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A beginner's guide to photographing waterfalls

Waterfalls are a joy to photograph, and with a little knowledge, you can make the water silky smooth
Waterfalls are a joy to photograph, and with a little knowledge, you can make the water silky smooth
Photo by Gene Forrest




Do you enjoy waterfalls and wish you could get better pictures of them? Spring is a great time to photograph waterfalls as streams are full and a lot of water is pouring down. Anyone who lives around Knoxville is probably within an hour’s drive of a waterfall.  A quick Internet search found more than two dozen waterfalls within a three-hour drive.

In the picture on the left, notice how the water looks silky smooth like it is running together. This is the effect most photographers want in their shots. To get waterfall pictures like this is not that difficult if you have the right equipment and a little knowledge.

The Right Equipment

You will need a camera with adjustable shutter speeds, a sturdy tripod, and either a neutral density filter or a polarizing filter. Point-and-shoot cameras can do a lot of things well, but unfortunately, waterfall shots are not something they do well. They do not have adjustable shutter speeds, and they will not allow the use of filters. However, almost any single lens reflex camera has the versatility to shoot waterfalls. A knowledgeable co-worker or the local camera store can show you how to set the shutter speeds if you do not know how.

Inexpensive tripods tend to be flimsy. Even when they are used, they may not keep the camera still enough to prevent some degree of blur in the pictures. Sturdy tripods generally weigh more and cost more, but they are much better at keeping the camera immobile. Some people are reluctant to haul their tripod uphill, but it is essential for good waterfall shots.

A neutral density filter reduces the amount of light getting through the lens, which allows the use of longer shutter speeds. A polarizing filter also reduces the light, and additionally, it can reduce unwanted reflections. But you may want to keep the reflections in the water instead of getting rid of them. The inside of the lens cap will tell you what size filter the lens uses.

A Little Knowledge

The key to getting the water to look silky smooth is to use a fairly long shutter speed. Anywhere from 1/4 second to 2 seconds should give you a desirable look. You might try shooting at different shutter speeds to see which one works best. Use the lowest ISO setting the camera offers, and use the neutral density or polarizing filter to cut down on the light. If your camera’s light meter warns you that the picture will be overexposed, go to a higher shutter speed (like 1/8 second).

More advice on shooting waterfalls can be found at 7 Tips. A list of the waterfalls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park can be found here.


  • C.Hensley- Knoxville Day Trips Examiner 5 years ago

    Thanks for the tips Gene. I love waterfalls and have included my own pictures of them in a number of articles for examiner over the past year. We'll see what I can do when I apply the tips.

  • Valorie- Knoxville Pug Examiner 4 years ago

    Very cool tips. Great photo, too. Spring in the Smokies is such a fun time to find those shots--that pic alone makes you want to go hiking! Thank you for the information.