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Waterfalls and Rivers: Tips & Techniques to Capture Great Photos

written by: Zoe Van-de-Velde•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 10/21/2011

Waterfalls and rivers are beautiful to look at but capturing a still image of moving water can be difficult if you do not know the correct technique. Key elements that will affect your images are shutter speed, light, exposure and aperture. Understanding how to set your digital camera is essential.

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    The Secret of Capturing Moving Water

    Waterfalls at Nangwynant 2009 by Steve Evans 

    If you would like to take photographs of a waterfall or river where the water appears to be rushing past while the rocks, trees and other landscape items remain still, the best way to do this is to employ your shutter controls. Leaving your shutter open for at least a second or two will make the water appear to move, while everything else remains sharp. A tripod or other stabilizing method is also important if you are leaving your shutter open longer. One problem with this shooting method is that as your shutter is open longer more light will get into the picture. Therefore, it is best to attempt this method early in the morning, late in the day, just after sunset or on an overcast day. To get the best results set your digital camera to shutter priority mode and set the shutter speed to 1 or 2 full seconds. If you want to attempt this during broad daylight, you will have to use a step-down filter to limit the amount of light coming into the camera. Bracketing several images with different exposures is a good idea to ensure that you get that perfect shot. Underexposing your image slightly by changing your exposure settings may also help to compensate for the amount of light the shutter lets into your image. By using this method, you prevent your photos from being blown out or over-exposed.

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    Experimenting in Different Conditions


    An even more dramatic effect can be achieved by capturing the shot when there is light rain or drizzle. The overcast sky will take care of the exposure issue, and the rain will make the rocks and other landscape elements glisten and “pop”. Try setting your aperture at f/22 and leave the shutter open even longer, this can be over 10 seconds, to get the silky, flowing water effect. If you pick the aperture priority mode then your camera will leave the shutter open as long as it takes to get the right exposure for your image. You can also try experimenting by using black & white mode or another filter, depending on what settings your camera has in place.

    To create the opposite effect i.e. the landscape appears to be moving and the water is still, set your shutter to 1/60 and pan the water. This may take a few trial runs before you get the effect that you want but it will be worth it for a really stunning final image.

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    Color Saturation with a Filter

    Waterfall using a polarising filter 

    The best tip to photograph water and other reflective surfaces is to use a polarising filter. Polarising filters not only make it easier to see through glass and water but will enhance the colors in your photograph. If you are photographing a landscape, grass will look greener and sky will look bluer. Colors will stand out and make a good picture look stunning. Polarising filters are simply attached to the lens of your camera, so to use one you will need to have a DSLR. Once you have attached the filter you can then rotate it to achieve the affect that you want. Polarising filters work best in sunny weather when the angle of the sun is at about 90 degrees. On greyer days this filter may have no affect at all, so you will need to adjust your other settings accordingly. The joy of using this method is that you will not need to tweak your colors in post-production; the colors you will get on camera should really be impressive. The picture on the left hand side was taken with a polarising filter and you will notice that the rocks really stand out and the waterfall appears to have become one sheer surface, even the brown leaves appear to shine.

    Waterfalls and rivers are wonderful photographic subjects because they offer such a wide variety of photographic options. Experiment with different ways of capturing the flow of water and you should end up with some truly amazing imagery.