How To Photograph Water & Waterfalls

Photographing water and waterfalls is a great way to understand and learn how filters can change the way you use your camera. In this guide we will use what’s called an ND Filter or Neutral Density filter to create a misty effect on water and all its movement and motion.

An ND Filter is a glass fitted to the front of the camera either by screw mount or a holder such as the Lee Filter system, that allows the photographer to slip in glass of their choosing and prevent or slow light down reaching the sensor.

Neutral Density come in many flavors and for shooting waterfalls or water sources in good light, they are essential. ND Filters block light from reaching your sensor, much to the same effect as closing the aperture on your lens allowing for long exposure even in daylight.

Circular Polarizer and ND Filters

Another filter that’s super handy is a circular polarizer. It’s very useful for removing glare from rocks and wet surfaces and such that may over expose parts of the image that could be distracting. You can twist the circular polarizer to remove the amount of glare keep a close eye on your viewfinder as you do so and twist to taste. Try not to overcompensate as that will affect the exposure in a few dramatic ways, which will also be clear on the quality of filter glass you bought. Try and avoid any filters that are unbelievably cheap, as they can impact the overall image if the light can’t pass through well to your sensor. If it’s cheap, it’s cheap for a good reason.

Combining these filters can give you complete control over how the image will come out, long before you visit Capture One or Lightroom. So experiment as much as you can to understand how these work together and view in camera or tether to a computer as you shoot if you can, although that might not be feasible if you are close to water.

Photographing a waterfall

Hopefully you already have found a location with a waterfall (or beach with a good tide), so set up your tripod, and take some sample shots, leaving the exposure for a few seconds and checking the results each time. It’s a good idea to set your focus before you add any filters and do not use AWB as the camera will change the setting slightly each time, so once the filter is added to the camera you can set the white balance manually. 

There is a good level of trial and error for this kind of shooting but a great place to start is keeping your ISO low to 100 or 200 and using a small f stop such as f8, f11, f16 or even f22. You may need to change depending on the level of ambient light surround your waterfall or water subject.

Make sure you use a shutter release so you don’t get any camera shake and turn off any Long Exposure (LR) or Noise Reduction (NR) processing the camera has built into it.

If you find the scene is too dark but the level of smooth water is good, then you can just nudge your ISO slightly or change the shutter for just a second longer and work backwards. You can approach this a few ways using A (aperture) Priority, a low ISO and use the aperture size to control the shutter speed, although you do not want to go below f/5.6 for example. Else you may need a to swap your ND filter for another one that stops less light or you can deal with it in post production. 

If that is difficult before of the type of lens you have or there is very limited light / camera performance. The go full M (manual) mode and start at ISO200 f11 or even f16 with a shutter speed of around 1/3rd before you add the filters. Add the filters and then start to shoot. Depending on your filter you may need to start shooting with a 10 second shutter speed, if your using a “Big Stopper” than you will need to start from around 20 seconds.

If you are getting close to waterfalls it’s a good idea to get a waterproof housing such as the Outex system which allows for filters to be added or at minimum an emergency storm cover from Think Tank Photo.

How To Photo Waterfalls

ND Filter Cheat Sheet

Here is a great chart to workout your shutter speed, assuming you’re using a 6-9 stop ND Filter:

Normal Shutter -> Speed with 6-9 Stop ND

1/2000  -> ½ Second
1/1000 -> 1 Second
1/500 -> 2 Seconds
1/250 -> 4 Seconds
1/250 -> 8 Seconds
1/60 -> 15 Seconds
1/30 -> 30 Seconds
1/15 -> 1 Minute
1/8 -> 2 Minutes
¼ -> 4 Minutes
½ -> 8 Minutes
1 Second -> 16 Minutes
2 Seconds -> 32 Minutes

Step by Step

The longer the exposure the smoother the water will appear, giving a mystical effect, shorten the exposure and you will stop the water in its path (although you don’t want filters on if that’s the effect your going for). Doing so will also affect the amount of light coming in too so check the histogram and your display for blinking highlight sections.

Check the histogram after each shot, if the spike is all the way to the left, your shot is underexposed, all the way to the right and chances are your image is losing detail with a few hot pixels. If you overexpose then increase your shutter speed slightly or close up the aperture and see the result.

You should get to a well exposed image eventually, always shoot RAW so you can pop some colour or additional effects in later if need be.

Here is an alternative method of setting up an ND filter for almost any application, it’s a little more direct but one that’s great for beginning to get top results with ND filters, especially with waterfalls

Step 1

Get the camera set up and ready on a tripod and get the framing and composition correct without a filter in place at all. Set your focus point, if you’re using AF then focus and then switch to MF right after.

Step 2

Use your light meter and take an ambient reading of the available light and set your aperture in camera. Now using the chart above convert your shutter speed reading to the shutter speed with the filter. Set your camera.

Step 3

Attach your shutter release, slip the filter onto the lens. Set your AWB, NR and LR settings. If you’re using a filter system then place the ND filter in the first slot closest to the camera. If you’re using a screw in then have that screwed in first before you add any other filters behind it. Also if you are using other filters use them first to add to your exposure before working out your shutter speed. So if your filter is blocking 1 stop and there is a difference between your meter reading and the ambient light metering in camera with the same settings. Then add 1 stop to your converted shutter speed time.

Return to the same location during the seasons is a great way to practice composition and the changing light that happens during the year. Plus makes a nice project to show how one location is different throughout the year too.

This process can be applied to any water subject, waterfalls, tidal water from the sea or streams no matter how small.

Here are a few water in motion images with some before and after too.

How to Photograph Water and Waterfalls
Fall in Catskills New York

This shot above was taken with an 9 stop ND filter and circular polarizer in the Catskills NY.

The image below was taken of the sea (Big Sur, California) using the same method as the water stream above. However no circular polarizer was used, just a “big stopper” 9 stop neutral density filter by Lee Filters. 

Both shot on a Sony Alpha A99II.

Big Sur California Sunset

Below are some images from the Catskills NY which were all shot using all the methods above with some behind the scenes so you can see how I set up.

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All Rights Reserved, Images Copyright Dan M Lee Photography, Corp

How To Photograph Water & Waterfalls

by Dan M Lee time to read: 7 min