How to create silky waterfalls

1/60 second shutter speed @ f2.8 1 second shutter speed @ f22

You’ve seen them on calenders, posters, greeting cards and on and on. Those beautiful fall landscape photographs with cotton candy waterfalls. Maybe you’ve photographed some waterfalls, streams, or fountains on your own, but not quite gotten the results you wanted. Have you wondered how it’s done? Is it photoshop? Is it special filters? No to both. It’s easier than pie, and twice as fun!

I’m going to show you how to get the water in any shot to turn into pure silk. I’m also going to show you how to make sure there’s detail in the water, instead of blown out white patches.

There’s no special equipment needed, but some things do make the job easier. I’ll go into that in a minute. Meanwhile, any camera will do as long as you can set the shutter speed yourself, instead of using totally automatic. Any support will do as long as it holds your camera still for a second. Ready? Lets get to it.

First thing, find some moving water. The fall is a perfect time for landscape shots thanks to all the colors around. The prettier the better. It can be a waterfall, a rushing stream, or a fountain at the local bank. Any time of the day will do too, but direct sunlight on the water makes it a little harder to do. Shade, cloudy, or overcast is easier.
After you’ve found your water, put your camera on your tripod or whatever is going to hold it still. It needs to be completely still for the exposure. Now compose your picture, and we’re ready for the adjustments. First I’m going to tell you exactly how I do it, then I will tell you an alternative in case you don’t have the same tools I have. (There’s more than one way to skin a cat).
After setting my camera on my tripod and composing the photograph to my liking, I use an Eagle i, (a digital color tool) on my camera to set my white balance and exposure with. If you have an incident meter, use that. Either way, this ensures my water isn’t blown out, and that the colors are vivid and accurate. I set my shutter speed to 1 second, and dial my aperture,  till the meter in the camera shows correct. I remove the Eagle i and lock the camera mirror up, (to prevent extra vibration), and using a cable release, (again to avoid vibration), I make the exposure. That’s it!  Beautiful waterfall, beautiful colors, absolutely accurate straight out of the camera.

Now, if you don’t have a tool like the Eagle i or an incident meter to set your exposure with, here’s how to cheat it a little. Using your camera’s meter, set your shutter speed on 1 second, and fill the frame with the brightest parts of the water, or at least fill it as much as possible. You can also put your meter on the spot meter mode to do this. The main thing is that the water is filling the frame, or the spot the meter is reading. Just don’t fall in trying to get an exposure setting!  Now dial your aperture till your meter shows about 1 ½ to 2 stops over exposed. The reason for this is you want the water to be white and if you use the camera’s reflected light meter, it will make the water gray. That’s what an in camera meter does. Don’t believe me?  Put your camera on auto, with the flash off, and take a picture of a black card, then a picture of a white card. Make sure you completely fill the frame with both of them so all you see is the black and the white. You will get two pictures of a gray card. That’s the way camera meters work.  

After you’ve gotten your correct exposure setting, put your camera on your support and proceed as above. Make the exposure, and you’re done! Beautiful pictures that are suitable for art prints on your wall.

For more information on the Eagle i, visit

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by or any affiliated companies.


Total comments: 2
Emily G Photos
By Emily G Photos (Mar 31, 2012)

I did it! Thank you so much! I've tried to do that before and never got it right, I had always though it was a Photoshop trick...

Comment edited 32 seconds after posting
Ashley Pomeroy
By Ashley Pomeroy (Dec 14, 2011)

This is just an advert for your home-made white balance tool. It doesn't really explain how to get "silky waterfalls"; you mention setting a long shutter speed, but only in passing, and what if there's too much light?

I was expecting something about neutral density filters, using a low ISO, perhaps a polariser, but no. Just an advert for a shoddy-looking white balance tool of a kind you can get on eBay for about a fiver.

I mean, correct white balance is great, but it's not a fundamental component of waterfall photography. Why on earth didn't you just write an article about white balance? It would have been far more appropriate and you'd be able to include photographs of the product. Instead you've written something that doesn't work as an article on waterfalls, or as an advert, or anything.

1 upvote
Total comments: 2