Waterfalls of Western North Carolina :: Beginning Waterfall Photography, Part One: Capturing Flow

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High Falls


Have you ever tried to take a picture of a waterfall? Did it turn out as well as you hoped? If you have never taken your digital camera out of auto mode, chances are you have not been very happy with many of your waterfall pictures. This quick tutorial will show you 2 easy things you can do with any digital camera to capture the smooth, beautiful flow of water.

Shutter Speed

A little understanding of exposure will go a long way toward making you a better photographer. I highly recommend a good tutorial on exposure like this one. But if you want to skip most of the technical stuff for now, I can explain how to use just one aspect of the exposure triangle to make your water pictures really flow.

Inside your camera is a shutter, like blinds covering a window. When the shutter is open, the camera is receiving light to record a picture. When the shutter is closed, no light is reaching the camera's light sensor and no image is being recorded. The amount of time that the shutter stays open while you take a picture is called the shutter speed of the picture.

Shutter speed matters because it is what allows you to capture motion in a photograph, and the most effective waterfall pictures usually convey smooth motion in the water by using a long shutter speed. Shorter shutter speeds can be used to capture the dramatic spray of very large waterfalls, but usually what you want is a smooth, silky flow of water. As a general rule of thumb, I try to use a shutter speed of about half a second to capture flowing water.

shutter speed comparison

Notice the difference in how the two pictures above portray the waterfall. The image on the left has a relatively quick shutter speed and catches individual droplets in the waterfall. The image on the right has a longer shutter speed of almost half a second and creates a smooth flow of water. Notice also the water in the foreground. For smaller water flows like this, the longer shutter speed makes an even bigger difference.

How do you control the shutter speed? Just take your digital camera out of auto mode and put it in shutter speed priority mode. When you do this, the camera will let you adjust the shutter speed and it will adjust the other exposure elements automatically. On most digital cameras there is a dial on top of the camera that allows you to set the mode. For Canon cameras, this is called Tv. Other camera manufacturers use different names. Check you camera manual if you are not sure which setting is shutter speed priority.

Tripod

By using a long shutter speed we can capture motion with the camera, allowing us to show smoothly flowing water in our images. But capturing motion doesn't just work for the water, it applies to everything else in the scene as well. This means everything will be blurry if you hand hold your camera with a long shutter speed. The solution to this problem is a tripod.

How long does the shutter speed need to be before you need a tripod? There is no simple answer to that question. It depends on the focal length at which you are shooting, your personal level of hand shake (everyone has some), the wind and how it affects elements of the scene, etc. Fortunately you don't need to worry about that because if you are taking waterfall pictures, you definitely need a tripod.

You can buy a cheap tripod at just about any electronics retailer for roughly $20-30. But if you have a little extra cash I would highly recommend getting a nicer tripod. Cheap plastic pieces break easily when you are hiking through the woods and a cheaper tripod will also be heavier and less stable than a nice one. A decent tripod is one of the best investments you can make as a nature photographer.

I learned my lesson. I now carry a Slik Sprint Mini II on all my photography trips, whether it is a day trip or a multi-day backpacking trip in the deep wilderness. This little tripod is rugged, stable and small. You can pick one up from Amazon for around $80.

To recap, two things you can do right now to improve your waterfall photography are:

  1. Use a longer shutter speed. Start at half a second (0"5 is how most cameras show this) and take a few different pictures at different shutter speeds to see which you like best.
  2. Always use a tripod.
  3. Have Fun!

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