Underexposing can prevent
blown-out highlights when
shooting fast-flowing water
Water makes for a fascinating subject with INFINITE ways to capture its UNIQUE characteristics. From perfect REFLECTIONS to raging TORRENTS, these tips will help you experiment when it comes to shooting the wet stuff
I’m always drawn to photographing water. Whether it’s in the form of white-fringed waves crashing on the shoreline, a lake as still as a millpond, or the sheer power of a waterfall plunging over rocks, shooting water is tons of fun. It’s also relatively easy to create great effects and impactful images while playing with the different properties of water. Reflections, spray, distortion, movement, and refraction are all attributes that can add another dimension to your photography. With that in mind, here are some handy tips to help you make the most of shooting H²O.
EQUIPMENT AND SETTINGS
Neutral density (ND) filters are colour-accurate sunglasses for your DSLR; they control exposure time for the water effect you want. Consider 3-, 6-, 8- and 10-stops, which can be stacked to enable a longer exposure time during bright daylight hours. Trial and improve upon which exposure time yields the desired results. Each shot will create varying patterns of water motion. Before sunrise and after sunset may need no filters. Other items worth adding to the kit list when shooting water include:
A polariser. This will remove unwanted reflections and glare, bringing the colour detail of water to attention.
A tripod. This indispensable stabiliser will avoid camera shake, particularly for longer shutter speeds when you’re standing in the water or it’s windy.
A cable or remote release. This enables you to release the shutter at that precise moment to capture a particular effect without risking camera shake/motion blur. Alternatively, set two seconds on your camera’s timer delay between pushing the shutter and when the shutter flips up.
Visible Dust Magic Cloth or a microfibre equivalent, to wipe salty spray off your lens in a jiffy.
A waterproof cover/protective rain sleeve, to keep your kit dry in wet/moist conditions, as does a lens hood for your lens. Otherwise, a clear, reusable and resealable plastic bag acts as an inexpensive rain cover.
Wellies/waders. A necessity if you plan to seek out those unique vantage points from within rivers and streams and get closer to interesting foreground elements where the water is rushing towards you. Just don’t put yourself in danger for those leading lines; you can always use a zoom lens.
Waterproof trousers. These will pay dividends when near the water’s edge or on wet ground.
Insurance. When water’s involved, it never harms to ensure your kit is covered.
A towel and a Thermos of something hot. You’ll be thankful for both at the end of a wet day.
1. Compose the scene: Once you’ve located a sweet position, such as looking down from above or low to the water, consider where the light is coming from, what kind of movement and mood you wish to convey, and where the shadows are.
2. Manual mode: Shoot in Manual, set the ISO to 100 and aperture to f/16 or f/22 as a starting point. The aperture allows the least amount of light in, which means longer shutter speeds are available to you for those blurred water captures.
3. Focus: Choose the focus point, a rock in the stream or piece of driftwood for example, and keep image stabilisation settings off to minimise any camera shake during long exposures.
4. Shutter speed: If your camera doesn’t give you sufficient light, tweak the ISO. Slower shutter speeds required for longer exposures result in soft, misty, silken effects, capturing greater motion — try an exposure between ½ and 10 seconds (cue the tripod and a remote shutter release).
5. Underexpose: Your camera’s metering system can get confused when shooting fast-flowing white water; take care that you don’t end up with blown-out highlights. Try underexposing by ⅓ to ½ a stop.
6. Fine-tune: Adjust your shutter speed, f-stop, focus point and ND filters until you get what you’re after.
Once you’re happy with your basic setup you can tweak it to capture various water sources at their best.
The longer your camera’s shutter stays open, the greater the movement recorded in the photo. Use blur to your advantage; it creates the flowing, rushing movement in a water image for a waterfall that’s full and soft, capturing the scene’s atmospheric mood. You can also apply this principle to a babbling brook or to the sea’s mighty waves.
Typically, 1/500th shutter speed will freeze a wave so it’s reflective, but slower speeds can also be impactful.
Calm skies often give rise to tranquil, colourful reflections on still water – especially at dusk and dawn. Aim to capture eye-catching symmetry in your composition, close to the water’s edge and from a low perspective. Wait for a duck, heron, or swan to cruise into shot. Ripples can give value and interest as they add texture and effect. Abstract reflections also create impact in moving water, like the lights of a cityscape.
Water can create atmospheric bokeh or provide a vivid background colour, for instance, when shooting close-ups of birds, insects, or mammals near the water. A telephoto lens and large aperture will yield vibrant reflections as a diffused swathe of colour.
A composure framed against a striking seascape can lead to incredible results. Underexpose the background by a stop to bring out the textures in the sky, clouds, and sea. Time your shot right, and the waves will look spectacularly arched. Water is an infinitely fascinating subject with endless ways to encapsulate it, so why not give it a whirl?
Try shooting a variety of water at different times of day in varying weather conditions for a rainbow of outcomes. Something different will ensue from the same spot when you change the day, season, or camera angle. You may be pulled into the dreamy motion of long exposures or prefer to get wrapped up in the symmetry of a perfect reflection.
Doubtlessly, you have myriad creative options when shooting water. So, roll up your trouser legs, kick off your shoes, and dive right in.
Jason Spafford loves all things adventure travel, where the perfect end to the perfect day is throwing down a sleeping bag and setting up the tripod somewhere in the wilderness. That, and a cuppa. With an infatuation for chasing light in big open spaces comes the pursuit of photography, which has been his passion for 30-plus years.
Through his work, Jason aims to engage folks with nature’s backyard while promoting the preservation of wild places. His internationally published portfolio captures two decades of adventure travel, landscape, and commercial photography.
Follow him on Instagram(@fourwheelednomad) or see www.fourwheelednomad.com for more photographic adventures and inspiration.