For an entry photographer, taking a silky waterfall photo seems difficult. However, by following these four easy steps you can take these photos with confidence. Let’s start!

(Step 1) Set your camera to M-Mode (Manuel mode)

Setting your camera to M-Mode is essential in waterfall photography. Under this mode we can explicitly control the three important exposure parameters – aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Here are the steps you can follow to adjust your settings.

  1. Set the ISO to lowest possible value.
    For example ISO100. Probably you will use this ISO throughout the whole shooting.
  2. Set your aperture to f/11.
    Aperture should be small to lower the amount of light passing through in order to let you use a slower shutter speed. Let’s set the aperture to a rather small value like f/11 first.
  3. Set your shutter speed to a value which your internal exposure meter says it’s correct.
    That is 0.0 (zero) or within the middle of the -…..|…..+ bar.

The setting above is just for reference but it will work when we go through Step 3 below. So don’t worry for now.

(Step 2) Use a tripod, shutter release cable and ND Filter

As we need to use a rather slow shutter speed to smooth out the water, a steady tripod is essential. So remember to mount your camera on a tripod before taking photo. A shutter release cable can greatly improve camera stability by removing the shake caused by pressing button on the camera so it’s highly recommended as well.

For ND Filter, beginners may not know the use of this filter but in waterfall photography, it is one of the must-have gears in your backpack. Remember in Step 2 we set the aperture to f/11 and shutter speed to a value the camera exposure meter tells us? If the exposure meter shows that f/11 and, for example, 1 second shutter speed is overexposed (too bright), we can keep on increasing the f number from f/11 to f/16 or even f/32. However when the sky is clear and the sunshine is strong, even you set the aperture to the smallest possible value your shutter speed may still be required to be rather fast like 1/60s. With such a fast shutter speed the waterfall may not be as silky as we desire. So in this case we have to directly block sun lights entering the lens by putting a dark, neutral density filter (ND Filter) in front of the lens. So even we are using f/8 and 3 seconds shutter speed the photo is still correctly exposed.

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(Step 3) Check the photo for exposure adjustment

After setting an initial ISO, aperture and shutter speed suggested by camera, we can take a photo and check the result. There may be two possible outcomes and here is what we can do:

  1. The photo is over-exposed (too bright).
    If you find the photo is too bright, we should either increase the f value of the aperture, for example from f/8 to f/11, or use a darker ND Filter to block out more light. We should not decrease shutter speed as it may affect the smoothness of the water.
  2. The photo is under-exposed (too dark).
    On the other hand if the photo is too dark and under-exposed, we can increase the shutter speed, for example from 2 seconds to 4 seconds, or use a lighter ND Filter instead. We should not wide open the aperture to prevent Shallow Depth of Field.

After some adjustments on the aperture, shutter speed and ND Filter, we can take the photo again.

(Step 4) Use CPL to increase clarity

When you take waterfall photo, you may find a lot of reflection on the river or water surface, which will decrease the contrast and clarity. By using CPL filter you can remove these annoying reflections and significantly making your photo stand-out. Remember to turn your CPL and find the “sweet-spot” where all or most reflection are removed before shooting.


Waterfall photograph is an easy topic for beginners to learn how to use M-Mode. Although there are some techniques and gears needed to take a successful photo, the result is often rewarding.



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Author: Alex Tam