How to Photograph Waterfalls, Rivers, and Streams

In this complete guide, I share camera settings, recommended gear, and other important tips for creating beautiful images of moving water.

Photographing waterfalls, rivers, and streams is hands down one of my favorite outdoor photography pastimes.  They provide numerous compositional opportunities, make great subjects for practicing exposure techniques, and it’s soothing to listen to the flow of the water while creating images. 

What’s not to love?

Here are my best tips for photographing waterfalls, rivers, and streams.

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Best Camera Settings for Waterfalls, Rivers, and Streams

Shutter Speed

Unlike most subjects in landscape photography, waterfalls, rivers, and streams are moving subjects.  As such, the first exposure setting you should consider is shutter speed.  

Manipulating the shutter speed allows you to capture a sense of motion by either freezing the movement with a fast shutter speed, or by creating a smooth, silky appearance of the water with a slow shutter speed.

Whether you use a fast or slow shutter speed is really up to your liking and what sort of mood you want to portray in the image.  

For example, shorter shutter speeds that freeze the motion of the water can convey a sense of energy or power of the water, whereas longer shutter speeds that make the water appear silky give a sense of flow or peacefulness.  

Using fast shutter speed to freeze motion of water
Freezing motion: 380mm, f/10, 1/320 second, ISO 160

To create that silky, smooth waterfall look, I recommend starting with shutter speeds around 1/6 of a second to 2 seconds.  

Of course, the “best” shutter speed for waterfalls and streams will depend on your other exposure settings (described in more detail below) and the character of the water you hope to capture in the composition.  

The volume and speed at which the water is moving will also determine the shutter speed you should use.  

For example, the shutter speed for photographing a huge waterfall in Iceland will likely be a lot faster than the shutter speed you would use for a babbling stream in Vermont, even if you aim to capture a creamy look to the water in both situations.

Comparing an Iceland waterfall to a Vermont stream waterfall
The volume and speed of the water will dictate the shutter speed in addition to the look you hope to achieve.

To freeze motion of the water, I recommend starting with shutter speeds of around 1/25 second and incrementally increase it to faster shutter speeds if that is not sufficient.  

If the water is really raging, then shutter speeds around 1/1000th might be necessary to really capture the detail of the rushing water.  

Additionally, you can combine a short exposure with a long exposure and capture the best of both worlds – the creamy look with some added texture in the water.  

I show you how to do this using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop in this video:

Aperture

The aperture or f-stop of the lens is one of the main factors that determines the depth of field (DOF) of an image.  

Depth of field is the area between two points that are at two different distances from the camera where all objects between those points are considered acceptably sharp. 

Wide apertures (lower f-stop numbers) result in shallow depths of field, which is useful if you want to isolate the subject from the background.  Wide apertures also let more light into the lens, allowing you to use faster shutter speeds if you desire.

Narrow apertures (higher f-stop numbers) result in deeper depths of field, which is used to try to get as much sharpness as possible from the nearest to farthest points in a scene.  Less light is let into the lens with narrow apertures.  

In addition to increasing the DOF, narrow apertures also allow you to use longer shutter speeds since smaller apertures let less light into the lens.

To choose the best aperture for waterfall photography, you need to consider two things: 

1) What sort of depth of field do you want for your composition, and 

2) Based on your shutter speed, what aperture would give you the correct exposure?

For waterfall or stream compositions where you want to capture a deep depth of field, then using apertures around f/11-f/16 is best.  

For compositions where you want a shallow depth of field, then wider apertures (f/2.8-f/8) are a good starting place.

Image of cascading waterfalls in river
© Brenda Petrella Photography

ISO

Many photographers think that ISO controls the sensitivity of the digital sensor, but this is actually not accurate.  The sensitivity of the digital sensor does not change by raising the ISO over the base ISO of the camera.  

Rather, the ISO amplifies the signal from the sensor and makes the resulting image appear brighter.  Everything the camera sensor detects is amplified by ISO, even the noise, so that is why we often see more noise with increased ISO.

As such, it is best to only increase the ISO above your camera’s base ISO if you need to to properly balance the exposure based on the shutter speed and aperture settings you chose for your waterfall or river composition.  

So, go with the lowest ISO you can to achieve a good exposure.

Sometimes, when you have plenty of light to work with, it’s favorable to go below your camera’s base ISO (if your camera has that capability) to be able to further slow down the shutter speed to get an even silkier look to the moving water.

Alternatively, you could use a neutral density (ND) filter to block light from hitting the sensor, allowing you to use longer shutter speeds.  More on how to use filters for waterfall photography in the camera gear section below.

Other Exposure Considerations

Shoot in Manual Mode or Shutter Priority Mode

I recommend shooting in manual (M) mode to have full control over your exposure settings.  

If you aren’t yet comfortable with manual mode, then waterfalls and streams make terrific subjects on which to hone your skills!  Waterfalls, rivers, and streams are at once a moving subject and a stationary one, which is handy when you are learning to control different aspects of exposure and composition.

Camera dial set to manual mode
Use manual mode for optimal exposure control.

You can play around with your settings until you get comfortable with how shutter speed and aperture work to control motion and depth of field, respectively, and how ISO can be used to make the final tweaks to balance out the exposure.

That said, another option is to shoot in shutter priority (S, Tv) mode since capturing motion is the key to photographing waterfalls and streams. 

When you use shutter priority mode, you set the shutter speed and ISO (unless you use auto-ISO), and the camera chooses the aperture.

Camer dial set to shutter priority mode
In shutter priority mode, you control the shutter speed, and the camera controls aperture and ISO.

The drawback of using shutter priority mode is that if you are in a low light situation, the camera will open the aperture up to let in more light, and that will reduce your depth of field.  

This could result in areas of your scene being out of focus, so you just have to be mindful of where you are putting your focus point.

Check the Histogram for Best Exposure Settings

Lastly, depending on the quality of the available light, it can be easy to blow out the highlights on the water.  If the highlights are overexposed to the point of clipping, the details in the water will be lost and unrecoverable in post-processing.  

To avoid this, it is a good idea to check your histogram to watch out for any clipping of the highlights.  

example histogram of clipped highlights

For optimal exposure, the histogram should not touch either the left (darks) or right (highlights) side of the graph.  The camera’s internal meter may be fooled by the brightness of the water, and so it may indicate that you are underexposing the image slightly.  

However, this may be necessary to get the highlights properly exposed, and the histogram is a more reliable measure of the exposure than the camera’s meter in this case.

Which Metering Mode to Use

If you’re photographing a waterfall or stream that has relatively flat or even light, then using matrix or evaluative metering should work well for finding a balanced exposure based on the histogram.  

However, if you have a scene with a lot of dynamic range, then consider using spot or partial metering.  Take multiple exposures (bracketing) to expose for the water and for the shadow areas, and then blend the images in post-processing.  

Recommended Camera Equipment and Accessories

The core camera gear that I recommend for photographing waterfalls, rivers, streams, or any moving water body for that matter is the same equipment that I use for most of my landscape and nature photography.  

The essential camera gear list includes:

  1. DSLR or mirrorless camera
  2. Wide and/or telephoto lenses
  3. Sturdy tripod and ballhead
  4. L-bracket
  5. Shutter release cable (optional)
  6. Filters

I provide much more information about these and other equipment in the article, Gear You Need For Outdoor Photography, so be sure to check it out if you are considering what sort of camera gear to purchase.   

Here’s a quick summary for shooting waterfalls, rivers, and streams:

Camera Body

Since waterfalls, rivers, and streams are moving subjects, using a camera body that allows you to control the shutter speed in manual or shutter priority mode is best, such as DSLR, mirrorless, or film SLR cameras.  

Lenses

Any focal length lens can be used to create beautiful compositions of waterfalls and streams.  Wide angle (16-35mm) lenses are great for placing the waterfall in the context of a larger scene and for including interesting foreground elements.   

Mid-telephoto (24-70mm) lenses are great for photographing smaller waterfalls and streams, for excluding the sky, or for creating a more intimate portrait of the water.

Telephoto (70-200mm or above) lenses are used to isolate features of the water from the rest of the scene and bring more attention to the nature of the water.

waterfall image
© Brenda Petrella Photography

Tripod

Since photographing waterfalls and streams often requires using long shutter speeds, hand-holding a shot is almost impossible.  Despite the advances in technology designed to reduce vibration or add image stabilization, a sturdy tripod is a must for doing long exposures.  

A quick side note – when you use a tripod, turn off image stabilization (or vibration reduction) on your lens because it will try to correct for camera shake that is not present, and this will make the images appear less sharp.

L-Bracket

Most tripod ballheads come with the ability to put your camera at a 90 degree angle, enabling you to change your composition from portrait to landscape orientations.  That’s handy, for sure, but what’s even better is to use an L-bracket.  

An L-bracket mounts to your camera just like a tripod base plate, but it is shaped like an “L” so that the camera can attach to the head of the tripod via the bottom or the side of the camera.

The advantage is that you can set up your tripod in a safe location, and then easily change the orientation of your camera from portrait to landscape mode without needing to rebalance your tripod legs.

L-bracket on camera in two orientations
Easily switch between landscape and portrait modes using an L-bracket.

Shutter Release Cable

Depressing the shutter button inevitably introduces a tiny bit of camera shake, and so to avoid that, it’s best to use a shutter release cable so that you can remotely activate the shutter.  

That said, you can also just use the internal timer in the camera and set it to delay the shutter by 4 seconds or so.  The timer is just as effective at preventing camera shake, but it takes more time.

Because the way water flows is constantly changing, the resulting pattern of the water will be slightly different between images.  As such, I recommend taking several images in succession to try to capture as many variations in the water flow as you can so that you can choose the best one later.  

Setting your camera to shoot in continuous mode and using a shutter release cable makes this very easy to do.

Photography Filters

The camera accessory that I use the most when photographing waterfalls (rivers and streams) is a set of photography filters that includes a circular polarizer, three neutral density filters, and a graduated neutral density filter.  

If I had to choose only one filter for my outdoor photography, it would be the circular polarizer.  

A circular polarizer filter is basically two pieces of glass that rotate around one another.  When the two pieces of glass are aligned a certain way and pointed at 90 degrees away from the sun, the light on your subject becomes polarized.  

The effect of polarization is that it cuts down on the glare on the water so that you can “see” into the water better.

two images with and without a circular polarizer
A circular polarizer reduces glare on the surface of the water and slightly enhances colors.

Other advantages of using a circular polarizer filter include:

  1. Polarization is an effect that can’t be replicated in post-processing
  2. Circular polarizers typically reduce exposure by about 1 stop, allowing you to use longer shutter speeds
  3. Color enhancement – colors tend to be a little more vibrant when the light is polarized

The other filters that I typically use for photographing moving water are neutral density (ND) filters.  They are called “neutral” because (ideally) the glass does not affect the colors in the scene at all. 

The idea behind using ND filters is to block a certain amount of light from hitting the camera’s sensor.  This way, you can use longer shutter speeds than would otherwise be possible given the light conditions you have.  

ND filters are classified according to how much light they block as measured in stops of light.  The ND filter that I use the most often in my water photography is a 3-stop ND filter, but I also keep a 6-stop and 10-stop filter in my kit just in case I want to extend my shutter speed to even longer exposures.

examples of neutral density filters

Another kind of filter I use often in waterfall photography is a graduated neutral density filter.  It’s sometimes called a grad ND or soft ND filter.

This is a larger, rectangular piece of glass that is basically a 3-stop ND filter on one end and just glass on the other.  The transition between the two zones is gradual, which is how it is different from a “hard” ND filter where the line between the shaded and non-shaded areas is distinct.

If I’m including the sky or any brighter areas of a scene than my main subject, then I will often use the graduated ND to help even out the exposure. 

Unlike a circular polarizer, the effects of a graduated ND filter can be well replicated in post-processing, so some photographers have stopped using them altogether. 

There are many brands of high quality photography filters out there, and the ones that I currently use and recommend are from Breakthrough Photography.  They are durable, lightweight, and are made of high-quality glass that does not adversely affect color nor create aberrations of any kind.  Their excellent customer service and 25-year guarantee are also very appealing.

When you use filters, you are essentially adding another piece of glass to your lens.  Depending on the quality of the lens glass, it could create artifacts or other unwanted effects.  That is why it is a good idea to invest in high quality glass if you can.

Pro Tip:  You can save some money by buying one set of filters that match the thread size of your largest or most commonly used lens, and then use step-up or step-down rings to adapt the filters to your other lenses with different thread sizes.  

step-up or step-down filter rings
Step-up and step-down filter rings are an economical way to adapt your screw-on filters to lenses with different thread sizes.

How to Protect Your Camera Gear From Spraying Water

Many DSLR and mirrorless cameras are weather-sealed, meaning they have some internal protection from water.  But, not all camera bodies are protected in this way, and personally, I think it is a best practice to prevent water on your camera and lens even if the system is weather sealed.

Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to protect your camera and lens from spraying water droplets that may be coming off a nearby waterfall.  You just need to cover it in some way.  

My favorite, simple method is to just drape a lint-free microfiber cloth over my camera and lens while I’m shooting. 

The microfiber material seems to almost repel water more than absorb it.  The cloths are also very handy for wiping down wet equipment, including a tripod. 

Camera covered with microfiber cloth
Protecting your camera from water droplets can be as simple as covering it with a microfiber cloth.

I’ll also keep a lens cloth in a pocket so that I can wipe the glass on my lens frequently.  Ideally, you want to be able to remove the droplets without leaving a smear.  Sometimes, you will need to wipe the lens several times, so using a soft lens cloth is a good idea to prevent scratching.

I also use my lens hood as a way to shade the water spray from hitting the lens. 

Another approach is to cover your camera and lens with a rain jacket of sorts that can cinch around the end of the lens.  

Rain cover to protect camera
Affordable rain covers are also an option for added protection.

If the composition I am creating calls for me to get near the edge of the water, or even into the water, then I typically leave my camera strap on my camera even when using a tripod. 

I feel better about having it wrapped around my wrist so that if the tripod should tip due to the water current or slippery rocks, I have the ability to catch the falling camera more quickly.

The camera strap I use is the Peak Design Camera Leash since it is very low profile, lightweight, and attaches/detaches in a split second with the Peak Design Anchor Links.  Very versatile.  I’m a big fan.

Lastly, to protect your tripod while doing waterfall or stream photography, it is a good idea to keep the tripod legs extended after you’ve had the tripod in the water.  Ideally, you don’t want to close up the tripod and push more water into the legs.  Keep it extended until it’s fully dried out.

This isn’t always possible if you are hiking.  If that’s the case, then use the microfiber cloth to wipe the legs down before moving on from your shooting location, and then be sure to extend the legs when you return home so they can dry out. 

Every so often, disassemble the legs to give your tripod a thorough cleaning.  This kind of maintenance will help extend the life of your tripod.

winter scene of river
© Brenda Petrella Photography

Recommended Outdoor Gear for You

Chances are, if you are doing waterfall photography or photographing rivers or streams, you are going to get a little wet, too

In fact, sometimes the best composition requires you to wade into the water, and the proper gear can help you do that safely and comfortably.

Here is what I pack or wear when doing water photography and why:

  1. Waterproof jacket and pants – keep your clothes dry
  2. NRS Neoprene socks – help keep your feet warm while wet
  3. River sandals – easy for walking in shallow water in the warmer seasons
  4. Hiking poles – helpful for balance, especially on slippery rocks or in a water current
  5. Microspikes and/or crampons – essential for trekking on ice, especially wet ice often found near moving water
  6. Waders – essential for wading into deeper (and colder) water
Gear for waterfall photography
Recommended gear for waterfall and stream photography.

5 More Tips for Photographing Waterfalls, Rivers, and Streams

1. Where to Focus

Where you set your focus point in any image will determine, along with aperture and focal length, what parts of the image are in focus.  

How you choose where that focus point, or set of points, should be depends on the type of composition you hope to create.  

Therefore, it is important to first decide what your subject is. 

An obvious subject could be the waterfall, but what else could the image be about? 

As you consider this, different compositions become possible, and that may change where you decide to put your focus point and what you include or exclude from the image.

That said, generally speaking, many landscape images use a deep depth of field where everything from the foreground to the background is acceptably sharp.  

There are various methods for achieving maximal depth of field.  

One approach is to use the hyperfocal distance.  If you don’t know what the hyperfocal distance is, then I encourage you to check out the Free Hyperfocal Distance Made Easy Ebook I created on the topic and check out the tutorial below.  

Once you understand how to find and use the hyperfocal distance, you may wonder how to measure it in the field.  I explain various approaches to measuring the hyperfocal distance in this article on Outdoor Photography School: How to Measure the Hyperfocal Distance.

Another method for achieving a deep depth of field is to take a series of images with different focal points and blend the sharpest areas of the images in post-processing. 

This method is called focus stacking, and although it requires a little more time, you can get a deeper depth of field than you can with the hyperfocal distance method. I show you how to do this in the field and in post-processing in the tutorial below.

2. Best Light

The best time to photograph water, in my opinion, is on a cloudy day or just after a rain.  The clouds act like a softbox and even out the highlight and shadow areas of any landscape scene.  This is especially helpful for photographing moving water where the highlights are already very easy to blow out.  

If you happen to be out shooting on a sunny day, then try to find waterfalls or streams where the sunlight is not directly hitting the water.  The light will end up appearing patchy otherwise, like in the image below.

Harsh highlights on flowing river
Direct light may result in a patchy look to the image, which may result in areas being overexposed.

Alternatively, take advantage of the direct light and use a fast shutter speed to freeze the movement of the water.  It can be a great way to capture more detail and evoke a feeling of power and energy rather than calmness and flow.

3. Consider Excluding the Sky

Along similar lines, it’s often more appealing (subjectively speaking, of course) to exclude the sky from water images if possible.  Sometimes the sky can be too bright, even if properly exposed, and it can be a distraction from the main subject.  

If the sky contributes something meaningful to the composition, then by all means include it.  Using a graduated neutral density filter (described above) can help underexpose the sky a bit to even out the exposure of the overall image.

4. Trek Out in Winter

One of my favorite ways to add interest to my waterfall compositions is to trek out in the winter with my telephoto lens. 

Depending on the climate of your photo location and how fast the water is flowing, parts of the water may be still flowing at freezing temperatures and surrounded by ice and snow.  

Oftentimes, intricate icicles are formed at the boundary between the flowing water and the edge ice.  You can create a composition of thematic contrast by using a slow shutter speed to achieve the silky look of the water contrasted against the rigid forms of the icicles.

Icy waterfall image
© Brenda Petrella Photography

When you photograph in the snow, it is easy to confuse your camera’s metering system and underexpose your image.  If you’ve ever taken winter scenes and came home to discover the snow looked grey rather than white, then you know what I’m talking about.  

The best way around this is to rely on your histogram for proper exposure and/or use exposure compensation to bring up the exposure a bit.

5. Watch Out For Windy Conditions

If you’re using long shutter speeds to smooth out the movement of the water, keep in mind that anything else in the scene that is moving will be blurry in the image as well.  

Oftentimes, this is due to the wind blowing tree branches, but even almost imperceptible breezes can have an impact on small vegetation, such as ferns.  It can be difficult to see these minor, blurred motion of plants on the back of your camera’s LCD screen while in the field.

Example of wind blurring ferns in foreground
A slight breeze was enough to blur the ends of the ferns in the foreground, which was difficult to see on the camera’s LCD while in the field.

Also, the sheer force of the moving water of larger waterfalls can cause minor air currents, and so even if it’s not a windy day, the vegetation near the waterfall may move a bit.

As a best practice, take a shot or two of the same composition but use a much faster shutter speed to freeze the motion of anything else moving in the scene.  

To accommodate for the change in exposure settings, you’ll have to boost your ISO quite a bit, so watch your histogram and adjust your settings to achieve a similar exposure as your longer exposure shots.  

Since you’re not going to use this image file for the water, consider removing the circular polarizer for this shot to gain an extra stop of light.  

Then, using layer masks in post-processing, you can blend the areas of the image where the vegetation moved with the longer exposure shot of the water.

Conclusion

Waterfalls, rivers, and streams provide endless photographic opportunities and chances to practice your skills as an outdoor photographer.  While they make great subjects to practice exposure settings and compositions, remember to slow down, enjoy the sound of the water, and appreciate being out in nature.  It’s not always about getting the best shot.  🙂

What is your favorite tip or technique that you use to photograph waterfalls, rivers, and streams?

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Ed Lajoie

    Hi, Brenda,

    I really enjoy your tutorials. I also share your love of Breakthrough Photography filters and Peak straps. The next time I buy from them, I’ll try to use your links. The pandemic has obviously impacted Breakthrough. I ordered a 3 stop filter at the beginning of the summer, and I’m still waiting.

    What’s the best way of determining my camera’s “base” ISO? I shoot a Sony a7rii mirrorless. Thanks, and please keep up the good work. Ed

    1. Brenda Petrella

      Hi Ed – I’m glad to hear the tutorials are helping you out! Thank you for using my links if you think of it – definitely helps me keep the website going. The base ISO of the Sony A7Rii is ISO 100. You may be able to go below that, however. Some cameras allow you to go 0.3-1 exposure values below the base ISO. I’d check the manual to see if the A7Rii has that capability.

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