How to Photograph Waterfalls and Streams

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You might run into several waterfalls and streams if you like taking trips in nature. When you do you might want to capture that moment and keep it with you. Therefore, you must know how to photograph waterfalls and streams to make your trips memorable.

How to Photograph Waterfalls and Streams

To photograph waterfalls and streams you need the correct equipment and you need to set the right exposure. After taking care of the basics, you can use filters, shoot at the right time, choose a focal point.

Get the Right Equipment

Shooting waterfalls and streams require the right equipment. Some equipment you can use include a tripod, a remote trigger, and various camera lenses.

Person shoeing how to photograph waterfalls and streams


While capturing a waterfall or a stream, your main goal should be to capture the motion of water. The fast flowing water makes for a great picture; however, you need to hold your camera steady. That is not possible in most cases, and this is where a tripod comes in.

A tripod will help you hold the camera steady. Keeping it on a stone or holding it in your hands is not as feasible because it can still be subject to movement. You require long exposure settings, and this cannot be possible with a tripod.

Remote Trigger

A remote trigger also allows you to keep your camera steady. A remote trigger is connected to your camera with a cable or wirelessly. You can release the shutter and take the picture without touching the camera. This ensures the camera does not move and stays steady.

Camera Lens

You need the right lenses to get good pictures. Getting too near a body of water might be dangerous because of sudden splashes of water. Consider bringing a telephoto lens so you can capture the scene from a distance.

Another lens that you should bring is a wide-angle lens. A lens with a focal point of around 18mm would allow you to capture a large part of the scene without moving too far away from it.

Set the Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is the speed of which the camera’s shutter closes. It is the most important camera setting when capturing a waterfall or a stream. Manipulating the speed can either help you freeze motion (with a faster shutter) or capture motion (with a slow shutter).

To capture the smooth flow of water and the speed with which it is flowing, you should go for a slower speed. Start around 1 second and slowly decrease it to ideally around 4 seconds. The best shutter speed is determined by the speed and volume with which the water is flowing.

If the stream or waterfall is very fast flowing such as the Niagra falls, you can try setting your shutter to 1 second. If you are capturing stream which flow slower, you might need to set your shutter to somewhere between 5-10 seconds.

Other Effects

Choose one that blurs the movement yet still shows some details. However, if you wish to capture the calmness of water and give it a glassy look, go for an even slower speed of around 6 seconds. This will convey the motion of water; however, it will blur out the details.

Faster Shutter Speed

Although most photographers go for a slower shutter speed, it is not always necessary. You can use a faster shutter speed too. A faster shutter speed will allow you to capture a frozen moment of the water. It looks great, especially if you are capturing a waterfall.

However, do not increase the speed too much because you need to keep the exposure right too.

Set the Aperture

The aperture of the camera determines how much light enters it. You might want a narrow aperture of around f/11 – f/16 if you are looking to capture a deeper depth of field. It will capture a more focused and sharp picture of the whole scene. It will also pair well with a slower shutter speed, as the slow speed compensates for the exposure.

However, if you want a shallow depth of field, use a wider aperture of around f/1.6 – f/5.6. You can do this when using a faster speed, as a wider aperture lets more light into a camera. It also allows you to capture a beautiful bokeh.

Set the ISO Level

The ISO levels refer to the camera’s sensitivity to light. When you are shooting during the day at a slower speed, it is a good idea to keep the ISO levels at their lowest setting. This is usually around 100. Some cameras even allow you to go below their base settings.

If you are already shooting at a slow speed, using a high or moderate ISO level could lead to overexposure. Also, higher ISO levels increase the noise in an image. Keeping the ISO as low as possible results in a good quality image.

Apply Filters

If you feel that exposures are not right and the shutter speed is not low enough, then you can use an ND filter. Another filter you can use is a circular polarizer filter.

ND Filter

A neutral density filter is placed on a camera’s lens, and it reduces the amount of light coming into a camera. It does this without altering the colors in the scenery. A 2X ND filter will let in 50% less light, and a 4X ND filter will let in 25% less light.

By reducing the amount of light coming into the camera, these ND filters ensure that you can reduce the speed further without worrying about overexposure. Therefore, you can use a slower speed to capture motion.

Moreover, ND filters can be used to blur and smooth any movement. They complement the slow shutter speed. They can improve the tonal contrast of your image and allow you to capture vibrant colors. However, they sometimes have a particular color cast, and you might have to adjust the white balance accordingly.

Circular Polarizer Filter

A circular polarizer filter or polarizing filter helps reduce glare and reflections by filtering the light that has already been polarized due to reflection from a surface. It works similarly to an ND filter; however, it reduces the light that reflects off the water surface of a stream or a waterfall.

Using this filter will allow you to see through the water and capture the bottom of shallow streams. You have to adjust it while looking through the camera’s live view or viewfinder to use this filter. Full polarization eliminates any reflection from the water’s surface.

However, full polarization is not always a good thing. It can lead to you capturing featureless black water. Thus, use a polarizing filter at a moderate level and make sure you leave some of the glare or reflection. These reflections give viewers a better sense of reflection and movement.

Shoot at the Right Time of the Day

You can only do so much with the camera settings and the filters. The quality of pictures of waterfalls and streams can also differ at different times of the day. The best time to photograph these are an hour after sunrise or an hour before sunset.

Photo of waterfalls

At this time (the golden hour) the sunlight is not strong. You get less glare and will be able to capture a better picture. Keep your ISO levels low around 100, and use a slow shutter speed below 1 second. Whatever you do, avoid shooting at the time when the light is brightest.

Exclude the Sky

Normally, the sky might be too bright. It might lead to over-exposure and distract from the main focus of the image (the waterfall and stream). Therefore, it is a good idea not to capture the sky. However, if the sky looks great and is adding to the aesthetics of the shots, then, by all means, capture it too.

Protect the Equipment From the Water

When you are trying to capture a body of water, there is always a danger of things going wrong. It could be a sudden splash of water or your equipment falling into the water. Also, there might be a lot of mist when you are that close to a waterfall or stream which might damage your camera’s lenses.

Therefore, bring some protection for your camera. This could be a rain hood, mist collector, or use a microfiber cloth between shots to clean the lenses.

Choose a Focal Point

Bodies of water look mystical when they are blurred out. You can achieve this using a wider aperture of around f/2.8; however, you still need to focus on something. Choose a focal point to focus on. This might include a rock, a tree, or a little vegetation growing in the body of water.

Capture During the Wintertime

Most people prefer capturing photos during the summers when the water is flowing; however, you can go during the winters too. The waterfall or stream might be frozen or partially frozen. You can use a slow shutter speed (around ½ second) to capture the smooth movement of water against the snow.

Related Questions

How Do I Edit a Waterfall Image in Photoshop?

To edit a waterfall image in photoshop, first, select the picture and add a new layer. Then add blur and a layer mask to clean the edges. After that use a paintbrush to edit the edges further. Then add blur to the river and finish it off using a warp tool.

How Do You Make a Waterfall Look Misty?

To make a waterfall look misty, mount your camera on a tripod. Then use slow shutter speed, starting from 1 second and decreasing it until you get the right shot. Adjust other settings to complement the slow speed (decrease ISO levels to 100 and use a narrow aperture of around f/8).


Photographing a waterfall or stream requires you to use equipment such as tripods, shutter cables, and lenses. You also need to adjust the exposure settings to suit the conditions. After that, use some techniques such as choosing a focal point to capture aesthetic shots.