Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland
Waterfall photos by Brendan van Son

How to Take Silky Smooth Waterfall Photos in Iceland or Anywhere

If you’re fairly new to photography, you’re likely curious about how the pros do certain things; the “tricks” of the trade, if you will. When I started out, I was constantly looking at images and then asking the question “how did they do that?”. I’m sure that the first thing I searched when I first started was either “how to make smooth waterfall photos” or “how to create light trails”. Of course, the answer to both of those questions is a long exposure.

On our 1 week in Iceland, I had plenty of opportunities to take photos of waterfalls. It seemed like every 5 meters there was another one more spectacular than the last. Thus, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to walk you through the process of taking silky smooth waterfall photos. The video, which is filmed at the impressive Skogafoss in South Iceland, takes you through the process. If you prefer to read about how it’s done, there’s info below.

How to Make the Smooth Waterfalls

It’s actually much more simple than you might imagine. All you really need is to lengthen your shutter speed. In fact, you don’t even need a big pro camera to make smooth waterfall photos, you can do it on anything that allows you to open the shutter for a second or more. Of course, you can’t just set up your camera for 1 second and expect the proper results, you still need to create a properly exposed image. Smooth Waterfalls, Iceland

How do I Slow Down my Shutter Speed?

As you might know, there are three ways in which your camera gathers light. Aperture is the size of the “hole” in your lens that allows light to pass through to the camera’s sensor. ISO is the sensitivity in which the sensor is reading the light.

And then, shutter speed, of course, is the amount of time the shutter is open allowing light to hit the sensor. Thus, if you want the shutter to be open longer, you need to reduce the light received to the sensor via the other aspects. You can set your aperture to a higher number like f/11 or f/16 to reduce the amount of light hitting your sensor.

And, of course, you can drop you ISO to it’s lowest setting. But then, you might still find yourself with too bright an image. So then, you have two options. You can shooting when the sunlight is lower (around sunrise and sunset), which, to be honest, you should be doing anyways for the softer light and more colourful sky. Secondly, you can also add an Neutral Density filter which basically works dark sunglasses for your lens. You put one on, and it reduces the light that hits the sensor. You can get ND filters starting at 1 stop all the way to the extreme 10 and 16 stop filters.  For most of the images in this post, I used a 3-stop ND filter. Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland Waterfalls

Tips for Sharper Images

Of course, when you are taking longer exposure images, you really need to be careful about stabilizing the camera to get sharp images.  Of course, you’re going to need a good travel tripod, that much should be obvious.  Some other things you should be doing is shooting with a remote release or timer, and locking up your mirror.  You should also be zooming in on live view, if you have that feature, so that you can really nail down the sharpness. Skogafoss, Iceland, waterfall

Smoother isn’t Always Better

Remember, that creating a photograph is an art form. Thus, you have to decide what type of mood you’re hoping to exude with your photo. In some cases, a really quick shutter speed might give the water more power. In other cases, an extreme shutter speed of 30 seconds or so might give the feel you’re looking for. It’s really up to you and the art you’re hoping to create. So play around with it, and see if you can’t find a style that you really like. Silky Smooth Waterfall

Light Matters

I say this over and over again on this travel photography blog, light matters more than anything. And well it’s easy to go out and grab a 10-stop ND filter and make smooth waterfall photos in the middle of the day, you’ll find that the images don’t have that same power. Images shot in the middle of the day have all sorts of exposure problems created by the overhead sunshine. Moreover, the heavy light created by the sun can wash out a lot of the colour. Shoot the soft evening or morning light, it’ll make all the difference. Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland

More Examples from Iceland

Of course, I have loads of examples from Iceland. There’s a waterfall around every corner in the country. In fact, a couple times we turned into a waterfall thinking it was a major attraction but just turned out to be someone’s backyard. Anyways, not my style on these shots. I tend to like the medium exposures of about 1 second to 4 seconds. I think that gives the smooth look to the falls, while still not being too extreme. But, of course, every situation is different. The data for the images is included in the caption.

Silky Waterfall, Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland
10mm: f/16, 1/5seconds, ISO100
Silky Waterfall, Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland
10mm: f/22, 5 Seconds, ISO100
Dettifoss, Iceland
10mm: f/16, 1 seconds, ISO100
Random Waterfall, Iceland
18mm: f/22, 1/10 seconds, ISO100
Smooth waterfall fall photo Iceland
14mm: f/16, 4 seconds, ISO100
Skogafoss, Iceland
135mm: f/16, 1.3 seconds, ISO100
70mm: f/16, 0.8 seconds, ISO100
70mm: f/16, 0.8 seconds, ISO100
Skogafoss, Silky Waterfall
16mm: f/11, 1.3 seconds, IS100
Skogafoss long exposure photo
12mm: f/16, 30 seconds, ISO100
Seljalandsfoss, Iceland
10mm: f/9, 10 seconds, ISO100
Gulfoss, Iceland
10mm: f/16, 6 seconds, ISO100

What’s next on the Photography Blog?

I’ve got one more article from Iceland in which I’m going to take you through my favourite images from the trip. Then, I might even work in an article about my “B-Sides” images too. Following that, I’ve got a flurry of reviews coming. I’ll be doing a photography review of the Nokia Lumia 1520 smartphone, a super-powered hard drive for photo storage, a new backpack, and lots more. Of course, there will be some travel interspersed as well as I’m in Toronto first, then taking the train across Canada with Via Rail. Stay tuned!