David Papp Blog

How To Photograph Milky Looking Waterfalls and Rivers


Many people like to see the milky look of flowing water. It helps represent motion. In order to capture the motion of water, you need to play with your shutter speed. Specifically you need to slow it down, usually in the range of 1 to 2 seconds.

Camera shake becomes very important to avoid when dealing with slow shutter speeds therefore you should use a tripod.

I would recommend beginners use the Tv mode on your DSLR camera (Time Value). Some cameras use an “S” instead of “Tv” for Shutter Priority. This will help ensure your photos are not overexposed by letting the camera automatically balance the other portions of the magic triangle (see my post on photographing the moon).

When adjusting the values in Tv mode, you will see values such as 1/60, 1/200, 1/1000, 1″ or 2″. The double quotes represents seconds. When trying to create the impression of motion with water, you may end up in the 1 to 2 second range (1″ – 2″).

Here is a quick sample photo I took. You can see there was a breeze that day. As I had the shutter open long, it captured movement on the leaves which makes them appear blurry. This was a glacial fed creek with heavy water flow. I ended up capturing this at only a quarter second (1/4) otherwise it was too white and blurry. You can avoid having it too over exposed (bright) by using an ND filter which allows you to use slower shutter speeds.

I recommend taking many photos when you have setup your camera on your tripod and experiment with adjusting different shutter speeds. When you review your photos later, one of them will stand out as your favorite. DSLR is great as you never have to worry about wasting film.




37 thoughts on “How To Photograph Milky Looking Waterfalls and Rivers”

  1. I own a Nikon D7100 and when we went for a vacation last year it was impossible to actually get a decent photo of waterfalls. None of us are professional photographers hence neither knew what was the correct way to do it.

    Thanks for this article I’ll keep it in mind next time when we need to take a click of a waterfall or anything in quick motion for that matter.

  2. If it wasn’t for the blurred leaves this would be a wonderful picture. The water looks beautiful. You are very knowledgeable about cameras, I will have to try this someday soon.

    • I think the photo is pretty good because I honestly get the feeling of flowing water when I look at it. Some similar pictures that I’ve looked at in the past don’t give me this impression, so I consider this to be a good picture.

      David, I’m curious from how many pictures did you have to choose this one from (how many did you take)? I’m betting it was more than 25. Am I close?

      • On this particular shot it was about 6. I knew what I wanted and didn’t have much time as it was part of a hike with a destination in mind.

  3. Long exposure photography rocks. You might have to fiddle with the settings more, but you can get great nighttime photos using this technique if you go out and photograph the highways. You can see examples of this if you look up long exposure highway photography. It’s great, it becomes very surreal because it basically becomes a highway with a trail of lights. Make sure to have a tripod though, you can’t really do this kind of photography handheld.

  4. A few other suggestions: In addition to using a tripod, when you are doing a long exposure like that, it’s also a good idea to use your camera’s built in timer (if it has one) or a wireless shutter release if you have one of those. Even with a tripod, you can still get some camera shake from pressing the shutter button. On really bright sunny days, sometimes it’s impossible to use slow shutter speeds even at your highest aperture without resulting in an overexposed image. That’s where Neutral Density filters come in handy, the darken the shot by several f-stops so you can use the longer shutter speeds.

    • I had taken a course in high school on photography, so I understand, to an extent what you’re saying. Beyond catching a few of the words here and there though, I’m typically extremely lost when it comes to photography posts/blogs/explanations.

      So what you’re basically saying is that you want to be able to remotely release the shutter so that you don’t accidentally shake the camera… and that if it’s too bright out, you’re going to run in to overexposure really easily even if you’re doing the best to prevent it – but using a Neutral Density filter should help the issue? What’s a neutral density filter?

  5. That’s really pretty. While I have the equipment, I’m nowhere near any nice places like that. Hopefully I can apply all the tips I’m getting from your blog within the year. I could probably try it but the only moving water I can think of that I would be able to observe are floods.

  6. That’s so cool! Long exposure is a really great tool for creating scenes like this. I don’t have an DSLR camera, but if I ever get one, I’d like to try experimenting with capturing nature in motion, like in this photo – there’s so many amazing landscapes where I live that it would be a shame not to.

  7. Wow those are some beautiful images I didn’t know you could do that with cameras. The only thing I’ve done before is taken pictures of the night sky with a really long exposure. It makes the stars look really bright.

  8. Yey another blog on photography! I haven’t tried the “photographing the moon” yet, but I definitely will. I do experiment on the adjustments of my camera but I usually don’t get it right, its a good thing there are people like you willing to share the knowledge. Sometimes its really difficult to understand the technical terms and complicated instructions. I like the way you explain it in a simple yet comprehensive way.

  9. This is definitely a good way of showcasing how different shutter speeds can make a big difference. My only suggestion if you’re taking a lot of photo’s like this would be using a neutral density filter, depending on the strength it would allow you to take a longer photo without the water turning too white but would make the surrounding colours pop a bit more too.

  10. This is a really nice articles. I tried these tips (there is a waterfall near my home) and they really helped me, I managed to take some really nice pictures. I will try to upload them and share with everyone. Thanks a lot for helping me.

  11. I think you really have an eye for photography. I think it looks great despite the movemnt of the leaves. I guess nature has to cooperate when people attempt this shot. There should be no wind so everything is still except the water. I’m sure waterfalls will look good when taken with a slow shutter too.

  12. I’ve done something similar to this in the past. I used a long exposure time during the night (in my dark backyard) and had some of my friend’s children swing sparklers around. We specifically had four children wave their arms to form the letters L O V E next to each other and lo and behold, check the shot showed that (despite some… “artistic license” from the children) they had written the word LOVE in the air using sparklers.

  13. Interesting idea. What are your recommendations for getting that milky water look, while at the same time removing the blur of the leaves in the photograph. Because I think that the white water movement, along with nice unblurred leaves will lead to having an amazing photo.

  14. I might have been able to test this with a recent flood that we had. It was so scary but I remembered how the picture here is pretty and I thought maybe I could achieve the same even with a disgusting flood. Sadly, we had to leave home for safety. On the bright side, my DSLR survived!

  15. Any tricks for my smartphone camera that you can recommend?
    I don’t have a DSLR.

  16. These photos are gorgeous I cant believe you can take photos like this. I wish I had a DSLR camera so I could take amazing looking photos like theses.

  17. I really appreciate you posting this as I am trying to get into photography myself and could use all the help I can get. Right, things are pretty basic for me since I only have my smartphone’s camera. I hope to get a nice DSLR in the future so I will be able to take much better pictures, including some of the river in my town.

  18. The picture is just awesome. I am sure the original place is very beautiful but I am even more sure the way you made that picture adds something special to it. I have to take out my cam more often to get some practice..

  19. This shot is really good! Too bad my camera and I, we have a hate-hate relationship. It is so hard for me to make a decent photo. I’m going to read all of your advice posts, because we’ll be going on a trip in the beginning of September, and I so want to capture all of the beautiful nature moments.

  20. That is a beautiful photograph. I’m an amateur photographer and I wish I was this good. I think reading articles like this will really help me get better though. That looks like a very nice place, I would love to visit somewhere like that! I guess I just need to keep practicing.

  21. This is quite an amazing picture! Thank you for the share! I always try to get this effect, but I myself, do need a way better camera than the one I currently own. Photography is one of my favourite hobbies. Capturing a moment like this is rare and you definitely need the right camera and patience for the job. I guess it will be practice makes perfect for me. You have an awesome eye for photography and really great skill!

  22. This is a good quick how-to article for this type of long-exposure photography. I can’t stress the importance of a tripod enough when doing this type of photograph. In fact, it’s always a good idea. As with anything, there are trade-offs. In this case, the nice, milky looking river is traded-off by the blurry leaves. To me, this isn’t a huge issue as our attention is on the water, not the leaves.

    I look forward to reading further tutorials of this kind. Thanks!

  23. I have never been a camera guy myself, but I find it fascinating how people can take breath taking photos on this world we live in. Thank you for telling us how we can take some great waterfall pictures. I will keep this in mind later in the future.

  24. These pictures are telling me some great stories about how wonderfully beautiful the nature of this world is. And I have to throw up my hands in applause to the photographer who took this picture in perfect fashion with his proficient capturing skills. This is a job excellently done. Look at that milky looking water. Simply amazing!

  25. That picture looks great! I think that’s the perfect shutter time for letting the flow of the water show up but keeping everything else clear. I can’t notice any blurry leaves in that picture, except a couple in the front there. And retaking the picture should fix that (probably just a gust of wind).

  26. I am such a neophyte when it comes to photography that I never really even tried playing with the settings on my cameras. I had not realized that simply slowing down the shutter speed would allow me to capture something so dynamic as this waterfall! Food for thought. Now, I have to go buy a new camera again and do it right this time!

  27. I think this tip might’ve changed my life. I’ve been wondering how photographers do this for YEARS! Trying all sorts of weird tricks, each one never working…

    Can’t believe how simple it is! Thanks David!

  28. It really is an awesome little trick. Been practising this for a couple months. I find that it is easier at dawn or late afternoon. Middle of the day with no shade area makes this really hard as it becomes very over exposed, very quickly. Middle of the day 2″ just comes out white unless you have some filters. Late afternoon sunset makes for some awesome pictures if you get the right angle.

  29. Ahh thank you for the tips! I love nature photography very much and I’m sure this will definitely improve my own photographs.

  30. On a Canon 600D, I feel that there is a tinge of green which feels more artificial compared to this. This is such a good photograph, and actually the blurred leaves add an effect which is quite good, and hence the click is quite good on exposure and focus.

  31. Milky water is one of my favorite effects to create. I also like using a slow shutter speed to capture light trails. As others have said, tripods and wireless shutter release are invaluable for these kinds of shots, and as you stated, no wind. I still prefer my old fully manual Minolta for a really long shutter speed with a release cable, but I am learning to create the same looks with newer technology. This is a nice post for beginners who want to experiment.

  32. These look amazing! The only problem with long-exposure photography is that anything moving will appear blurred, and while that works great with water, the leaves in the example picture looked blurry. This would be better if it was shot from a distance, or in a place where not that many things were moving.

  33. This is helpful, thanks. Also, I do not want to be a Debbie Downer, but I want to add in a reminder that you should be very careful when photographing in these situations. I have read of several cases where a photographer got too close to the edge and drowned. I know these seems like basic, common sense but I just wanted to comment with that.

Comments are closed.