Waterfalls & Slow Shutter Magic

Categorized as Long exposure photography, Long Exposure Techniques
Ice beach waterfall

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. This waterfall is ocean on glacier ice with a slow shutter = 1/10 second @ f/18.

Tours Around Iceland

Shutter Speeds

Here are just a few sections 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.

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

Gullfoss Wedge

The above section of Gullfoss from the wedge shows a fast and medium shutter side by side. 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. The image on the left 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 square long exposure
Slow shutter – 2 sec @ f/14
Gullfoss square medium exposure
Medium shutter – 1/20 sec @ f/4
Static website package

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 Medium exposure
Medium exposure 1/5 sec @ f/8


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 fast shutter
Short exposure 1/40 @ f/5

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 which could have worked for a steady hand-held shot. The next 2 are long exposures with medium 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 medium shutter
Medium shutter 1/13 @ f/9
Faxi waterfall long exposure
Medium shutter 1/5 @ f/14

By Tony Prower

Tony Prower spent over 15 years photographing the landscapes of Iceland. Tony Prower is a pioneer of the Magic Cloth Technique and ran thousands of photo tours in Iceland over 10 years.