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Of course, shutter speed plays an essential role in creating silky smooth waterfall photographs, but does it get a little too much attention in tutorial articles? I think so.
In this article you’ll learn about three other key elements to creating a successful silky smooth waterfall photograph, and when you put it all together, all you’ll need to do next is find a waterfall to photograph.
Like many landscape photographs, composition plays a huge role in whether or not the final photograph you capture is more than just a snapshot. Even if you nail the shutter speed, have perfect lighting, and just the right amount of depth of field, a poorly composed image will still fall flat.
In the video below I take you through the thought process behind a waterfall photography session I went on last year. I try to drive home the point that getting the best composition of a scene involves more than just moving the camera, but also includes thinking about why the choices you make matter to the photograph itself.
When composing a waterfall scene you’ll have to take into account not just the waterfall itself, but the direction of water flow, the rocks and debris that make up the foreground, the trees in the background, and everything in-between. Next time you’re photographing a waterfall, try just moving the camera around, get high, get low, pay attention to what you see through the viewfinder, and take as many different photographs as you have time for.
As with most photographs, light is key in setting a tone or mode of the scene, however with waterfalls it can arguably be even more important.
Not only does light determine the mood of the scene you’re photographing, but it may downright determine whether or not you can get a slow enough shutter speed on your camera for the silky smooth water that you want to create. On top of that, you’ve got to absolutely watch out for photographing on a sunny day or this might happen – look at all those hot spots!
There’s no amount of highlight recovery or post production magic that will bring this image back, and give it a more refined tone. The light simply makes the photograph feel harsh, and while the snapshot showcases the falls, it does little to make the photograph interesting.
Due to the nature of waterfalls often being off the beaten path, and being dangerous to get to, it can be difficult to photograph at sunrise or sunset if you’re not a seasoned hiker. Therefore, as a second best option, I’d highly recommend planning your waterfall adventures for cloudy day. At the very least this will reduce the occurrence of hot spots on the water, and at best it will give you a few extra stops of shutter speed to work with if you need it.
When it comes to creating the silky smooth waterfall effect, the amount of water actually flowing through the waterfall plays an important role in the end result. A powerful current has more movement to it than a small stream, and as a result this high flow waterfall may not require an exposure as long to achieve the desired result.
Take a look at the following two photographs, they are from the same waterfall one year apart. the first image is during a drought resulting in a waterfall that had almost no water flowing over it, while the second image was taken after Hurricane Irene came through the area dropping more than 10 inches (25cm) of rain in some locations. As you can see, the two images offer quite a different view of this waterfall.
In most cases it’s probably better to photograph smaller waterfalls with a light flow of water when you’re looking to create the silky smooth waterfall effect, as it tends to work best with those. Often, high flow waterfalls, will simply overpower the look that you’re trying to achieve, and as a result are often better photographed at a faster shutter speed in order to freeze the motion, and showcase their power.
Overall, waterfall photography is a lot of fun, the experience of hiking to the waterfall is often just as rewarding as the photographs themselves, so be sure to enjoy the entire experience.