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Picking A Waterfall Shutter Speed For The Best Look

Capturing a waterfall is a matter of personal taste. This post will not tell you you should always use shutter speed 1/X and life will be fine. To the contrary, this post is meant to show some examples of what different shutter speeds do to a moderately distant waterfall so you can decide for yourself which effect is to your liking.

The images in this series were shot at Snoqualmie Falls in Washington state on a very blustery day.  The flow over the fall was moderate to heavy and that is an important factor in shooting any waterfall: if there flow is light (low volume) then the effect will be different. A moderate flow means the water has enough volume to pick up speed toward the bottom without fanning out and drifting off as mist. A very heavy flow often means a lack of definition for individual ribbons. Moderation, again, is typically the key, but not an absolute.

That being said, I ran a test at a moderate to heavy flow shooting at 1/8000, 1/3200, 1/1000, 1/250, 1/100, 1/30, 1/20, 1/10, 1/5, .5, 1 and 2.5 seconds. Not everyone has a chance to get out and shoot waterfalls as often as some of us can (evidently the middle of the USA is fairly flat) and this post is for them. It’s a chance to get an idea of what effect happens with which shutter speed. It’s a chance to practice mentally for that trip to Hawaii and its hundreds of waterfalls. Or Costa Rica. Or some place warm with ample rainfall.

If you already have your waterfall shooting data dialed in, great. There is no need for you to read any further. Might I suggest you check out the latest Dilbert cartoon?

For everyone curious about how these shutter speed show up in images of falling water, let’s take a look!

The first few shots are taken with a high ISO as the falls were in shade (the sun doesn’t get very high around here in the Winter). I have used a bit of noise reduction but not so much as to take away from the detail. All images were shot with a Canon 7D and 28-300mm L lens. Clicking on an image will bring up a 3000px tall version if you want to dig a bit closer. I apologize that the 2.5 second image is a bit less stable….it was hard to hold the camera steady with a constant 20MPH wind in my face. The shots at 1/5 and slower were shot using a variable neutral density filter to achieve the slower speed.

Image: 1/8000th of a second

1/8000th of a second

Image: 1/3200th of a second

1/3200th of a second

Image: 1/1000th of a second

1/1000th of a second

Image: 1/250th of a second

1/250th of a second

Image: 1/100th of a second

1/100th of a second

Image: 1/30th of a second

1/30th of a second

Image: 1/20th of a second

1/20th of a second

Image: 1/10th of a second

1/10th of a second

Image: 1/5th of a second

1/5th of a second

Image: .5 seconds

.5 seconds

Image: 1 second

1 second

Image: 2.5 seconds

2.5 seconds

What do you see in the falling water at different speeds? I see an obvious change in the silkiness of the water but it takes a while to get started from 1/8000th (and is my main reason for not shooting every stop or 1/3 of a stop as the images in between have very little noticeable change). My normal favorite shooting speed of 1/10th of a second doesn’t cut it here, in my opinion. The water is blurred, but not enough for my liking. Again, that is just my opinion.

What’s your take on a ‘good’ speed to shoot this waterfall? How will the images help you see possibilities differently the next time you are shooting a waterfall?

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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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