Still Water and Waterfall Photography Tips

Water in many ways is the essence of life; in photography we can interpret water in many ways. Whether it is captured moving through a stream, static as a calm pond, or carrying a surfer to the shore, water is an interesting medium to photograph. There are some techniques that will take you far if this is your area of interest.


Waterfalls & Fluid Streams

Blue waterfalls on a small lake

Waterfalls are often photographed landmarks. One of the most stunning ways to capture a waterfall or a flowing stream is to show movement. This is possible if we use a slow shutter speed – you need to experiment to find the perfect timing but starting with 2 seconds is a good point. You must place your camera on a tripod – hand holding it will never do – and try not using a flash. You can also choose a small DOF (depth of field) of f/16 so that the image looks sharp. Use your camera’s self-timer or a cable release to take the photo with absolutely no blurring.


Use Slow Shutter Speeds

Gorgeous Multnomah Waterfalls in Oregon state of America

During the day it isn’t always possible to have a shutter speed seconds long because there is just too much light reaching the camera. However, there are certain things you can do; for example choosing a low ISO of 100, 50 or 25 if you have this on your camera. Use a neutral density filter and a polarizing filter to reduce the amount of light hitting your camera. This will give you a fairly slow shutter speed, so use a tripod or a stable surface to rest on. If you don’t have a tripod then you may have to fire the flash, so that the background is still sharp but the water has a whitish blurred effect.


Freeze the Motion

A cute boy taking a bath in a tub of water in summer day - outdoor

Freezing the movement of water gives a dramatic effect since water moves fluidly. You need to use a fairly fast shutter speed to freeze the action. You can also try other techniques, such as using flash, or opening the aperture wide open to let in more light. Using a tripod and multi or continuous shooting mode is advised as you will want to capture a series of shots of the water moving before selecting the best one.


Use Water as a Mirror

Detail of the autumn leaf on surface water

Water can be used as a mirror if it is a calm day. Choose scene with interesting details; it can be a passing animal, or it can be branches of a tree. Photograph the water only to get the reflection of the subject. Try not to use the flash as it can leave a ‘hot spot’ in the water, and make sure to attach a polarizing filter which will reduce glare from the sun that may reflect off the water. Choose a reasonable shutter speed so there is no blurring.


Still Water Runs Deep

Still water at dusk

What if there is no movement at all with the water? Still water provides a beautiful effect; reflections. The best time is when there is a dramatic sky, sunset or sunrise over a lake. Choose a location with a tree, rock or boat as a focal point; without one the image will be bland. Use a tripod and turn the flash off as this would spoil the effect. Turn the mode dial to AV (aperture priority) mode; we want f/8 and upwards for a greater depth of field and let the camera choose the correct shutter speed based on the amount of light available.


Capture Water Drops

Cold water drop in dark

Photographing water drops is a difficult art to master – the timing must be perfect. You will have to try this many times before it’s quite right. Set your camera up on a tripod and attach a shutter release cable or remote control. Select continuous or multi-shot mode. Use a macro lens and have a light source from above the water. Fill a tub with water then let a droplet fall into the water. At the same time, let the shutter start so it takes a series of images. One of these should capture the moment the droplet hits the surface.


Recommended Settings

If you are trying to capture movement, take your photographs based on the shutter speed – you’ll want at least 2 seconds to begin with. In darker conditions this can be much longer, even up to 20 seconds. If you want to freeze moving water, then you can use flash or a fast shutter speed. Use multi-shot mode to make sure you have lots of photographs to choose from.


Recommended Equipment

A tripod is absolutely necessary if you want to photograph moving water; nothing else will give your camera a completely sturdy base. Polarizing and neutral density filters are an absolute must if you want to photograph water during the day. A powerful auxiliary flash is useful if you want to freeze moving water in a studio environment as this will reduce all signs of blurring.



Water is a versatile photography subject so that need not limit you to only photographing water in lakes, streams and rivers. Remember we have water in our own home and with some creativity you can take interesting shots. You can even shoot the same scene but one with a slow shutter speed and one with fast to contrast the differences between the two. Experimenting is the best way to find the effect you are looking for.

Attila Kun

Attila is the founder and editor-in-chief of Exposure Guide. He is an avid photographer, graphic designer, bedroom DJ and devoted Mac addict. Attila got his first DSLR camera, a Canon 10D, back in 2003 and he has been hooked on photography ever since.