Magic of Water

One of my favorite things to do is photograph water.  Rivers, oceans, waterfalls, you name it…all of these offer countless creative opportunities.

The perfect time to shoot water is an overcast day, giving you beautiful soft light. Throw in a little fog and it is my dream come true! It is important to use a polarizing filter and a tripod.  Yes, even on a cloudy day a polarizer does wonders to saturate colors, cut the glare from foliage and water, and slow down the shutter.  In order to get that smooth silky water we all love, you must shoot at slow shutter speeds.  Using a polarizer, a low ISO for the best image quality, and a small aperture for maximum depth of field, your exposures will generally run into the seconds, so using a tripod to hold the camera steady is a must.  In the first image you can see how the water looks with a slow shutter speed.  The settings were f/16 @1 sec. ISO 200. I usually find that shooting at around one second gives me the silky look that I like for the water.


Finding an interesting foreground adds to a scene involving water also.  In the previous river shot I looked for ledges and rocks that formed small cascades of water for interest.  In the next image I was able to climb out onto a rock to add the small cascade as a point of interest and a leading line to the waterfall.  The settings were f/22 @0.6 sec. ISO 200.


There are times when you might not want that slow silky water, such as when I photographed these daredevil friends who were riding the rapids in the river.  I wanted to stop the action as much as possible to capture their expressions and movements as they went down between the rocks so I knew I needed to increase my shutter speed. It was late afternoon on a cloudy day; the light was low so I removed the polarizer, increased the ISO and chose an aperture of f/9 to help me achieve the results I wanted. The settings were f/9 @ 1/400 sec. ISO 1200.


After you shoot the big scene think about isolating areas of interest in the water.  I always look for interesting features that will make a nice image.  There is one particular ledge that I love in a river in the Great Smoky Mountains.  It enables me to photograph interesting abstracts and offers many compositions.  Concentrate on the shapes of the rocks and ledges and the patterns and lines that the water creates as it flows.


Another wonderful thing to look for is reflections in the water from overhanging trees or flowers along the shore that create beautiful colors in the flowing water.  In this image the spring green from the trees created a golden flow of water.  This is one time that having a little sunlight helps bring out the colors in the water.  Be sure and turn your polarizer in this situation until you see the color appear!


One final thing to add some fun to photographing water is to add a neutral density filter.  They come in different strengths and offer many possibilities.  Even when the sun is shining bright these filters will enable you to slow down the shutter to record movement in the water.  I especially like to use them at the ocean to shoot long exposures of the wave action.  I like to find something stationary in the water so that the movement of the ocean is more apparent.  Here are a couple of images that I took at the Outer Banks in North Carolina. In both of these images I used a 3.0 (exposure adjustment = 10 stops, transmits 0.1% of light) neutral density filter.  It does take some patience to use this filter.  It is so dark you can’t see through it so I had to set up the composition with my camera on my tripod, focus and then add the filter.  I then waited for the waves I liked and pressed the shutter.


So grab your camera, polarizer, and tripod and head out to the river, lake, ocean or waterfall!  Listen to the soothing sounds of the water and come home with some magical images!



Leave a Comment