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How to photograph a waterfall with a blur effect

More falling waterThe best waterfall pictures create the illusion of the water blurring together. I’m not really an expert at it — I use a $250 Canon point-and-shoot — but I have the fundamentals down. The shot at right is a passable example I took on the excellent Steep Ravine Trail at Northern California’s Mount Tamalpais State Park:

If I can get this effect, pretty much anybody can, but there are a few musts:

  1. A solid, stable surface to hold the camera: You can’t get this effect holding the camera in your hand. Preferably you’d use a tripod, but you can also rest the camera on a nearby rock, bench, bridge railing (just be very careful or your camera could go for a swim).
  2. Your camera’s shutter speed must be adjustable. And you have to know how to do it. Break out your manual and practice at home until it’s second nature. The lower the shutter speed, the better — though if it gets too low, your shot will become overexposed.
  3. Your camera must have an automatic shutter release. Otherwise, you’ll blur the shot when you try to click and take the picture. Most cameras have timers — just a couple seconds is enough time for most shots, though if you use a Gorillapod or some other not-so-steady support, you might want more time to let the camera stop vibrating.
  4. You have to be in the shade: You can’t get this effect in direct sunlight without a very good camera, proper lenses and advanced knowledge. Slowing the shutter speed in the sunlight overexposes the shot. With the right lens/cam combo you can tweak the aperture (aka F stop) to avoid overexposure, but if you own that combo you should already know how to do this.

If you have all the prerequisites, the rest is reasonably easy, though it is time consuming. Forget about doing this with your hiking group. How to do it:

  1. Scout your site for someplace to put the camera. Make sure neither you nor your cam will fall in the drink.
  2. Turn off the flash.
  3. Set the automatic shutter release.
  4. With the camera still in automatic mode, line up your shot on your stable surface and take the picture.
  5. Now you’re ready to tweak the shutter speed. Basically, start with the shot coming out fairly dark and keep reducing speed till you get a shot you like, then try a couple more reductions to experiment. With a digital camera you can take dozens of exposures.

You’ll need to be able to see your pictures on a big screen to find out if you’ve got a keeper — the preview on your camera won’t be up to the task.

Once you’re back home you can tweak the image in whatever photo editing tool you own, though truth be told, if you do it right in the woods, you shouldn’t have to adjust all that much.

(A note about aperture — or F stop — settings: If your camera lets you adjust the shutter speed, it should use what’s called “shutter-speed priority,” which automatically adjusts your F stops to match your shutter speed. You might also have an aperture-priority option, which lets you set the F stop and the cam adjusts the shutter speed; I’ve tried this and had better luck with shutter-speed priority.)

Digital Photography School covers this in more depth.

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Tom posted at 7:26 am August 21st, 2008

10 Responses to 'How to photograph a waterfall with a blur effect'

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  1. Tom Clifton says:

    I am going have to start with the fallacy of your opening statement. Waterfall shots where the water is blurred are nice, but there are many wonderful shots of waterfalls were each drop is clear and distinct. I take both, often of the same waterfall to see which works best for that photo.

    You get the blurred effect when you shoot at a relatively slow shutter speed. Having a tripod is nice, but you can shoot handheld at 1/60th or 1/50th of a second and still get a nice shot with appropriate blurring (just don’t drink coffee before hand).

    The key thing that you are trying to do is shoot slower than the camera would normally shoot. So you need to take the camera out of automatic or program mode. If your camera has a shutter priority, set the shutter speed to 60 and go for it.

    Since you are most likely using a digital camera. Take multiple shots. Start with a shutter speed of 60 and move up to 400. That way you can capture the waterfall in variety of states and pick the one that you like best.

    Dan, feel free to hammer me on this.

    Permalink | Posted August 21st, 2008, at 1:47 pm
  2. tom says:

    Your mileage may vary but I have never had much luck getting a picture in focus in low light w/out the tripod.

    Permalink | Posted August 21st, 2008, at 4:07 pm
  3. thwaite says:

    Hi Tom,
    Useful writeup, and a great link to the digital-photography-school site.

    Canon’s optical image stabilization is on many of its point’n’shoots and works well. For my Powershoot S2 (~$300) it keeps my handheld shots stable up to about 0.10 sec exposure. That’s close to the point where I can fuzz up flowing water to be pretty pretty. But I agree with the other Tom: crystal-clear sparkles have their own appeal too.

    And many (not all) of Canon’s point’n’shoots can use the amazing free software enhancement CHDK, which adds realtime RGB histograms, support for RAW file saves (not that a 10-bit image is *that* much spiffier than an 8-bit jpeg), and oodles of shutter options. More info: chdk.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page

    -Ron

    Permalink | Posted August 22nd, 2008, at 12:20 pm
  4. kevin says:

    Another tip for hikers who don’t want to carry a tripood – a lighter weight bean bag is great for when you put your camera on a rock, but the rock is not shaped correctly to point the camera at your subject. Rather than trying to find teh right combo of twigs and pebbles to prop your camera in the right position, a bean bag is very mallable and much easier to use. – of course this only works if there is a tree stump or rock around to hold your camera.

    I also have used three walking sticks as a make-shift tripod. The problem with this is it is not as stable and its kinda scary to drop an expensive camera if the make-shift tripod collapses.

    Permalink | Posted August 24th, 2008, at 9:49 pm
  5. kevin says:

    One more I forgot to mention but thought of as I was laying half-asleep this morning…

    Tie a string to the bottom of your camera (using the attachment that you would usually hook up to the tripod) and step on the string with one foot pulling the camera up, keeping the string taught. This will give you a *little* extra stability, and is super light weight. Maybe not good enough for super low light, but helpful in a densly treed area.

    Also, when using the tripod or the bean-bag, make sure to use the timer. I set the timer to shoot 3 seconds after I push the button, so that my act of pushing the button does not shake the camera.

    Permalink | Posted August 25th, 2008, at 5:33 pm
  6. Mark Griffith says:

    One of my trekking poles is a Leki mono-pod which is great for these kind of shots.

    Permalink | Posted August 25th, 2008, at 9:11 pm
  7. Ryan L says:

    Hey Tom, nice article. If you’ve got a DSLR or a lens that you can attach filters to, a neutral density filter (or stack of them) will let you shoot long exposures on bright sunny days.

    Permalink | Posted June 1st, 2009, at 4:48 pm
  8. Aric says:

    I have a Panasonic DMC-TZ5 and within the settings I have the option to set my shutter speed. I was not too familiar with what they meant until I had read this article. Thank you very much, this has proven to be the most helpful for me. I have taken some very nice pictures so far. Now I can go to the next step in photography.

    Permalink | Posted May 15th, 2010, at 3:06 pm
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