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Beginner’s guide to long exposure waterfall photography

In this post we're going to go over a very basic, beginner's guide to shooting long exposure waterfalls.

This is a very simple technique and if done correctly, can have wonderful effects in your final image. You can transform static, motionless scenes into dreamy, fantastical wonderlands in a few easy steps.

We're going to take you from this:

fast exposure waterfall example.

to this:

long exposure waterfall example.

During my early days of learning photography, this was the one technique that made me feel like I was stepping out of aperture mode and really getting somewhere.

Let's get started...

How to capture motion blur in waterfalls

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Long exposure explained

Basically, long exposure is a term used to describe photos that have been taken using a slow shutter speed.

Now, "slow" can mean anything from 1/30 second to multiple hours depending on the lighting environment and the nature of your subject.

Here's one shoot where we used some pretty long shutter speeds to capture bioluminescent plankton off the coast of Cape Town.

For our purposes today though, we're going to be looking at the 1 to 6 second range.

There are many different ways to capture long exposure images. In some techniques, such as panning, the camera is moving which allows motion trails in the frame, however, for the technique we're going to discuss today, we want to ensure that our camera remains completely still throughout the entire shooting process.

Having a stationary camera and shooting at these kinds of slow speeds will allow the motion of the subject to blur to such a degree that it will lose all detail and give off a nice silky effect.

This effect on our waterfall subjects is usually a great contrast to the more sharp and defined details around the water and helps to create very fantastical scenes. (Check out Kath Salier for some great examples of long exposure photography).

So, with that explanation out of the way, let's take a closer look at how to capture long exposure waterfalls.

long exposure waterfall portrait
A long exposure portrait of our local waterfall in Taiwan.

Equipment for long exposure photography

First up, and aside from your camera and your lens, you're going to need a tripod.

Now, the reason for this is because you're going to try and get the slowest shutter speed that you can and so you're going to need your camera to stay as still as possible.

If you don't have a tripod, or perhaps, you're on a hike and have limited packing space to bring one along, then you can just as easily set your camera up on a firm surface like a rock, or a stack of stones, or anything like that. As long as the camera stays completely still.

The next thing you'll want to look at is a neutral density filter or a polarizing filter. Now what these filters do is attach to the end of your lens and reduce the amount of light that comes in, which allows you to get an even slower shutter speed.

If you don't have any of these filters, don't fear, you can still do this technique without one. But just to let you know that these filters make the job a heck of a lot easier.

  1. Camera and lens
  2. Tripod
  3. ND / Polarizing Filter (optional)
polarizing filter on camera
Using a polarizing filter to get slower shutter speeds.
Camera on a tripod shooting a long exposure of a waterfall.

Long exposure camera settings

Now, as I mentioned earlier, this is all about using a slow shutter speed - something in the range of 1 to 6 seconds. So, everything you do as far as camera settings go, is going to accommodate that slow shutter speed.

That means your ISO value is going to be set to the lowest it can go.

You're also going to set the aperture to the narrowest it can go (whatever the largest f-number is on your camera's lens).

The combination of these 2 settings is going to ensure that you get the slowest shutter speed possible.

One other setting that's extremely important is your camera's self timer. You could shoot with a remote trigger to get around this, but I'm going to assume that you don't have one of these, so your camera's self timer will have to do.

Now, what this does is causes a short delay between the time you press your shutter button and the time the camera takes the actual image and that's really important when you're dealing with such slow shutter speeds because any movement made by our hands during the shot, is going to translate into the image.

  1. Lowest ISO number.
  2. Largest f-number (smallest aperture).
  3. Slowest shutter speed.
  4. Self-timer set to 2-5 seconds.
long exposure ipivi waterfall landscape
One of the many waterfalls in the Krantzkloof Nature Reserve.

Choosing a scene to shoot

This technique is great for all kinds of moving bodies of water, from waterfalls to rivers to the waves on the seaside.

But one thing you want to look out for in a setting, is a scene that has a bit of tumultuous water and by that I mean, water cascading down some rocks causing that nice, white, frothy foam that makes the water appear white.

This is why waterfalls are such great subjects for this technique, because that white, frothy water is just what you're looking for.

*Side note - if you're looking for a few great subjects, then here are a some excellent waterfalls in Mpumalanga, South Africa.

long exposure Durban beach
Ocean waves are also great for this technique.

Next up, you want to look at the actual lighting conditions of the scene.

Because you're after a slow shutter speed, you'll want to be sure that your scene is very dimly lit - so, that means shooting in the early morning, late evening, even into the night.

Basically, what you want to avoid at all costs is direct sunlight in the middle of the day. That's going to kill any opportunity to get a slow shutter speed, especially if you're shooting without a filter.

  1. Look for a scene with moving, tumultuous water.
  2. Shoot in the early morning, late evening or even onto the night.
long exposure photography waterfall
A waterfall in Taiwan shot under a forest canopy on an overcast day to ensure a slow shutter speed.

Long exposure shooting technique

Once you get to a scene that looks like a good candidate for the long exposure technique, take a few moments to shoot some fast shutter speed shots hand held so that you can get your composition right. Remember, this technique takes a lot of time, so you want to know that wherever you choose to place your camera is going to give you a good shot. Move around and try different angles, and once you get a good one you can set up your camera and tripod.

The first setting to adjust will be the ISO. Make sure this in nice and low.

Next, open the aperture as wide as it can go. Check the shutter speed and see if you're within that 1 to 6 second window. If you're getting speeds slower than 6 seconds, then you can start to close the aperture to compensate and get the correct exposure. If your shutter speed is too fast, then you're going to need to wait till it gets darker outside, or use a filter.

Finally, set your camera's self-timer to 2-5 seconds and snap away.

Summary of the main points for long exposure photography

  1. Keep the camera as stable as possible with a tripod, or by resting the camera on a firm surface.
  2. Set your camera settings to accommodate the slowest shutter speed you can.
  3. Press the shutter button and remove your hands and wait for the self-timer to set off the shutter after a short delay.
  4. Check your image on the back of the camera and using the histogram to make see if you need to change any settings.

If you get all this right, you're going to get some amazing long exposure images with that dreamy motion blur in the waterfall.

So there we have it, a nice easy way to capture long exposure motion blur in moving water bodies. Leave a comment down below to let us know if you have any questions or feedback and we'll reply as soon as we can.

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