Ice beach waterfall

Waterfalls & Slow Shutter Magic

Long Exposure Photography

How to get Silky Water Effect on Waterfalls


Icelandic Waterfalls

Waterfalls are countless in Iceland. The multi-plateaued volcanic landscape with massive melting ice-caps create the perfect environment for a variety of waterfalls. Waterfalls can pop up where they are not supposed to like the cascade on glacier ice in the image above. In the photo above, the waterfall is created by an ocean wave on glacier ice with a slow shutter = 1/10 second @ f/18.

Shutter Speeds

I have include just a few studies of some of the larger waterfalls in Iceland. Really, I want to demonstrate pros and cons of long exposures on a few different types of waterfalls. The typical effect of a slow shutter on a waterfall is the popular Milky effect. Although this article gets a bit towards the Milky end of long exposures, special consideration is actually around the details that medium exposures allow.


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Gullfoss Wedge

The following nature photos of Gullfoss waterfall demonstrate a fast and medium shutter for comparison. The short exposure gives a woolly effect and the water looks harsh, but I think it works well because of the distance to the water (several feet). The detail in the water adds depth to the image and the details in the mist is good. The shutter is 1/160 sec and this could be a good hand-held shutter speed.

Gullfoss Waterfall fast shutter
Short exposure – 1/160 sec @ f/4
Gullfoss long exposure
Slow shutter – 1/20 sec @ f/7.1

The image above was taken with a 1/20 sec medium length exposure. This is not a hand-held shutter speed (although you might get a reasonable result) this is mono-pod or tripod territory. You can see blur, but the blur seems incomplete – like a star trail shot that was abandoned mid-shot.

Gullfoss Upper Level

Here you see the same 1/20 sec shot from the upper platform at Gullfoss. Again it is not quite completing and just renders as half traces. The 2 second exposure shows a more complete trace and a much nicer image. Although, there were good results at 1/5 sec. So, although the 2 second exposure created the desirable amount of movement, the 1/5 sec exposure created nearly enough trace for a pleasant long exposure photograph. Let me know which you prefer and why.

Gullfoss square medium exposure
Medium shutter – 1/20 sec @ f/4
Gullfoss Medium exposure
Medium exposure 1/5 sec @ f/8
Gullfoss square long exposure
Slow shutter – 2 sec @ f/14


The slow shutter can be used for artistic effect. The movement of the water falling over this rock at Dynjandi creates a pleasing pattern with a long exposure. This flower effect dominates the foreground in this strong vertical.

It takes an experienced eye to spot where these water flowers are. This shot required a good hour of searching around the base of Dynjandi before I found this great water flower.

Dynjandi waterfall

Faxi Waterfall

These shots were taken from the top of the salmon waterfall on the Golden Circle photo tour. Faxi is a beautiful waterfall for getting intimate with and filling the frame with layers upon layers of cascading water.

The first shot had a fairly fat shutter (1/40 sec) which could have worked for a steady hand-held shot with a wide angle lens. The next photo were taken with a long exposures with medium-slow shutter speeds requiring a tripod. Hopefully you will agree that the photos become more beautiful as the exposure lengthens, but it is important to retain some detail.

Faxi waterfall fast shutter
Short exposure 1/40 @ f/5
Faxi waterfall medium shutter
Medium shutter 1/13 @ f/9
Faxi waterfall long exposure
Slow shutter 1/5 @ f/14


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