Shutter Speeds And Waterfall Photography


Let’s talk art for a second. I’m guessing you’ve been doing it all wrong. Black & white? That’s so 1950s. Artificial backgrounds? (Textures, for you crazy digital folks.) Good grief! Come on, people, there’s only one right way to create art.

My way!

From the comments I’ve read lately on the world’s premier source of factual info (Facebook), I’m dismayed to say that there are people who think this way. I can’t tell you how many times someone has commented that a photo of a waterfall with silky-looking water is not real, or that a shot using a faster shutter speed portrays the waterfall accurately. Then there are the ones suggesting that anyone who uses slow shutter speeds is purposely trying to deceive the viewer. My favorites, though, are when people say that waterfall photos that have silky water were created in Photoshop.

Dry Falls waterfall

A shutter speed of 1/2 second creates a flowing, cotton-candy look to the water.

A shutter speed of 1/80 second creates more of a stop-action look, but doesn’t totally freeze the movement.

I’m not exaggerating. A thread like this comes up every month or so. The last one I saw had a few people commenting about how cell phones take “real” waterfall photos, while “professional” cameras don’t. Huh? It took awhile for me to figure out what they meant. Since cell phone cameras automatically use the fastest shutter by default, they create images that these people feel are real, while photographers using other cameras tend to change settings and often pick slower shutter speeds. So, cell phone cameras are better than big, bad, DSLRs.

I’ve heard the argument that faster shutter speeds create a more realistic look because our eyes don’t see waterfalls as silky. What? My eyes don’t see water frozen in place. A waterfall moves, and to my eye, a photo that has cotton-candy water looks more realistic than one with the water suspended mid-air.

One thing that non photographers might not realize is that we often don’t have much control over what the water looks like. Back in the film days, this was even worse. I like to shoot waterfalls on overcast (preferably rainy) days, when the lighting is not very bright. I use a polarizing filter, which blocks some light. I often need lots of depth of field, which requires using small apertures that don’t let much light in. And I prefer to use low ISOs, which always produce better image quality than high ones. All of this adds up to very slow shutter speeds to get enough light.

Regardless of any of the above, the bottom line is that we’re talking about art. It’s subjective. It’s perfectly okay to have the opinion that silky water doesn’t look good, or vice versa. But when you say it’s wrong or not real, don’t be surprised if you get pushback from artists everywhere.


Okay, now for the mechanical side. All waterfalls are different, and sometimes the shutter speed plays a big role in the look of the photo beyond just whether the water is silky. Let’s examine some of the things you’ll want to consider.

How to vary the shutter speed.

Typically, this will be a function of ISO. Yes, you change the ISO to alter the shutter speed. To keep the exposure constant, if you raise the ISO, you must also shorten the shutter speed by the same factor. If the shutter speed is 1/2  second at ISO 100, it will be 1/60 second at ISO 3200. But raising the ISO also means increasing image noise, so there’s a tradeoff. If your camera has good noise characteristics, it might not be a big issue, but I’ve seen a lot of cameras that look terrible at high ISOs. You need to run some tests with your camera.

ISO 200, f/16, 1/15 second. With this much water flowing so fast, 1/15 second is slow enough to create a silky look, but not so slow that it blurs the water into a non-defined mass.

ISO 800, f/11, 1/160 second. To achieve 1/160 second shutter speed, which to my eye is the perfect speed for rendering the flood conditions of this waterfall, I had to raise the ISO two stops and open the aperture one stop.

You can also open the aperture in a pinch. I like to set the aperture first, based on depth-of-field requirements. But if there is wiggle room in the depth of field, I’ll change it to allow a faster shutter speed if needed.

Polarizing filters block some light, but I would never remove mine just to gain a faster shutter speed. I consider a polarizer to be indispensable for waterfalls.

Sometimes, you’ll want to use a slower shutter speed than the lighting and exposure settings allow. First, if you aren’t using a polarizing filter, put it on and don’t take it off until you stop shooting waterfalls. That’ll help, but if you’re shooting on a sunny day, it might not be enough. The only thing you can do in a single exposure is use a neutral density filter, which will block a lot more light than a polarizer depending on its strength. Another option is to shoot multiple exposures at the slowest shutter speed possible, then stack them in Photoshop.

How shutter speed affects different waterfalls.

You can see from the examples at the bottom of this post how the look changes with shutter speed, but it’s important to understand that the type of waterfall plays a role as well. Smaller waterfalls, those with lower flow, and those where the water is mostly broken up by rocks or ledges as it falls, will all work well with most any shutter speed. But when you shoot bigger, more powerful waterfalls, you must make adjustments.

Waterfalls that have a large volume of water that isn’t broken up well will blur into a big white blob of nothingness with slow shutter speeds. And it might not take a very long shutter speed to do it, either. Look at the examples. Even at 1/125 second, the water on the left side of the frame is starting to lose detail. Imagine a waterfall with a wide sheet of water or one where a lot of water converges at the bottom.

Granted, it’s just about impossible to shoot waterfalls without losing a little detail in some areas. If the non-defined areas are long and narrow, as they tend to be with the cotton-candy look, the image usually works fine. The problem arises when you get a large blob of white.

If the exposure settings combination doesn’t allow you to shoot at a shutter speed fast enough to retain detail, you can shoot two exposures, one for the water and one for the surroundings, and combine them in Photoshop. Working on a layer mask, you would simply brush out the bad exposure from the top layer, revealing the proper exposure beneath.

Another consideration is that very large, powerful waterfalls often look better with faster shutter speeds regardless of how much detail is in the water. I Tend to use shutter speeds in the 1/125 to 1/500 range with the big guys. Conversely, with little dainty waterfalls, I’d never consider those fast shutter speeds. Granted, this is subjective, but in my experience, most people tend to agree with this assessment.

What speed is most “realistic”?

Again, this is very subjective. What looks real to me may not look that way to you. As a rule, 1/60 second is the shutter speed thought to render most moving things as close as possible to what one might consider real. That’s why 1/60 is the standard shutter speed for video cameras. But this doesn’t really apply to still photos of waterfalls. As stated earlier, I happen to think slower shutter speeds create a more realistic look.

ISO 400, f/22, 0.4 second. The shutter speed here was a little longer than I wanted. I needed a faster speed to stop the trillium from blowing in the wind, but I needed f/22 for maximum depth of field (there still isn;t enough DOF to render the distant trees sharp). I shot this many years ago. In hindsight, I should have raised the ISO to increase the shutter speed.

ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/80 second. Lowering the ISO and opening the aperture gave me a fast shutter speed to freeze wind movement and render the water differently. However, my real objective here was to blur the background and let the trillium take center stage in the photo. That’s why I opened the aperture to f/2.8, which provides very little depth of field. Unfortunately, since I was using a very wide angle lens (17mm), there is still too much detail in the background for the effect I was after, and the limited depth of field caused the front tip of the trillium leaf to blur.

With this said, I would imagine that the consensus opinion for average waterfalls (ones that aren’t either huge and powerful or itty bitty with low flow), would be for shutter speeds in the 1/15 to 1/125 range if a reasonably realistic look is what you’re after. I wouldn’t be a part of this consensus, and you might not either, but after discussing the issues with countless photographers during my presentations, this seems to be where the majority of people fall. But remember, I’m talking about a consensus for what shutter speed creates the most realistic look, not which one people like the best.

How fast or slow to create the look you want?

If it’s silky, cotton-candy water you’re after, shutter speeds of around 1/8 second or slower are what you want. For freezing the action, you’ll want at least 1/250 second, and faster is better. I’ve heard that you should avoid shutter speeds in between this range because the photos can look jarring. I don’t subscribe to that thinking, and as I indicated above, my interactions with audiences don’t support the idea. I have tons of waterfall photos shot between 1/8 and 1/250 and I like them just fine.

How does lighting affect things?

You kidding me? It’s all about the lighting! But that’s the subject for another post. One thing I do need to mention here, though, is that if you shoot a waterfall with direct sunlight hitting the water but not evenly illuminating the entire scene, it’s going to be very difficult to retain detail in the water while properly exposing the surroundings. No combination of exposure settings or filters is going to help. If everything receives even illumination, it can work, although you may need to slightly underexpose the surroundings.

4 seconds

2 seconds

1 second

1/2 second

1/4 second

1/8 second

1/15 second

1/30 second


1/125 second

1/250 second

1/500 second