Take Beautiful Photos of Waterfalls and Waves

Here's how to set up your digital camera and take dramatic shots of waterfalls, rivers, and waves at the beach.

Easy Tricks for Great Water Photos

Water covers about three quarters of the Earth's surface, so you rarely have to travel far to find some. That's convenient, because water makes an awesome subject, especially when you capture it using easy photographic tricks, like using a slow shutter speed or introducing some artistic effects. Indeed, there are few subjects more likely to generate "oohs" and "ahhs" than waterfalls and beach scenes. Here are the tricks you need to know to get those "oohs" and "ahhs" for your own photos.

It's All About the Speed

The most important rule for shooting any sort of moving water: Use a slow shutter speed. How slow? That's what's so much fun about shooting scenes like waterfalls: You can shoot a huge range of shutter speeds, from as little as a half second to as much as 30 seconds, and you'll get very different results depending upon which setting you choose. Experiment. You can even use a very fast shutter speed, which will freeze the motion of the water, like this shot.

Go Slow for Dreamy, Misty Scenes

Of course, the longer the shutter stays open, the blurrier things get. Here's what you can expect with about a second. As you can see, the longer the exposure, the blurrier and more abstract your scene becomes.

Use a Tripod--Carefully

To take longer exposures, like this photo, you should have a camera that lets you dial in a long shutter speed, so a digital SLR or a point-and-shoot camera with a shutter priority or manual mode is ideal. You'll also want a steady support, since the camera will be exposing for several seconds. I use a tripod, but you can set the camera on a rock or some other rigid base instead. One word of warning, though: If you are using a tripod, make sure it isn't going to settle into the sand on the beach or slip on a riverbank. That means you should really dig in the legs so they doesn't shift during the exposure. I've made the mistake of setting my tripod in wet sand at the beach, and then watching it sink ever so slightly over time. The result? Blurry ghost images caused by the camera moving through the exposure.

Trigger the Shutter Remotely

Since the shutter will be open for a while, even slight vibrations can blur the overall photo. When I shoot waterfalls, I use a remote trigger for my camera. A remote trigger can come in the form of a wireless remote or a cable that plugs into your camera, so you might want to check your camera's user guide to see if such an option is compatible with your model. If you don't have a remote trigger, you can use the camera's self-timer instead--turn on the timer, press the shutter release, and then step back so you don't touch the camera until the shot is completed, about 10 seconds later--which is how I captured this photo.

Go Ahead and Shoot

Ready to go? You'll get your best results in the early morning or late afternoon, sometime in the vicinity of sunrise or sunset. The low light conditions will allow you to get a nice long exposure, and the warmer colors in the sky can make the photo look more romantic as well.

Put Someone in the Scene

All of your beach photos don't need to look like dreamscapes, either: With a shorter exposure, you can capture the motion of the waves while freezing other elements in a photo. I took this photo, for example, by asking my model to stay as still as possible and then setting the exposure for about 2 seconds.

Avoid Overexposure

Capturing those dreamy, blurry waterfalls, river rapids, and rolling waves is simple once you figure out the basics of using a tripod and setting a slow shutter speed. You might notice, though, that some parts of your photos turn out overexposed. The problem is that the total range of exposures, from the bright, reflective water to the darker foliage and rocks, is greater than your camera is capable of capturing in a single shot. One popular solution is to use a neutral density filter. A neutral density filter screws onto the front of your lens (if your lens has threads, as do most digital SLR lenses, and some point-and-shoot cameras) and reduces the amount of light reaching your camera's sensor. That will help reduce or eliminate the worst of the overexposures.

Fix the Exposure With HDR Software

Another option is to take a series of photos at different exposures and combine them afterwards using High Dynamic Range software, as I did with this photo. If your camera has a bracketing mode, it's easy to take a series of three or five photos at varying levels of under- and over-exposure. I explained how to create HDR photos in "Simple Ways to Create Photos With High Dynamic Range or Infinite Depth." This is a fun technique to experiment with, and--if you have access to HDR software like Photomatix Pro--you can get waterfalls with significantly more color and detail in the water than with an ordinary, single exposure at mid-day.

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