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07.27.2011

A slower shutter speed makes the water flowing through Watkins Glen State Park, New York, appear a smooth as silk. Combined with the horizontal framing, the image is calm and relaxing. Sigma 18-125mm F3.8-5.6 DC OS HSM lens, f/11, 4 seconds, ISO 100. Photo copyright David FitzSimmons 2011. All rights reserved.

Photography is a communication act. It’s a way to share an idea, a feeling, or some other aspect of human experience with others. To this end, the process of photographing a waterfall involves more than just snapping off a few frames. Many factors influence what kind of story, what kind of idea, what kind of emotion your image conveys. These factors include the following:

  • Focal Length
  • Perspective
  • Color/B&W Mode
  • Framing
  • Depth of Field
  • Exposure
  • Shutter speed
  • Filters

In this space, I’d like to discuss one of the most important of these: shutter speed. For some landscape photography, the length of the exposure is not that important, but in waterfall photography, this time factor can make or break the shot.

Early morning sun illuminates mist above Cohoes Falls. Sigma 18-125mm F3.8-5.6 DC OS HSM lens, f/25, .4 second, ISO 200. Photo copyright David FitzSimmons 2011. All rights reserved.

Choosing a shutter speed when photographing waterfalls can be divided into three categories:

  1. Shutter speeds that blur water
  2. Shutter speeds that freeze water
  3. Shutter speeds that neither blur nor freeze water

In the majority of my waterfall images, I aim for the first, blurring the water into creamy lines. Occasionally, I photograph the second type, capturing the water as if frozen mid-air. And I avoid the third option, trying to not fall into waterfall photography’s no-man’s land (or, for you female photographers, no woman’s land).

Blurring Water

Most postcard and calendar images of waterfalls feature milky-white water flowing smoothly over rocky cliffs. I suspect that most people prefer this kind of image because a) we don’ t normally see waterfalls like this, so we enjoy something different, and b) creamy water looks relaxing, making watery landscapes look romantically soothing.

The key to creating such images is selecting an appropriate slow shutter speed. For most waterfalls, use exposures from 2 seconds up to about 1/8 second, which means that a sturdy tripod is a must. If you use exposures much longer than 2 seconds, the individual paths that water takes through the waterfall may be lost: white areas become homogenous and, therefore, rather dull to viewers, who prefer to follow the graceful lines of the water over cascades.

Stopping Water

Powerful cascades – those that carry a lot of water and those that drop long distances – can often be successfully photographed so as to stop the falling water mid-air. Shutter speeds over 1/1000 of a second will allow you to see the water without any blurring. In my experience, you should shoot at whatever is the highest shutter speed that you can while still maintaining a small enough aperture for good depth of field and an ISO low enough to avoid unseemly noise.

The Danger Zone

The Bermuda Triangle of waterfall photography consists of shutter speeds between 1/8 of a second and 1/250 second. In this in-between zone, images look slightly blurred if not downright dizzying. The water looks partially frozen and partially blurred, leaving viewers wondering what you are trying to convey. So my recommendation is to avoid these shutter speeds and, therefore, make your message clear. Do you wish to convey that ethereal, dreamy, and quite romantic look of fully blurred water, or do you wish to convey the power and grandeur of water in motion?

Shutter Speed: 4 seconds

Shutter Speed: 2 seconds

Shutter Speed: 1 second

Shutter Speed: 1/2 sec

Shutter Speed:1/4 sec

Shutter Speed: 1/8 sec

Shutter Speed: 1/15 sec

Shutter Speed: 1/30 sec

Shutter Speed: 1/60 sec

Shutter Speed: 1/125 sec

Shutter Speed: 1/250 sec

Shutter Speed: 1/500 sec

Shutter Speed: 1/1000 sec

Shutter Speed: 1/2000 sec

Note: All images taken with the Sigma 18-50mm F2.8 EX DC Macro and Sigma 77mm Circular Polarizing filter. Buttermilk Falls State Park, New York.

Two Final Notes:

  1. Of course, the guidelines I’m offering apply to average waterfalls, ones that are, say, anywhere from 10 to 50 feet high. Higher waterfalls allow gravity to accelerate the plunging water; thus, the liquid’s velocity increases with height. So adjust your shutter speeds for both blurring and stopping the water up anywhere from 1 to 3 stops, according to the waterfall’s height. Similarly, water traveling over shorter cascades descends at slower rates, so adjust your exposures downward 1 to 3 stops, again depending on the height of the waterfall you are photographing. I recommend lots of chimping: check your LCD in the field to see how the shutter speeds are affecting the shot. You can usually get a pretty good idea of the end results; just make sure, however, to zoom in to see if the trails of the water are still discernable in shots you wish to blur or if the water is fully stopped for your short exposures.
  2. Make sure to pack a polarizing filter when you shoot waterfalls. First, it reduces reflections, creating saturated colors and a better tonal range. Secondly, if you gravitate toward longer exposures, polarizing filters reduce light transmission by about two stops, allowing you to create longer exposures in most situations. I carry one Sigma 77mm circular polarizing filter (the sharpest I’ve ever shot). This one size fits all my lenses except for my super teles.

Besides my polarizing filter, I also carry two neutral density filters: a 4x filter, which reduces the light transmission by two stops, and an 8x, which cuts another three stops. You can stack any combination of these filters to achieve your desired shutter speed.

Photography is a communication act. Before you take your next waterfall picture, think about what you are trying to say through your picture. Then choose a shutter speed to convey your ideas, emotions, or other aspects of your experience.


To see more of David’s work or to find out more information about upcoming Sigma FitzSimmons Photography presentations and workshops, visit Fitzsimmonsphotography.com.

Photo copyright David FitzSimmons 2011. All rights reserved.

Keep an eye out for the soon to be released children’s picture book, Curious Critters, photographed and written by David FitzSimmons. Curious Critters, available this November, depicts animals from across the North America, all photographed against white backgrounds. All photographs in the book were taken with Sigma lenses. For more information, visit Curious-Critters.com.

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  1. Fantastic collection of waterfall photographs! I always love the look of silky smooth water falling over a cliff. Thanks for your advice.

    For more tips on waterfall photography, check out a few of my Waterfall Photography Tips.

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