There’s something about moving water that just relaxes us. Whether it’s a paradise white sand beach, softly flowing stream beneath a snow capped peak, or the beach you grew up on; it’s no surprise that most of us will have a photograph up somewhere in our house representing one of these locations.

One of the great things about photographing water is, the variety of emotions you can invoke purely by the method you use to capture the water movement.

As you scroll down the page, there are several examples of the different ways in which you can use the motion of water to really enhance your image.

Colombia Waterfall

So, follow these simple steps to find out how to photograph moving water.

Equipment

First I’ll start off with the gear that you’re going to need that will allow you to take such photographs.

Tripod

You’re camera’s shutter is going to be open for quite a while and there is absolutely no hope that you’ll be able to hold the camera still enough. Nope, not even resting it against something. You need a tripod for this! I won’t go into which tripod here (perhaps this article may help), but if you’re heading down to your local beach to capture some nice serene waves rolling in – be sure to take your tripod.

Neutral Density Filter / Circular Polariser

Both of these filters can come in very handy when shooting any form of seascape or landscape with running water.

Neutral Density (ND)

To put it simply, an neutral density filter cuts the amount of light entering the lens. This helps extend the shutter speed required to get a good amount of light in, allowing you to blur the water to your satisfaction. You can get a variety of different strength ND filters, from 0.8, 1, 2, 3, 4 stops, all the way up to 10 stops for those ultra bright conditions. The standard would be somewhere around 3 stops. To successfully capture the water’s motion in reasonably light conditions, these filters are a must. When shooting in dull conditions, a circular polarizer (below) may be all that’s needed

Circular Polarizer (CPL)

This filter comes in handy for the main reason of cutting down reflections and slightly boosting tone and colour depth. It makes those images pop that little bit more. It also cuts down around 1 to 2 stops of light. You operate this filter by rotating the ring on the filter based on the angle you’re shooting to the incoming light, and can see the effect directly through the camera’s view finder or LCD screen. But beware of the negative effects it can have on sky’s while shooting ultra-wide.

Some words of advice

Don’t buy cheap, unknown brand filters! Your image will only be as good as your weakest part of your set up. So if you’ve spent a thousand or more dollars on your lens, spending $15-20 on a CPL or ND filter is just silly. Do your research and be confident that you’re getting good glass. Hoya and B+W are some brands that I generally swear by.

Remote Shutter Release (or countdown timer)

This is necessary for shots that are going to be under 10 seconds. Simply depressing the shutter release button with your finger will cause vibration and will result in a slightly blurry image (or some ghosting). To get around this, use a remote shutter release and have that image captured without any vibration. Alternatively, you can use the camera’s in built 2 or 10 second timer. Just about every camera has these.

If you’re after a remote, then there are a myriad of them on the market, including many third party brands which are cheap and do the job just fine.

Camera Settings

The settings below are only guidelines to use, as each and every individual scene will require a slightly different set of settings, and of course, what you want to set out to achieve as an artist!

Choose your shutter speed

The shutter speed is where it’s all at, and what makes your shot when it comes to how you want to style the movement of the water! All your other settings should revolve around what you want to achieve here.

  • 1/4 – 1/2 seconds: This is really great for capturing faster action of water, but still giving it an interesting character and some motion. A typical scene that uses these shutter speeds is a wave crashing up against the rock. Depending on how fast the wave hits, will depend what shutter speed you use. But generally its from 1/4 to 1/2 of a second. Too quick, and you’ll have no water movement. Too slow and you will blur out the wave structure all together.
  • 1/2 to 5 seconds: I generally find these are great for creating leading lines on waves that are draining out. It’s also long enough for creating silky lines in streams and waterfalls, though I’d aim at towards the longer end for this.
  • 10+ seconds: This longer amount of exposure time is used to create a misty/dreamy like effect, where the water movement is no longer visible and has a more even over all effect of the water. Though streams and waterfalls that have consistent running water directions can also utilize this time length for even smoother results.

Of course, every situation is different. So use these as a general guideline and adjust accordingly.

Set ISO as low as possible

The rule of thumb here is to go as low as possible. Lower the number, the higher quality photograph + less light you’ll be letting in (and less light is good in most situations where you’re playing with the motion of water). The only time I find myself upping the ISO in longer exposures, is in twilight hours where there is little to no light but still require some foreground detail. But before you get to the point where you need to start raising the ISO level, remove your ND filter first, as by the time you get to this stage you likely will not need it any more.

Assign the aperture accordingly

The camera’s aperture has a huge influence over the amount of light hitting the sensor and as a result, a huge effect over the final image. But the aperture is something which needs to come as a second priority to the shutter speed when it comes to getting water motion right. Not used properly, it can have negative effects on your final image.

Generally when shooting landscape photographs, you’ll want everything to be in as sharp focus as possible. For this we have to use a narrow aperture to broaden our depth of field. This great for limiting light also. But try your best not to go above f/16, as this will start softening your image due to diffraction. If you need to, it’s a sign you need a more powerful ND filter to keep it under f/16. At the other end of the scale, when there is less light you’ll find yourself opening up your aperture a bit more (lower f-stop number). This of course narrows the depth of field, so be very cognitive of this and I’d suggest not going below f/8. If you find yourself approaching this, perhaps remove your ND filter (if you have one on), or even your polarizer. Conditions that require this will generally only happen after the sun has set.

So you’ll have to adjust your aperture accordingly, depending on the type of water effect you are after. But keep it between f/8 and f/16 to ensure a sharper end result. Always check your image after to ensure it’s sharp. It’s a good idea to focus on something closer to you, than far away.

So there you have it! While it may seem a little daunting at first if you’re only just starting out, it really is quite simple and it won’t be long until you’re a natural at it. So head out there and start creating!

So, in a nutshell…

  • Select your composition.
  • Setup your tripod and mount your camera.
  • Attach your ND or CPL filter (based on the lighting conditions).
  • Select desired shutter speed based on the effect you want to achieve.
  • Set your ISO (as low as possible).
  • Assign the appropriate aperture (stay between f/8 and f/16).
  • Use a remote (or timer) to take the shot.

And most of all, enjoy…

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