Great Landscape Photography Made Easy: Working With Water in Motion

August 11, 2017

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Photographing moving water at different shutter speeds produces different looks, from a silky effect to frozen detail. When photographing the ocean surf, waterfalls, streams or any moving water, I often bracket the shutter speeds to create a variety of results. In the vertical waterfall image in Iceland, the water appears nice and smooth. The horizontal image of the same waterfall presents more detail, permitting more shape with enough blur to endow the shot with a sense of motion. I like both effects, so I vary the shutter speed to get more or less detail. When bracketing the shutter speeds, review each image on LCD Monitor to judge the results. If you see silky water with no detail where it is all white, move to a faster shutter speed. If there is too much detail where the water looks like ice, use a slower shutter to add enough blur for a velvety water effect.

Shutter Speed Choice

How fast or slow the water is moving is a factor to help decide shutter speed for the amount of blur or detail. A slow versus fast moving stream will have different effects at the same shutter speed. In addition, wider-angle lenses show less apparent motion compared to a telephoto from the same distance.

Vertical waterfall: I used a polarizing filter and slow shutter for the smooth effect. (Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 24-70 f/2.8L USM lens at 24mm, 6/10 sec, f/16, ISO 100)
Horizontal waterfall: I used a polarizing filter. More detail in the water with a faster shutter speed. (Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 24-70 f/2.8L lens at 24mm, 1/10 sec, f/16, ISO 100)

Several factors to help decide the shutter speed:

• The flow rate of the water—slower shutter for more blur with slow moving streams

• The amount of blur or detail you want— slower shutter for more blur

• Focal length of the lens—a telephoto lens will show more movement and a wide-angle lens shows less movement with the same shutter speed. Use longer shutter speeds for wide-angle lenses to generate the same amount of blur.

Water falls at the same rate whether it is a faint stream or large waterfall. They gain momentum with the distance. Like anything else, air resistance is the factor that will limit the speed of falling water.

In the horizontal image, I used a 6/10 of a second shutter speed for a satin-like effect, while the vertical image has a 1/10 of a second shutter speed to show more detail.

In Yosemite, 1/125th of a second contributed some detail in the fast moving waterfalls. By contrast, I prefer 1/15th of a second or slower to smooth the slower moving water on streams and rivers.

Using 1/125th of a second or faster with a medium telephoto lens helps stop the action on a waterfall and give it some detail. Photographed with the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens at 244mm, 1/250 sec, f/11, ISO 200. A polarizer was used to enhance the rainbow. Be careful as you can make the rainbow disappear when completely polarized.

Use a fast shutter speed to stop the action of moving water. For waves at the ocean, I use around 1/1000th of a second to get the detail in the splash. Each droplet is now frozen in time.

In the next examples, the ocean images have 10 to 13 second exposures to blur the water, transforming the surf into fog.

Other Factors

Tripod: A sturdy tripod will be necessary for slow shutter speeds. Tripods are a good idea for higher shutter speeds as well, since they aid in fine-tuning the final composition. Keep in mind it is often windy at the base of a waterfall or around the ocean surf. Weigh down the tripod if necessary to avoid vibration or the tripod tipping over.

Morro Bay rocks and surf. I used a 3-stop neutral density filter and a polarizer to smooth out the ocean surf. (EOS 5D Mark II, EF 24-70 f/2.8L lens at 24mm, 10 sec, f/16, ISO 100)
Morro Bay sunset. I used a 5-stop neutral density filter to obtain the softness of the waves. (EOS 5D Mark II, 13 sec, f/16, ISO 100)

Exposure: When taking a photograph, I decide whether the shutter speed or f-stop is the most important and set that first. Normally, I use manual mode and set the shutter speed first, followed by the f-stop. Next, I set ISO, ideally the lowest ISO for the camera without going into the expanded low settings. Using the lowest ISO produces the least noise and gives you the best image quality. If the shutter speed is too slow, I raise the ISO to get the proper exposure. Too slow a shutter speed lacks any detail in the water and looks washed out. Finally, if necessary I add a filter as discussed below.

Shutter Speed: In order to get slow shutter speeds for the satiny effect, try photographing in low light conditions. Full sun may demand too fast a shutter speed to show the motion of the water. For example: photograph at low light around sunrise or sunset with the subject catching the first or last rays of light. Exposure is easier when the water is in the shade, but be aware that your color temperature will change with a shift towards blue. Overcast conditions work well most of the time.

Filters: Using a polarizer will reduce your shutter speed time by two f-stops. Turn the polarizer to see the effect on shiny rock surfaces and note how the reduced glare reveals detail and form. However, be careful when using a polarizer so as not to take out desired colorful reflections. Neutral density filters, not graduated neutral density, will reduce the light to the sensor, allowing for a slower shutter speed.

Ideas: Water in all of its forms is a dynamic subject open to many approaches. I like photographing streams in the shade with green leaves reflected onto streams in the afternoon. Yosemite’s Fern Spring is good for that type of shot. Photographing along Yosemite’s Merced River at sunrise provides the opportunity to capture the warm reflections of the mountains in the river. Fall colors, when the leaves are lit with sun and the water is in shade reflecting the leaves, is a perennial favorite of mine.

Tips for keeping the lens dry: Use a lens hood to keep spray off the lens. Carry a hand towel or pack towel to dry the camera and tripod when you return to the car from the shoot. Use a chamois cloth to wipe the droplets off the front element of the lens. Chamois are used to wipe cars dry and it works just as well on the lens. If you are in heavy spray from waterfalls, the ocean or rain, it is helpful to carry a small sized soft absorbent pack towel to wipe most of the water from the body of the lens. Then use the chamois as the pack towel will get soaked too fast and become useless.

Tips for cleaning sea spray: First, use an air blower or soft brush to remove any bits of sand or dust that might scratch the lens. Do not use canned air because it has propellant that can damage the lens.

Next, wipe down your camera, lenses and tripod with a damp cloth to clean off the salt from the sea spray. Do this as soon as possible.

If you get sea spray on the front element of the lens, use a drop of lens cleaning fluid on a lens tissue to remove it. Do not put fluid directly on the lens. Use lens cleaning solution designed for camera lenses and not anything abrasive like solvents. Wipe in a circular motion from the center outward. If it is very misty, bring the fluid and wipes with you to the ocean.

Another option is using a UV filter to protect the front element of the lens from the salt in the sea spray. You can clean the filter after the shoot in the same way as mentioned above. If you get sand on the filter, I would rinse under running water and dry. Clean the eye-piece in the same way if needed.

Have fun photographing moving water and creating inspiring images!

Smooth Wave, Morro Bay, California. (EOS 5D Mark II, EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L at 135mm, 4/10 sec, f/22, ISO 100)
Wave in Action, Morro Bay, California. (EOS Canon 5D mark II, 70-300mm f/4-5.6L at 300mm, 1/1000 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200)
Boiling Mud Pot, Iceland. (EOS Canon 5D mark II, 70-300mm f/4-5.6L at 260mm, 1/400 sec, f/9, ISO 320)

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