Beginning Waterfall Photography :: Part Two: Freezing Motion


In my first article, Capturing Flow, I discussed how to use your camera's shutter speed priority mode to capture the flow of moving water, giving it a silky smooth appearance. Later, in The Cardinal Sins of Landscape Photography, I discussed the idea that your camera's settings are your way to make creative choices in your photographs. I also talked about how your eyes/brain and a digital camera do not work in the same way, which is why you need to make creative choices in order to convey motion in a still photograph. If you need a refresher on how to use shutter speed priority mode on your camera, I suggest you read the Capturing Flow article before reading this one.

If you have read that article, it should be fairly obvious how to freeze motion. You simply use a fast shutter speed. I will show you a few example photos along with their shutter speeds and with a little practice you will be able to make great exposures of water while conveying motion in interesting ways. Here are a few ideas for things you can try to convey when using a quick shutter speed to capture a waterfall.


Looking Glass Falls

This photo of Looking Glass Falls after a few days of heavy rain was taken with a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second. A shutter speed this fast will give the water a choppy look, which conveys its powerful motion. Notice also how sharp the waves in the river in the foreground are. This is another indication of the power of the water's flow.

Water Clarity


This photo of my faithful sidekick, Joker, was taken at 1/1600th of a second. I wanted a very fast shutter speed because the water in the Big East Fork river is exceptionally clear and I wanted to show the moss and rocks beneath the rippling water. If I had taken this with a slower shutter speed the water would have had a misty look, which would obscure the details I wanted to preserve. Using a fast shutter speed for clarity is only useful for standing water or very small water flows like cascades over rocks.



This photo of Tumalo Falls in Oregon was taken at 1/250th of a second. Large waterfalls like this one often generate a large amount of spray and wind. And even if you stabilize your camera with a tripod and use a remote shutter release wind can still cause elements of your image to be blurry. By using a quick shutter speed I was able to prevent the trees by the sides of the waterfall from becoming too blurry due to the wind.

Preserving Details


This closeup of Whitewater Falls was taken with a shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second. This allows you to see the details in the overhangs and seams behind the the water. If I had taken this with a slower shutter speed the water would have completely covered much more of the cliff face and these details would have been lost.

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