Whenever we want to capture a moving subject in the landscape, such as a river or waterfall, we need to make a choice about the shutter speed to use to record that movement to best effect. One of the questions we get asked most often on our workshops, particularly when photographing one of the many wonderful Yorkshire Dales waterfalls is ‘what shutter speed should I use?’ The short answer is: it depends! One of the factors it depends on is, of course, how fast the thing you’re photographing is moving – a raging torrent of a waterfall will offer much more blur than a slow flowing river. But the main thing to consider is what sort of effect you want to produce – do you want to freeze the action with a very fast shutter speed, show some blur to convey movement whilst preserving detail or smooth out all the detail with a very long shutter speed. All approaches have their uses.
Here’s a sequence of shots of water splashing over a rock at Upper Aysgarth Falls, starting with an extremely quick shutter speed:
The very fast 1/5000s shutter manages to freeze individual droplets of water, despite the fast-flowing river. Unfortunately, if you’ve got nice diffused light (the best for waterfall photography) you’ll probably find it difficult to get a shutter speed this quick without increasing the ISO speed significantly. This one was taken on ISO 1600, which can give reasonable quality depending the digital sensor you’re using but won’t give the best quality that a lower ISO will bring.
At a higher quality ISO 200 a 1/640s shutter speed was possible on this shoot, which still delivers a fairly crisp result, but perhaps not with every droplet visible as with the very fast speed.
As we slow the shutter speed down to 1/100s some motion blur starts to become more apparent but the splashes of water rising from the white water are still discernible.
At 1/10s motion blur becomes very obvious but there’s still quite a lot of detail in the waterfall and a certain amount of “jaggedness” to the patterns in the water.
Slowing right down to 0.3s removes all of the jaggedness producing a nice smooth effect but without losing detail altogether in the white water. This last image in the sequence was shot with the lens stopped right down to f/32 and with the ISO set to the low setting (50) which is available on some cameras. So, this was the longest shutter speed available in the lighting conditions without resorting to using a neutral density filter (available with various factors up to ten stops so can be used to increase shutter speeds even further). This wasn’t really necessary in that case, as a multi-second exposure would probably have removed too much of the detail in the waterfall.
That’s not to say that much longer exposures aren’t useful, as these two images of autumn reflections in the River Wharfe near Bolton Abbey illustrate. The fast shutter speed above freezes the ripples and gives an almost oily looking effect. By contrast, the full second exposure of exactly the same subject below smooths out the ripples completely and really accentuates the reflections of tree trunks in the water. Both results are quite abstract in their own way.
Even longer exposures can be used to flatten out movement in the surface of the water altogether. This can be particularly effective with seascapes.
This shot of Saltburn Pier was taken in twilight quite a few minutes after the sun had set, the low light extending the shutter speed to thirty seconds. This removes the waves in the sea altogether producing a very flat glass-like effect which works very well against the solid structure of the pier and again helps to pick out the reflections of the pier in the water.
Whichever shutter speed you opt for, it’s always worth bracketing a bit and shooting a few frames with faster and slower speeds too, as it’s much easier to pick the frame with the best effect later on the computer screen than it is to try to judge it on the back of the camera. Also bear in mind that if you shoot in shutter priority mode (S or Tv) most cameras will just issue a warning if the shutter setting you pick would result in an aperture that is outside the range of the lens you have fitted, usually in the form of a flashing exposure readout in the viewfinder. Watch out for this, as it’s easy to shoot images that are massively over or under exposed!
We have plenty of opportunities to discuss and shoot using these techniques on our workshops – at Upper and Lower Aysgarth Falls and West Burton Falls on the Aysgarth Workshop, along the River Wharfe and at The Strid on the Bolton Abbey Workshop and at Janet’s Foss and Gordale Scar on the Malham Workshop.