Split Rock Falls Adirondacks

Long Exposure Waterfall Photography Explained

I’ve been photographing waterfalls for over 20 years and still get excited waiting for the end result of my carefully composed images. While I don’t feel they are award worthy, or near as good as many of our community members images, I take great pride in knowing the settings of the camera fairly well.

Long exposure photography captures a scene at shutter speeds too slow for the camera to be held by hand. So, you need at least a decent tripod to capture a sharp image. Having a heavy duty tripod and a weighted bag to hang from it offers the best stability for the shot, though! Most modern cameras also have remote triggers. If you have one of these, its bonus! If not, you can use the delayed shutter setting as well. This helps in removing any camera vibration while pressing the shutter button.

I always set my ISO to the lowest setting. You get the least grain, while also adding some time to the shutter speed. The lower the ISO, the less sensitive the sensor (film) is to light.

Aperture can be a bit scary if you have never dealt with it, but can add that extra magic to your photos if used correctly. The lower the aperture the shorter the depth of field. You see this best in portrait photos, where the background is blurry and the person is sharp. This doesn’t work well with photographing waterfalls, since you want most of the scene in focus. This also allows more light to enter through the lens, which is also not what we want. It acts much like the retina in our eyes.

Due to the dynamics of the lens (which are far too complicated to explain in this post), you should choose an aperture in the high/mid range of the lenses ability. If your aperture goes from 2.8 to 24, use 16. Going all out will actually hurt the sharpness of your final image. Keep in mind, the higher the aperture, the less light through the lens and the slower your shutter speed.

So, we get to shutter speed, finally! Shutter speed refers to the amount of time the shutter is left open, allowing the light from the scene to enter the lens and hit the sensor (film). At about half a second you start to see blur in falling water. I will give you all my settings for the below image. Basically, everything moving will be blurry.

Split Rock Falls Adirondacks

Nikon D810
Aperture: f/4.5 (I will explain below)
Shutter: 30 seconds
ISO: 64
Lens: 50mm
File format: RAW
No Filter

I said that we did not want to use lower apertures for waterfall photos in one of the previous paragraphs. This is a rare situation that I went against this rule of thumb. I arrived at the waterfall a little late and it was dark. I would have had to use BULB for the shutter and guess the length of time to keep the shutter open. It would have been a couple minutes if I used an aperture of 16 or higher.

I also wanted as little grain as possible, so I didn’t want to adjust my ISO. Since I was a fair distance away from the waterfall, the depth of field was not horribly impacted by the lower aperture. Unlike what you see with portraits, where the person is fairly close to the lens.

Place a comment below and let me know if I missed anything, or if you found this post helpful!

About Author

Site administrator and lover of all things waterfalls, outdoors and nature.

Principle photographer for Waterfalls of New York State and overall "nice guy".

Send me an email if you have any questions!!

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