5 mins

How to photograph waterfalls

Want to capture a waterfalls on your travels? Wanderlust’s photo expert Steve Davey shares his professional tips

Waterfall (Steve Davey)
Too many photographers work in automatic, handing over control to their camera. This means the setting choices will tend towards the average. However, your pictures will look more striking and eye-catching if you work in the extremes – and nothing exemplifies this better than the waterfall.

There are essentially two ways to photograph a waterfall. You can use a very fast shutter speed to freeze the water into a frothing, bubbling mass. Or you can use a slow shutter-speed to allow it to morph into a soft, almost unrecognisable blur. The latter is the effect I wanted to achieve when photographing the Khone Phapheng Falls in the Si Phan Don region of Laos, above.

Taking a shot like this presents certain challenges. The main one was fi nding a stable place to erect my tripod. Here, the best view was from a wooden platform – but it shook when anyone stepped on it, ruining many of my exposures!

1. Use a long shutter speed

To achieve a truly ethereal effect you need to use a very long exposure time. Most photographs tend to be shot at exposures of a tiny fraction of a second; to create blur such as this you will need a shutter speed between two and 30 seconds. The longer the shutter-speed the greater the degree of blur.

2. Compose with something solid

Blurred waterfall shots look more effective if some parts of the picture are immobile. This accentuates the blur of the moving water and makes the subject more recognisable. Compose your pictures to show stationary rocks and boulders or the riverbank.

3. Use a filter

Unless you’re shooting in very dim conditions, you’ll need to reduce the amount of light entering the lens to allow you to use a really long shutter speed without overexposing. Polarising filters cut the light by about a quarter. However, when using very slow shutter speeds you need a neutral density (ND) fi lter, which cuts out the light by a prescribed number of stops without changing the image colour. For example, using a ten-stop ND filter means that a 16-second exposure will have the light level of a 1/60 second exposure.

4. Keep it still

Blurred water shots only work if the non-moving parts of the picture are completely still. This provides contrast and emphasises the movement. You will need a stable tripod and a remote release to avoid camera shake. If your camera has one, use the mirror lock-up facility – this moves the mirror out of the way before the exposure is made, which minimises vibrations.

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To learn more about shooting waterfalls, check out the new second edition of Steve’s Footprint Travel Photography (Footprint, £20), available now.

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