Ever since I was a little girl I have been enamored with rocks and water. I took my first 110mm film camera and did everything I could to photograph silky waterfalls and soft flowing rivers. Much to my dismay, however, when I developed the film I was sorely disappointed. I knew nothing about aperture, f-stop, ISO and shutter speed. Over the years I have experimented and learned a lot about how to photograph silky waterfalls and want to share my secrets with you! Keep reading to learn how to take soft waterfall photographs for yourself!
Photographing Soft, Silky Waterfalls Starts With Good Equipment
First of all, in order to capture soft, silky water photographs, you need to start with good equipment. Even in the best of circumstances, my 110mm camera would never be able to achieve the slow shutter speed needed to create a slow water effect. As good as point and shoot cameras and cell phone cameras are right now, they still lack the ability to slow down exposure long enough for a cotton candy effect with water. Because of that, this tutorial will focus on how to photograph silky waterfalls using a DSLR. That said, what equipment do you need to photograph silky waterfalls? Here’s what I recommend!
Essential Equipment for soft water photography:
- A DSLR camera (I currently use the Canon 5D Mark ii)
- A wide angle lens (I love the “L” series lenses by Canon. I use the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens and LOVE it!)
- A tri-pod (I currently use a Manfrotto tripod but upgraded my head to a ball head made by Really Right Stuff. I am saving up to upgrade to a Really Right Stuff tripod frame.)
Highly Recommended Equipment to Take Your Soft Water Photography to the Next Level:
- A Good Polarizer (I love Singh Ray filters!)
- A Neutral Density Filter (Singh Ray now makes a waterfall filter. That said, I use the Variable ND/Polarizer filter. Be sure to get the thin ring. (I wish I had!))
- A Shutter Release Remote (I use the Vello FreeWave Plus Wireless Remote Shutter Release – 2.4GHz (for Canon. This inexpensive device has been perfect for my needs.)
- Lens Cloth for water spots
- A Telephoto lens for closer compositions
Ideal Camera Settings for Photographing Soft Water
While this is debatable, there is a sweet spot I have found for photographing silky waterfalls and soft water. If at all possible, I like to have my ISO as low as possible. This will help reduce grain and will allow you to slow down you shutter speed as much as possible. I also like to have my aperture closed down. An aperture of f/16 is a good place to start. You can close it down tighter, but I personally don’t like to go much higher than f/22 because I believe it diminishes the photo quality. That leaves the shutter speed and filters. This is where the creativity and good equipment come into play! The slower the shutter speed, the smoother the water.
Experiment With Your Shutter Speed to Create the Soft Water Look You Want
I created the above picture quote using a photograph I took at Point Lobos State Park in CA. This is actually a photograph of ocean waves crashing up on the rocks. By extending the shutter speed to 13 sec., the resulting photograph looks almost like a sea of ethereal clouds rather than rushing waves.
The above photograph shows a 20 sec. shutter speed. This was taken on the coast of the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur. (For the location and more fabulous CA locations, I recommend the book “The Photographer’s Guide to Big Sur.”) Even though I had complete cloud cover at sunset, I was amazed at the slight rainbow of colors that still shone through.
Great Silky Waterfall Photographs Starts With the Right Conditions
Even with great equipment, you need to go at the right time of day and year for optimal soft water photographs. The above photograph of Grotto Falls was taken just after sunrise. I hiked up on a cool misty morning and set up my equipment near the river bed. Photographing waterfalls in the early morning gave me perfectly even light as well as privacy. Depending upon the location, sunrise or sunset is optimal, unless you have a cloudy day, then any time will work great.
The above photograph of Laurel Falls was taken in the early afternoon. The lighting was super harsh, and while I was still able to get some soft waterfall photographs, you can see the spotty lighting in the photograph from sun spots.
Most waterfalls, like Upper Yosemite Falls, flow their strongest in the early spring. That said, many waterfalls flow year round, so it’s important to do your research ahead of time. This will allow you to visit at the best time of year in your area.
Choose Your Location & Practice, Practice, Practice
Anywhere there is flowing water, you can take soft water photographs. The above photograph of Battle Creek Falls was taken during a low flow season, however, I still loved the resulting photograph. Research waterfall locations in your state/area as well as explore river and creek beds.
Now For the Technical List – How to Photograph Silky Waterfalls
- Set up your tripod, shutter release cables, and camera. Once you have everything set, find your focal point and focus your lens. (This is KEY. Once your filters are on, it will be extremely difficult to focus your lens.)
- Put on your filters.
- Rotate the polarizer until you are happy with the view (this will take out the glare and allow you to see the rocks beneath the water in many cases). Set your manual camera settings. (ISO 100 (if possible), f-stop f/16 – f/22 (those are my defaults), and guess on the shutter speed)
- Take a test shot, look at the back screen, then adjust your settings accordingly. At this point I adjust my shutter speed and/or Neutral Density Filter strength. The Neutral Density filter can be adjusted by rotating the ring. This part is definitely trial and error. Check your lens and wipe off any water spots.
- Try different angles, get low in the river bed, move to the side or behind the waterfall, and be creative! (This is my favorite part!)
- Zoom in for a different view. If there are sun spots, try zooming into an area that is in the shade.
- Choose a strong foreground element and most importantly keep shooting!
If you want to learn more about how to edit soft waterfall photographs in Adobe Lightroom, visit my tutorial here. I love taking silky waterfall photographs and will continue to fine tune my skills the more I practice. I hope you have enjoyed learning about how I photograph silky waterfalls and soft water and that you get to try it out yourself one day. If not, at least you can see it through my photos! Thanks for reading and sharing my adventures with me! Happy travels!
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