How to shoot waterfalls and streams

Summer came quite early this year! Enjoying the awesome weather I went to the famous waterfalls of Geroldsau in Baden-Baden, Germany. A perfect spot to get yourself a try at some long exposure shots of waterfalls or streams. So did I!

As you might have already noticed, I am a big fan of longer exposures. For me it just has something magical and you can express so much more atmosphere or feelings compared to short shutter speeds. Especially when you get ocean waves, lakes or like today waterfalls and streams in your photo. So let me give you some of my tips of how I take such long exposure shots.

1. No worries you don't need any high end professional equipment

These are mostly the first things I'm being asked by people who are quite new to this kind of photography "What kind of filters do you use? Which camera do you have? Do I need a special tripod? What about remote shutter control? What kind of lens do you use?..."

Stay calm and simply enjoy capturing the beauty of our nature!

As I love to answer to these people "It's not about the camera and the equiment you use, it's about yourself and how you make use of your camera."

I am totally happy with my "entry level" Canon EOS 550D and my cheaper lenses. They do a great job and I really can't complain.

The only additional equipment you should have besides a camera with manual (M) or shutter priority (TV) mode is a simple neutral density filter (ND filter) which reduces the intensity of the incomming light. This filter allows you to take much longer exposures compared to what you normally could without loosing sharpness by getting beyond apertures of f/22.

2. Stay steady with a tripod

The disadvantage of long shutter photos is that you have to stabilise your camera as you aren't able to hold it by your hand anymore. So either you have a tripod or you search for something you can lay your camera steadily on (rocks or tree stumps are always on the scene to help you with that).

3. Camera Settings

ISO - the lower the better

When photographing long exposures you should always keep your ISO as low as possible. A high ISO combined with a longer shutter speed will end up in grainy photos and you will loose all the details. So set your ISO to 100 or if possible to 50 and you'll get a much better image quality. Another advantage of a lower ISO in long exposure photography is that your shutter speed will automatically increase by lowering the ISO and without even using an ND filter.

Aperture - helps you take longer shutter speeds

Use a rather small aperture around f/11 or f/16 in order to extend your shutter speed and to keep everything sharp. Although there are several people who recommend using really small apertures I personally always try to avoid apertures beyond f/22 as actually every lens looses its details at this range.

Shutter Speed - the longer the smother

This camera setting depends on the fact if you're using a ND filter or not. For those of you who don't or who just like to have more details in the moving water, simply experiment with the aperture in combination with the shutter speed. You might have to make a compromise according the image quality when passing the apertures around f/22 but it's also possible to smoothen the water. The easiest way to achieve longer exposure without using a filter is probably to shoot in the late afternoon. At this time you'll get some darker even light which will be perfect for you to extend the shutter speed a little bit.

4. ND filter - the key to silky smooth images

The ultimate tool for photographing waterfalls or streams is definitely the neutral density (ND) filter! With the help of this little piece of glass you're able to capture so much movement and atmosphere - I'm simply in love with these filters and the results you get. However before heading over to the next photography store or Amazon and hitting some new ND filters in your cart, let me tell you that you really, really don't need a complete quiver of filters! I'm only carrying one simple ND 3.0 filter by Haida and I think it's much more efficient when you get to know your camera and learn how to make the best out of the bare necessities. By only adjusting the aperture you'll get so many different results.

5. Blending two shots

The most annoying thing you might notice when checking your shots on your computer is probably that you got some moving leaves or plants in your favourite photographs. Exactly this has happened to me so many times. So I thought "why not simply blending two shots together to avoid such disappointments in the future?".

Let's do it this way: after taking your long exposure shot remove your ND filter and take another shot with a shutter spead around 1/100s or faster (depending on the wind conditions). This will freeze all the moving plants and you don't have to fear that your favourite shots are being ruined.

Back home stick your two shots together by using layer masks in Photoshop, Gimp or any other postprocessing software and you're done!

I hope I could give you at least a few advices on how to take photographs of waterfalls or streams. So get out and put some of these tips into action. Feel free to share links or photos of your latest waterfall or stream shots in the comments!

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