Capturing Waterfall Moods – Photography Basics

Waterfalls, but this isn't oneNext to sunsets, waterfalls are one of the most photographed subjects in nature. They are naturally alluring with their power, grace, calm or chaos. They can be a lot of different things and it’s important to know how to capture their various moods.

Do you want your waterfalls silky smooth or freeze their motion and show their power?

Capturing Waterfall Moods

Smoothing Motion

A tripod is almost mandatory for this type of shooting because you will be using slow shutter speeds often.

A good starting point is 1/10th of a second and working slower. Anything faster than 1/10th and the action starts freeze. Here’s a comparison of Escondida Waterfall in Costa Rica. The first shot is at 1/13th of a second and the second shot is at 1/100th.

Same Costa Rica WaterfallCosta Rica WaterfallTo me, the second photo needs to be even faster to stop the motion of the waterfall completely and 1/100th isn’t doing it. Do you see how the water isn’t really silky and not really stopped?  1/13 is starting to get into the realm of silky.

Stopping Motion

To really capture power, it helps to have massive volume and a higher shutter speed. Yellowstone Falls in Wyoming is a classic example. Shot at f/8, ISO 100, and 1/250.

Yellowstone FallsTo me this image works because of the mass of water. If there were little rivulets streaming down, it’s not as massive. Likewise, I think this shot slowed to 1/5 would not translate well because the white of the falls would become overpowering within the frame. In essence, too much water blur.


Slowing things down works for falls that have multiple small, focused streaming running over the edge, such as Koosah Falls in Oregon. Shot at ISO 100, f/22 and .5 seconds.


Koosah FallsOr Proxy Falls, also in Oregon. ISO 100, f/11, .3 seconds

More waterfall photography tips:

  • Try to shoot from an area where you are not directly in the spray coming off the fall. ‘Try’ is the operative word here.
  • Use a tripod.
  • Think about what mood you want to convey.
  • Compose (see Rule of Thirds for a quick idea)
  • Take some time to examine the fall before setting up.
  • Watch the light. If you can, avoid shooting in mid day as the falls will be too bright when blurred.
  • Add some life to the frame. A singular shot of the fall, showing it splashing into the pool, gets old after a while. Add some spice.

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Waterfall Examples

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Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure, and its companion 40 Photography Experiments, are series written by professional photographer Peter West Carey. The series are designed to unravel the mysteries of photography, helping you can take better pictures. Subscribe here to receive all the updates and bonus material. Your comments are always welcome.

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