Photographing Waterfalls

by David Simchock

Have you ever seen photos of waterfalls and wondered, “How do they make the water look so smooth?”

Well, that soft “cotton” look to the flowing water isn’t all that difficult to achieve, but you do need to understand the basic exposure controls of your camera (and, it does help to have a digital SLR model).

The effect that you see is achieved by leaving the shutter of the camera open for what amounts to a slow-ish speed (slow by photography measures). By allowing the scene to be recorded over a longer period of time, the movement of the water records on your digital sensor as a “blur”. This is what gives the water its smoothness in the image.

In addition to having good control of your shutter speed (usually set between 1/15 sec and one second), it is essential that you use a tripod in order to steady your camera for the duration of the exposure. This handy accessory is essential for quality waterfall results. A cable release or remote control will also help to minimize camera shake (which can occur by the simple act of pushing the shutter release button – even if you are using a tripod!). If you don’t have either, no problem, just use the self-timer on your camera (and set it to the two-second setting).

Another accessory that could be useful, if not essential, for this type of photography is a “neutral density filter” or, at the very least, a polarizing filter. Both will help with exposure in preventing too much light entering the camera during the long exposure.

As for other camera settings, be sure to set your ISO at its lowest number (e.g., ISO 100). Manual exposure mode works best, but there is no reason why you couldn’t use the Shutter Priority mode as an alternative (and set the shutter speed as noted above). Finally, if you have vibration reduction or image stabilization on your lens and you are using a tripod, then turn the VR / IS “off” for best results.

Once you have your composition set, it is best to experiment with different shutter speeds, perhaps starting at 1/15 sec and slowing down to a full second (or longer). Setting a shutter speed that is too long can lead to an over-exposed image and/or loss of detail in the highlight areas of the image.

Shooting waterfalls is one of the most enjoyable forms of landscape photography, and it can produce stunning results. Even if you don’t have easy access to a full-fledged waterfall, you can still practice the technique on any flowing water, be it a local stream or a fountain. With over 500 waterfalls in North Carolina, there is no shortage of opportunities to practice this technique, and have a lot of fun in the process.

Looking for more insight? Check out the “Got f-Stop?” photo blog at

David Simchock is a professional photographer and instructor based in Asheville’s River Arts District. For more about David, including his popular Vagabond Vistas Photo Tours, visit