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Tips for Shooting Waterfalls on Film by James Baturin

Tips for Shooting Waterfalls on Film by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film
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Written by James Baturin

I’ve found myself photographing a lot of waterfalls lately. Whether that’s due to the fact I live in a city dubbed the “Waterfall Capital of the World” (that’s Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, if you’re wondering) or to some deeper need for the reflection and reverie they inspire, I’m not sure. Either way, waterfalls are a beautiful subject for landscape photography, with long exposures adding a quality of magic I find captivating.

Tips for Shooting Waterfalls on Film by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film

8 second exposure on Ilford HP5 with the Hasselblad 500CM and 80mm lens

If you’ve never shot long exposures before, waterfalls are a great place to start. Since exposure times tend to be on the shorter side of the long exposure spectrum, calculating a proper exposure tends to be simpler. Also, the lighting in gorges and forests where waterfalls are often found tends to be dimmer, especially when shooting on cloudy days or when the sun is low. This often eliminates the need for extra equipment like ND filters, which are almost always needed for other daytime long exposures. As far as other equipment goes, the same applies as to all other long exposure photography, which I’ve written about here, so I won’t go into detail on that.

That being said, here are just a few things I’ve learned while shooting waterfalls on film!

And be sure to check out my other Shoot It With Film articles about shooting long exposures, like Long Exposure Film Photography Tutorial and Shooting Long Exposure Star Trail Photography with Film.

Tips for Shooting Waterfalls on Film by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film

1 minute exposure on Ilford HP5 with the Hasselblad 500CM and 80mm lens

Exposure Times

For shooting waterfall long exposures, the water is moving so fast you don’t need a very long exposure to get some pretty neat effects.

The question is, what is the effect are you looking for?

I personally love the silky, dream-like look you get with an 8-15 second exposure. Here the flowing water will appear as smooth ribbons, the absence of movement replaced with an other-worldly timelessness.

Tips for Shooting Waterfalls on Film by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film
8 second exposure on Fuji Acros 100 with the Hasselblad 500CM and 80mm lens

If, however, you’d like to keep the details in the water and convey a sense of movement, an exposure time as short as 1/15 or 1/2 of a second will work fine. Waterfalls provide a great opportunity to experiment with different exposure times of the same shot, so don’t be afraid to try two or even three different times to see which results you like best.

Tips for Shooting Waterfalls on Film by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film

1/2 second exposure on Ilford HP5 with the Hasselblad 500CM and 80mm lens
Tips for Shooting Waterfalls on Film by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film
Same image as above but with a 1 minute exposure.

No Wide Angle? No Problem!

The obvious lens choice for waterfall photography (and landscapes in general) is a wide lens. It enables you to get all the elements of the scene into your composition. Wide-angle lenses are great for drawing the viewer into your photo, leading them to the subject, and giving a sense of depth to the photo. But since I’ve only got an 80mm lens for my Hasselblad (that’s roughly a 50mm focal length on a 35mm SLR), I’ve been forced to look at the scenes differently and find creative shots that aren’t obvious at first.

For example, with a narrower frame I’m forced to look more at the details. The way the water further down the stream curls and bubbles around a boulder, a smaller cascade you might miss if you’re focusing only on the larger waterfall further up. There are endless interesting compositions to be found by narrowing your focus in this way (pun absolutely intended :D). A longer focal length can help you to be creative in the way you look at a waterfall scene.

Tips for Shooting Waterfalls on Film by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film

8 second exposure on Ilford Delta 400 with the Hasselblad 500CM and 80mm lens

Film Type

As with any style of photography, the choice surrounding which film to use largely comes down to personal preference and the look you are trying to achieve. In general, for waterfall photography, I prefer a low grain, slow speed film. I find that the details in the water and surrounding elements stand out more with film speeds of 100 or 125.

The slower film speed also allows for longer shutter times before needing to pull out the ND filters. I shoot mainly black and white films, and my film of choice for waterfalls, and long exposures in general, was (until recently discontinued) Fuji Acros 100 (find on Amazon). Lately, I have even had good results with 400 speed films like Ilford HP5 (find on Amazon) and Tri-X (find on Amazon). So while slower film speeds may be the ideal, don’t be afraid to experiment!

Tips for Shooting Waterfalls on Film by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film

12 second exposure with the Hasselblad 500CM and 80mm lens

Reciprocity Failure is Still a Thing

In brief, reciprocity failure means that after about 1 second of exposure, most films become less sensitive to light the longer they are exposed to light. This means that for waterfall long exposures, any exposure longer than 1 second, you need to add a little bit of time to account for it, otherwise your negative will be underexposed. You can find information on the reciprocity failure of most film types online (Ilford, for example), or, as I have done, by downloading a handy reciprocity failure APP on your smart phone!

Tips for Shooting Waterfalls on Film by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film

12 second exposure on Kodak Tri-X 400 with the Hasselblad 500CM and 80mm lens

Thank you so much, James! James is a regular contributor here at Shoot It With Film, and you can check out his other articles here, including articles on shooting star trails on film and using long exposures to capture iconic architecture. You can also check out James’s work on his website and Instagram.

Leave your questions about shooting waterfalls on film below in the comments!

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One thought on “Tips for Shooting Waterfalls on Film by James Baturin

  1. Wow these are excellent, and great info. I hadn’t considered shooting long exposures on black and white, and what a perfect setting for it. Thanks!

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