How To Photograph a Waterfall

by Anthony Morganti

Glen Falls-2

Everyone loves a good waterfall.

Photographing a waterfall is one of the mainstays in landscape photography. There’s something about the milky smooth flow of water captured by a camera. Surprisingly, it’s not that difficult to do. All you need are a waterfall and a few tools.

The Key

There is one key to photographing a waterfall and that is to make sure you use a long exposure. Using a long exposure means that a greater amount of water will flow over the crest of the falls while the shutter is open and because of that, the moving water will blur. The blurring water will be rendered silky smooth by your camera’s sensor or by your camera’s film if you’re so equipped.

Akron Falls

A long exposure is key in waterfall photography. In this photo, a shutter speed of 1.6 seconds was used to effectively blur the flowing water

Selective Blur

It’s desirable to have the flowing water blurred but in most instances, you’ll want the rest of the scene be pin sharp. To achieve this you’ll definitely need a tripod and likely a remote shutter release to ensure that the camera is rock steady during the exposure.

Remote Shutter Release

A Tripod and a Remote Shutter Release are essential when photographing waterfalls to eliminate camera blur. Shutter Releases are available in wired and as pictured, wireless. If a shutter release isn’t available, use the timer function on your camera so that the shake induced when you press the shutter will be eliminated by the time the shutter opens.

Camera Setup

Shutter Speed – As we’ve determined, when photographing a waterfall, we’re mainly concerned with controlling shutter speed. Because of that, set your camera to shutter priority mode and dial in a shutter speed of at least 1/2 of a second — usually you’ll want a shutter speed considerably longer than that. Ten (10) seconds or more is common.

ISO – Use your camera’s lowest ISO — this can vary from 50-200 depending on your camera model.

Aperture – Since we’re mainly concerned about using a long shutter speed and low ISO, the aperture will be set at whatever will make a balanced exposure.

Glen Falls-1

Long shutter speeds are essential in achieving that milky look to the water. A shutter speed of at least 1/2 of a second will blur the water nicely but don’t be afraid to push it higher. In this photo, a shutter speed of 30 seconds was used to achieve a dreamlike quality to the shot.

Additional Tools

In bright conditions, despite dialing in the lowest ISO and using the smallest aperture, you still might not be able to obtain a shutter speed slower than 1/2 of a second. In those conditions, you’ll need a Neutral Density (ND) Filter. An ND filter inhibits the light from passing through to the camera’s sensor affording you, on a bright day, to use a longer shutter speed.

ND filters come in increasing strengths and are often sold in sets. A common set has three filters offering one stop, two stops and three stops of light reduction and can be stacked to give a six stop reduction.

If it’s too bright, you would simply screw on an ND filter to reduce the light entering the lens. The filter just allows less light to pass and doesn’t affect color — at least the better one’s don’t affect color. Some of the cheapest ND filters may effect a color shift so try to buy quality when it comes to this filter.

One final tool you’ll want to bring is a chamois cloth to wipe down any mist from the waterfall that may deposited itself on your equipment.

ND Filters

ND Filters reduce the amount of light entering your camera without affecting color. Often they’re sold in sets of increasing density and can be stacked to further increase their density which means an even longer shutter speed.


Setup your tripod in the area where you want to capture the waterfall, attach your camera and focus the shot. Put you camera in Shutter Priority Mode and dial in a five (5) second exposure. If it’s too bright outside and you can’t get a proper exposure, use an ND filter so that you can achieve a shutter speed of five seconds.

With your camera setup, and focus and exposure set, use your remote shutter release and take a shot. Now bracket some exposures on either side of that exposure — say one (1) and ten (10) seconds. If you like either of those two images better than the five-second exposure use that exposure as your starting point in any other images you might take.

Don’t be hesitant to experiment with the shutter speed. Take some shots as fast as 1/2 of a second and if possible, slow it way down and take some at 30-60 seconds.

Believe It Or Not, That’s It

That’s all you really need to do to photograph a waterfall. For fun and variety, experiment with an extremely long exposure. I’ve taken shots with exposures approaching two (2) minutes. Just remember you can’t hand-hold your camera steady enough. You definitely need a tripod, a remote shutter release and probably a set of ND Filters.