Photography Tip - be careful using slow shutter for waterfalls in daylight

A waterfall in Japan I photographed a decade ago, long before my skills were competent....this was a 0.8 sec shutter speedA photography student recently asked me about photographing waterfalls and specifically about getting that soft cotton look to the water.  Well, to do that, it is rather easy, if you have the right gear and conditions, otherwise it is rather tricky.

The ideal gear to have would be:

  • tripod
  • neutral density filter
  • cable release

Obviously of course you need a DSLR too with an appropriate lens to frame the waterfall.  So if you can mount your camera on a tripod, attach a neutral density filter to the lens, then use the cable release to eliminate camera shake, all is good.  What if you do not have all of that?

The same waterfall with 0.6 sec shutter speedThese photographs were made when I did not really know what I was doing back in November of 2004.  I had a pretty good digital camera that had manual exposure abilities, but I did not understand aperture properly as these shots were all like at f/3.5!  Should have been f/11.  At least I had a tripod.  If you do not have a tripod, then there is no chance as no one can hold a camera for 0.6 seconds steady.  So you at least need a tripod.  If no cable release, then you can use the self-timer to have your hands off the camera as the shutter opens.  

The problem with shooting long exposures during the day is that it is very easy to overexpose the shot.  Very easy.  So the waterfall shots here do not look as good as they could because I could only get away with a 0.8 sec shutter speed.  Of course if I had used f/11, then I could have used a much slower shutter speed.  Either way, if I had a neutral density filter, essentially a very strong pair of sunglasses for your lens, then I could have left the shutter open for nearly as long as I wanted to get the ideal look to the waterfall without overexposing the rest of the shot at all.  So if you find that you like making these kinds of waterfall shots, and long exposures in general, do yourself a favor and get a good tripod, a cable release, and a good neutral density filter.  

Yours truly circa November 2004...whoops, missed the focus due to using too large of an aperture, something I would never do now.I took the time to even make a self-portrait.  I initially thought I back focused and because of using such a large aperture, I was out of focus, but I now realize it might have just been because I moved some during the 2 seconds the shutter was open!!  If you can believe it, I still wear that same hat everytime I go hiking and now trekking here in Florida.  I actually wore that shirt just last week too!  The photo was from November 2004 in a forested mountainside in Japan.