How To Photograph Waterfalls And Streams

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Carefully Choose Your Shutter Speed

When it comes to moving water…shutter speed is everything. But there is no right shutter speed.

The best approach is to experiment with a range of shutter speeds and see what you like the best.

Freezing The Water

One approach is to shoot at a high shutter speed to freeze the movement of the water.

This can be effective for waterfalls with a lot of water or even rough rapids. Freezing the action will define individual drops of water. This works great when water is splashing off of rocks or coming over the edge of the waterfall.

The downside to freezing the action is that it tends to look a little unnatural and doesn’t do a great job of conveying the energy of the scene unless there is a big splash

Showing Motion

If you want to show the motion of the water, use a slower shutter speed to blur the motion of the water.

There are two approaches you can use here depending on what kind of look and feel you are going for.

Conveying Energy

In order to convey the energy of movement in a waterfall or stream, you need a shutter speed that blurs the movement of water but still shows some detail in the water.

You can see a great example of this in the image at the top of this article.

Conveying Calmness

To convey calmness, use an even slower shutter speed to blur out almost all of the detail in the moving water.

This will give it a silky or glassy look to it. This creates a peaceful calm feeling in the image. When you blur out all the detail, it still conveys movement of the water but in a much smoother way.

PRO TIP: Try shooting with both approaches and then use Photoshop to blend them together later. You can layer the longer exposure on top of the other and then use masking to “paint in” the detail from the shorter shutter speed image.

This was taken with a much slower shutter speed and it still shows movement but with less energy.

Use An ND Filter When Necessary

An ND filter will cut down on the amount of light reaching your sensor when taking a photo.

The benefit of this is being able to use slower shutter speeds even in bright settings.

Remember all that stuff we just discussed about shutter speed. If it is a bright day, you will be limited by how show you can make the shutter speed before the image becomes overexposed.

An ND filter solves this problem. By blocking out a specific amount of light, you then are able to use much slower shutter speeds without overexposing the image.

One thing to keep in mind is that many ND filters have a specific color cast to them so you may need to adjust your white balance as compared to shooting the image without a filter.

If you are looking to add an ND filter to your kit, check out these options from a small company called Breakthrough Photography. They are the ones I use and have found them to have the least color cast and exceptional sharpness.

Use A Polarizing Filter (or maybe not)

This was one of my first waterfall images. A polarizer would have helped me control all those highlights on the wet rocks and bring more attention to the water.

A polarizing filter can have a significant effect on water.

It will cut down (or even eliminate) any light reflections off the surface of the water. This will result in you being able to see right through the water and even to the bottom in shallow streams.

To use a polarizing filter, you need to adjust it while looking through the camera’s viewfinder or live vew screen to see the effect.

If the bottom of the stream has some interesting detail, this can make for some great results. So give it a try.

But keep in mind that you shouldn’t always just go right for the polarizer at full strength for every waterfall and stream photo.

Sometimes the light reflections can be a positive thing. If you want to show movement in the water, the highlights that show up without a polarizer will blur with longer shutter speeds giving the viewer a better sense of the movement.

This is especially true with waterfalls where the movement of the water is often the primary focus of the scene.

A polarizer will also eliminate the reflections on wet areas around the stream like rocks and vegetation.

If you want to pick up a great polarizing filter, try these from Breakthrough Photography. They make some very high quality filters.

Try shooting two or more frames without moving the camera on your tripod; one with the polarizer and one without. Then you can choose the best one or even blend them together to take the best parts from each one.

Avoid the Sky (Unless It’s Awesome)

One of the great things about shooting waterfalls and streams is that they are often found in densely wooded areas so you can shoot them at times when you wouldn’t normally shoot other kinds of landscapes (like the middle of the day).

The flip side of that is that there is often a big difference in brightness between the ground and the sky. The easiest and most effective way to deal with this is to avoid having the sky in the photo at all.

One mistake that many photographers make is leaving a small piece of sky in an otherwise low brightness scene. This can be very distracting and draws the viewers attention away from the important part of the scene.

But, like any rule in photography, there is always an exception.

If you’re shooting in an open area then you can’t always avoid including sky in your image. If this is the case, keep in mind some of these basic tips for landscape photography. You’ll have to take into consideration the light and time of day in this circumstance.

Another time when you would include the sky is if the sky makes for a compelling image. Maybe it is sunset or sunrise or perhaps there’s a big storm rolling in. Whatever the cause is, don’t waste a good sky just because you’re shooting a stream or waterfall.

Use A Tripod

So much of the tips mentioned above require a good tripod.

A tripod gives you complete control over your shutter speed as you won’t have to worry about camera shake at slower speeds.

Another benefit is being able to lock down your composition once you find one you like. This allows you to experiment with shutter speeds or shoot multiple exposures at varying speeds to combine later.

Since your camera is on a tripod, the frames will be much easier to blend together after the fact in Photoshop.

Get Close & Shoot Wide

A wide angle lens is typically the go to choice for photographing waterfalls and streams.

Often you might be in a densly wooded area and be unable to back away from the waterfall or stream to shoot, so a wide angle lets you get everything you want into the frame.

While you are looking for a good composition, look for some interesting thingsnear the ground. This can be a moss covered rock or an old log.

Then get your camera right up close to that to make it the focal point of the foreground.

With a wide angle lens, you’ll be able to get the rest of the scene in frame as well. But having a compelling or interesting foreground will help your image. A compelling foreground helps create depth in the image which will draw in the viewer. This approach will also help to distinguish your photograph from others taken at that same location.

Bring Water Protection

Electronics and water usually don’t go well together.

There are two things you need to be aware of then shooting around flowing water.

First, if there is a lot of mist in the air, then the camera itself can be in danger or getting water into the circuits if it isn’t weather sealed well enough.

You can combat this by getting a rain hood for your camera. Here is the rain hood I use. It is inexpensive and durable. You can also pick up this pack of disposable rain hoods.

For light mist situations, you can just lay a microfiber cloth over the camera in between shots.

The next thing you will need to deal with is mist collecting on the front of the lens. There’s no real great way to combat this. A good lens hood can help somewhat, but for a wide angle lens, the hood will be relatively small.

The best approach is to develop your own process of setting up the shot, cleaning the lens, and then taking the shot. I prefer to keep two microfiber cloths in my bag. One to cover the camera in between shots and another to wipe the front of the lens or filter.

If there is not a lot of water on the front of the lens, you can sometimes use an air blower to blow the drops off. Make sure you use a manual blower. Pressurized cans of air can do some serious damage to your lens or filter. DON’T USE THEM.

Now You Try…

There’s no replacement for experience when it comes to photographing waterfalls and streams. These tips and techniques are a great place to start. Use them as guidance and for ideas of things to try. But develop your own style and approach.

Get out there and shoot and have fun!

What are your best waterfall and stream photography tips? Let us know in the comments below.

Pete LaGregor

Pete LaGregor

Pete is a photographer in New Jersey and specializes in portraits and commercial photography, but loves shooting landscapes and video for fun. You can check out his work on his website.
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