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Long Exposure: Waterfalls (by Clara Howell)

Clara Howell, local photographer and journalist, joins us this week to walk us through how she photographs waterfalls with a long exposure. Gear: Sony A7II + Sony FE 28-70mm, F3.5-5.6.

Trek through the forested green of an Oregon trail to a snow-laden clearing — a rushing waterfall beating the rocks at its feet, water trickling down the big rock walls. Wherever you are in Oregon — any time of year — there are waterfalls to be found, captured and seized in the moment. For me, capturing waterfalls is a two-in-one activity. They take me on adventures, to places in the Pacific Northwest I’ve never escaped to, and also provide me the opportunity capture the fleeting beauty in a unique way that holds the eye.

How do photographers capture those beauties in a silky stillness -- resembling milk pouring from a cup? Here's how I do it!

(Photo by Clara Howell)

1. Have the Right Accessories

I never even think about photographing a long exposure of a waterfall without my trusty steeds: a neutral density filter and my light-weight travel tripod.

Before we get any further, let me give a quick run down on Neutral Density filters and what they do. ND Filters reduce the amount of light making its way into the camera. With less light entering the camera sensor, you will be able to slow the shutter speed down to capture a longer exposure. The slower shutter speed will allow anything moving in your frame to become blurred, and in this case, create that smooth water effect.

ND filters range in how much light they block out as well. If you go anywhere, you'll find ND4, 8 and 10 filters, along with variable ND filters. Fixed ND filters are perfect if you know how many stops you want your light reduced. Fixed ND filters also tend to be sharper -- as you aren't usually stacking multiple fixed filters on top of each other. Variable filters are convenient though, as they can range from as little as 1/2 a stop to even 8 3/4 stops.

If you’re working on a budget or forgot your tripod, you can prop your camera on a hard, steady surface like a rock. I didn’t have a neutral density filter for the longest time, and I was still able to take long exposures of waterfalls — though these filters will change your life. If you don’t have one, I suggest going out on a gray day or toward the evening. Crank that ISO down (even down to 50 ISO), put the F-stop on the highest number (f/22), set your shutter speed to the longest your camera recommends, add a two-second timer and TA-DA! You have the shot!

A polarizer is also a nice filter to use if you don’t want the water’s reflection — though I usually opt for an ND. You can stack the two to get less reflection, however just keep in mind that the more filters you stack, the less sharp the landscape will be.

2. What Lenses Should you Have?

Hands down opt for a wide angle. Before I purchased my Sony (yes, this is why I only have a kit lens right now), I shot with a Nikon D3200 and a Tokina wide angle lens -- the 11-16mm, f/2.8. IT WAS WONDERFUL, and always allowed me to capture the full falls, and the streams in front and around it from unique angles.

If you are shooting with a Canon, I would recommend the 16-35mm f/2.8 L (high end), the EF-S 10-18mm (step-up from starter) or the 18-55mm (kit lens).

If you are shooting with a Sony, I would recommend the 16-35mm f/4 or f/2.8 (high end). 10-18mm f/4 (mid-level) or the 16-50mm/24-70mm (kit lenses).

If you are shooting with a Nikon, I would recommend the 14-24mm f/2.8 (high end), 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5/10-20mm f/4.5-5.6 G (mid level) or the 18-55mm (kit lens).

(Photo by Clara Howell)

3. Pick a Time of Day where the Light Works for You

Usually I pick a day where the lighting is my friend — be it early morning, sunset or on an overcast day. Sunny days are beautiful but it’s harder to capture the falls with the sun casting overly harsh shadows.

Overcast days are the best as the light is diffused evenly, and you won't have as many 'hot spots' where parts of the image will be blown out. If you must shoot on a sunny day, it is best to try out your HDR or bracketing modes to compensate for the harsh lighting and show detail in the harsh highlights or shadows.

(Photo by Clara Howell)

4. Find the Right Composition for Your Shot

When I reach the waterfall I want to shoot, I typically try to find an angle that isn't just straight on. Sometimes this might mean setting my tripod up really low to the ground, in the water or from an angle where I'm just right above a stream pointing it up at the flowing water. Move your body around and get creative! Straight on shots will get old eventually, go on and mix it up.

Here's a tip! Keep in mind that most of your tripods are NOT waterproof. If you are shooting directly in a creek or river, know that you will need to dry out your tripod legs. If you have one of the Promaster XC or XCM series, you can untwist the legs to take them apart when you want to dry them out. If you want to avoid taking your tripod apart to dry it, DIY waterproof your tripod legs by using (3) trash-bag plastic bags and some rubber bands.

(Photo by Clara Howell)

5. Reduce the Amount of Light that Comes In

Depending on the lighting, I usually will keep my ISO at 400 or 200 (sometimes even less) because I’m usually shooting during the day and want to keep my images as noise-free as possible. I then pop my ND filter on, exposing for anywhere between one to 10 seconds. I set my F-stop (Aperture) to a higher number — think f/16 or higher — in order to further reduce the amount of light reaching my sensor. Shooting at a higher aperture will not only achieve what I want by reducing the amount of light, it will also help me capture a sharper image.

(Photo by Clara Howell)

6. Set a Timer (or have a Remote Shutter Release)

Why? Going through all the work of setting up the shot, getting the right exposure, and you hit the shutter -- a minute later you look at your image, and what do you see? Blurring! Avoid the blur caused by your finger pressing on the shutter by setting a two second timer, or better yet, using a remote (or your phone app) as a shutter release.

Thank you all for reading my post! I hope that this inspires you to get out and learn a new way to photograph waterscapes. Get some fresh air and be safe!


Thank you for reading our blog post ! If you are interested in seeing our new blog posts as we release them, don't forget to subscribe to our newsletter! This blog post is shareable on social media, so please do share if you found this useful. The Shutterbug is a Oregon Family Owned & Operated Camera Store, with four locations in Oregon. We have been in the industry of helping photographers like you since 1971.

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