suitable spot from where you will be able to (safely) photograph the waterfall. When determining the suitable location you also need to have an idea about the composition of your photo. You can ask yourself the question: how do I want to photograph the waterfall? You can photograph a waterfall in its entirety, but experimenting with different positions also often produces other nice pictures.
Be creative and see what possibilities the environment of the waterfall has got to offer. For tips check out my blog post with “7 x creative ways to photograph a waterfall”.
After you have chosen a suitable place and composition, it is time to put down and set your camera to start shooting that perfect picture.
Step 2: Place your camera on a tripod or a solid surface
To be able to take an unmoved sharp picture at slow shutter speeds, it is important that your camera is standing still and firmly. The use of a tripod is indispensable here:
- a tripod or;
- a gorilla pod.
You can fix a tripod at different heights. As a result, a tripod offers you the most possibilities in terms of positions and you can photograph from both a low and a high position. However, it is less easy to move a tripod because of its size and weight.
On the other hand you have got a gorilla pod, which you can move more easily, because it is usually lighter and smaller. However, you are somewhat more limited in viewpoints due to the height of a gorilla pod. In order to photograph a waterfall from a higher point of view, you will have to put down a gorilla pod on a higher point at the waterfall.
If you do not have a tripod (at hand), you can try to put down your camera on a solid surface near the waterfall. For example, hereby you can think of a flat tree trunk, a flat surface of a stone or a railing. Check carefully if you also get your desired photo from this point of view. If your lens is pointing down too much, then use a lens cap to support your lens.
Make sure that one leg of the tripod always points forward. This way your camera is stable and you prevent your camera from falling over.
Step 3: Choose RAW
One prefers to photograph in JPG (JPEG) and the other always chooses to shoot in RAW. With both file types you can take great photos. However, if you want to edit the photos of the waterfall in for example Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom, photographing in RAW is definitely a better choice.
You can edit both RAW and JPG photos. But because a lot more information is stored in a RAW file, you can edit a photo more extensively than a JPG file. And without too much loss of quality.
When you choose to shoot in RAW it is important to remember that a RAW file takes up much more space, compared to a JPG file. Make sure you have enough memory cards for your camera or choose to shoot in RAW only with special objects or circumstances.
Step 4: Set your camera to M-, AV- or S-mode (Tv at Canon)
To photograph waterfalls, set your camera to Manual (the M-mode). By choosing for this mode you can actually set all the settings, such as shutter speed, aperture and ISO, manually and you can adjust them if necessary. This gives you complete control over your desired end result.
If you find it difficult to photograph in the M-mode, you can also choose to use the AV or S mode (TV at Canon). The camera then chooses for the best settings, depending on which mode you have chosen:
- M-mode: you set the shutter speed, the aperture and the ISO yourself.
- Av-mode: you set the aperture and the ISO yourself. The shutter speed is calculated by the camera.
- S-mode(Tv at Canon): you set the shutter speed and the ISO yourself. The aperture is calculated by the camera.
Step 5: Enable manual focusing
- automatically focusing (AF) or;
- manual focusing (M).
On your lens you can determine your focus mode by sliding a slider to AF or M. However, the indication of AF or M may differ per type and brand.
At a waterfall first focus automatically (AF) on your desired subject by pressing the shutter button lightly. As soon as your lens has finished focusing, move the slide on your lens from AF to M. If you leave your camera on AF, it will keep trying to focus on a point you have chosen. Since the water flows and therefore moves you have the chance that your camera will continue to focus, resulting in a blurry and unsharp picture.
As soon as you have put down your camera in such a way that the composition for your photo is correct, you can make your image sharper by turning the focus ring of the lens. Your camera is then almost ready to shoot!
Step 6: Choose the lowest possible ISO value (50, 100, 200)
To get a picture with as little noise as possible you have to use the lowest possible ISO value. Waterfalls are often photographed during the day and in sufficient light, so an ISO value of 100 is satisfactory in most cases. ISO 100 is also the lowest ISO value you can set for most cameras. However, there are also cameras where the lowest ISO value is even 50 or 200.
Step 7: Pick an aperture between F11 and F16
In order to be able to use a longer shutter speed to create a foggy effect, you will have to close your aperture. You do this by setting your aperture to a high F-number, between F11 and F16. Which aperture is the best choice depends on the amount of light that is present and is also a matter of trying.
Sometimes F22 is also a possibility. However, then there must be enough light to prevent you from using a too long shutter speed and you still get a blurry photo.
Step 8: Set a shutter speed of 1/4 seconds or longer
The shutter speed is the secret to create a misty effect. When you choose for a fast shutter speed, you can capture water drops separately. The water then seems to be frozen and the power of the water is also clearly visible.
However, with a slower shutter speed, you can create a misty effect and the flowing water looks like a white stream. The use of a shutter speed of 1/4 second or longer, often gives the best result for a misty effect. But which shutter speed is the most optimal differs per waterfall and also depends on how fast the water is flowing.
Below you can see two photos I have taken at the Nelson Falls on Tasmania. At the photo on the left I took a photo without using a slow shutter speed. At the photo on the right I have chosen the settings myself and with a slow shutter speed I have given the water a silky effect.
Generally you need a shorter shutter speed at the larger waterfalls than at the smaller waterfalls. If you use too slow shutter speeds, the water will also almost not show any details at all.
Experiment with different shutter speeds. Each shutter speed gives a different effect to the flowing water.
Start with a relatively short shutter speed and extend it a little each time. This way, afterwards you can clearly see which settings are responsible for which effect and you will automatically achieve the effect you want.
Do you want to slow down the shutter speeds even further? Then you can possibly use a gray-toned filter, a so called ND filter (Neutral Density).
Step 9: Use a self-timer or remote control
When you press the shutter release button, your camera will always move slightly. Because you release the camera at that moment this movement can cause a blurry photo. Do you want to prevent this? Then use:
- the self-timer (at 2 or more seconds);
- a remote control (if your camera supports this);
- your smartphone to control the camera remotely (if you camera supports this via wifi);
- the bulb mode or a cable release (at shutter times of more than 30 seconds).
Step 10: Reset your camera to the original settings
Last but not least! Once you have got the perfect shots, do not forget to reset your camera to the original settings.
There is nothing more annoying than to find out later in the day (and dozens of photos later) that your ISO is still set on a too low value or that you are still working with manual focusing. And I can tell you, it happened to me and it happens to every photographer!
The steps to photograph a waterfall in one overview:
At first buy a tripod or a gorilla pod.
- Determine your location and composition
- Place your camera on a tripod or a solid surface
- Choose RAW
- Set your camera to M-, Av- or S-mode (Tv at Canon)
- Enable manual focusing
- Choose the lowest possible ISO value (50,100,200)
- Pick an aperture between F11 and F16
- Set a shutter speed of 1/4 seconds or longer
- Use a self-timer or remote control
- Reset the camera to the original settings
The settings at a glance
Shooting mode: M
Focus: M (Manual)
ISO: 100 (or as low as possible)
Aperture: between F11 and F16.
Shutter speed: from 1/4 seconds or longer.