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 thaLt 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!

Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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  1. Great stuff, Brendan. Good, practical information that a guy like myself with a very basic understanding of photography can return to. And, as always, Iceland looks awesome!

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  2. Great post! I love photography but have always been so lazy about carrying around too much gear. I FINALLY invested in a good tripod and am excited to start taking more photos like the above with the really slow shutter speeds 🙂

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    • Nice, Jessica. I think that the biggest obstacle to any great photograph is laziness. You really need to invest not only in the equipment, but also the time and energy it takes to pack it all around.
      Good luck with the shooting!!

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  3. Great informative post – thank you for writing this. Do you use a remote to control your DSLR?

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    • Sometimes, yes. I have a classic wireless remote for the Canon. But, I’ve been also using something called a triggertrap, which I’ll be reviewing at some point, which is an AWESOME remote.

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  4. For Canon if you go wider than 16mm, the lens has an outward protruding bulbous effect. How do you use neutral density filters in a situation where the filter can’t screw onto the lens?

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    • Those images shot “wider than 16mm” where on a crop sensor. So, the lens was a 10-22mm, which is the 16-35mm equivalent.
      That said, there are now a couple filter systems built for the wider full-frame canon lenses. Although, they are extremely expensive and bulky.

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  5. Very interesting article, and great video. I”m off to Iceland this upcoming week to rent a car for a week, camp, and basically do nothing but take photos. I have a question – considering I just bought a new camera system (moved from an old Nikon d300 to a Fuji x-t2), I’m a bit broke. I think I can only justify one nd filter – do you recommend (overall, given the conditions when you were there) a 3, 6, or 10 stop filter? I do like the silky effect from the longer exposures. I tend to bracket and stack photos for HDR if it’s bright light (when I can’t avoid shooting in bright light), but I’m primarily looking for something to play with water and clouds, etc.

    THanks for any input you have.

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