Waterfall Photography - What's the Best Shutter Speed?
Living in the Pacific Northwest my whole life, I've shot my fair share of waterfalls. One thing I enjoy about each waterfall is that each one requires it‘s own artistic approach. . Some look good with a wide angle, while others might look more appealing with a telephoto. Over the years, one of the most common questions I get about waterfall photography is "What shutter speed?". This week's blog post is designed to give you an understanding of what shutter speed to use and when, as well as different ways to achieve certain effects.
When to Use a Long Exposure
Most photographers use long exposures when shooting a waterfall. Using a long exposure allows for the camera to capture the flow and movement of the water, which can result in a silky look and feel with the water. When shooting long exposures, it's crucial that you don't allow the exposure to be too long.
Generally speaking, I like a shutter speed between 0.5 seconds and 1 second when shooting moving water. When you shoot with a shutter speed slower than this, you'll lose some detail and interest in the moving water. With a faster shutter speed, the water often appears blurry, rather than smooth.
To achieve a shutter speed this long, you'll likely need to use an ND and/or polarizing filters. An ND filter helps to block light (like sunglasses), which allows you to get a longer exposure. Sometimes, the darkness of a polarizer is enough to get a shutter speed of 0.5 seconds. A polarizer is also an essential tool for photographing a waterfall, as it removes glare on the water, rocks, and foliage. You can find out more information on filters, as well as get recommendations, on this blog post here.
I find long exposures to be very effective on wide angle scenes with strong leading lines, or on cascading waterfalls where the water collides with many rocks on the way down. Smaller waterfalls also generally look better at slower shutter speeds. Here are some example photos shot using a long exposure:
When to Use a Short Exposure
While less frequently used by photographers, I love finding ways to use fast exposures when shooting a waterfall. Quicker exposures don't work on all waterfalls, and I generally find them to work best on falls that are very large. Using a short exposure allows you to capture the individual drops of water as they come over the falls, as well as capturing any mist or spray that may be coming out of the falls.
When trying short exposures, use a shutter speed no slower than 1/250 of a second. If light allows, you can even try 1/500 to help freeze the moving water into place. If you were to use a slower shutter speed, such as 1/60, you'd notice that you didn't capture individual drops of water because they'd all be slightly blurry.
In order to shoot shutter speeds this fast, you may have to open up your aperture or increase your ISO, which means you‘ll be sacrificing depth of field or image quality to do this. Be sure that you are aware of this in the field.
Faster shutter speeds generally doesn't look great when you have a wide angle with water in the foreground. Keep this trick in your bag for those times where you don't have any immediate foreground, or perhaps you have a foreground that is foliage rather than water.
These shorter exposures look great on some of the huge, gushing waterfalls of the Pacific Northwest like Sahalie, Koosah, Abiqua, and more! Think about the angles you can get on large waterfalls from the side in order to show how the water goes outwards from the falls, in addition to straight down.
Shutter Speeds to Avoid
In general, you'll want to avoid some shutter speeds when shooting a waterfall. Steer away from anything between 1/3 of a second to 1/200. These shutter speeds aren't fast enough to show the individual drops of water, but they aren't slow enough to get a nice smooth look. You'll end up with a lot of "blurry" photos in this range.
I also find shutter speeds longer than 2 seconds to be too long. Once you open the shutter for this long, the water will become too smooth, meaning that you loose any detail or unique water patterns in your frame.
If you're new to waterfall photography, I recommend trying both short and long exposures in your photography to really figure out the difference and which setting to use for different scenes. I used to always shoot both fast and slow exposures so that I didn't have to make a decision in the field. It's always better to get the shots in the field and then have the option of deciding on the computer which one is better.
Hopefully this post helps you to create compelling waterfall images. As always, please leave any questions you have in the comments! Happy shooting!