Water is one of the most striking and unique substances to capture. The possibilities when photographing water are mesmerising; from rainfall to waterfalls; puddles, lakes, and of course, the ocean. Even faucets and glasses of water can result in striking photography. The technique that you should use just really comes down to what effect you wish to achieve. Do you want to freeze water drops or rather show its motion? In this article, we’ll explore the underlying principles that one should understand to achieve the best results when photographing water.
1. Understand how shutter speed works
Controlling your shutter speed is absolutely crucial in general but photographing water really highlights just how important it is. Shutter speed is how fast the shutter of your camera blinks on and off. Think of your camera’s shutter as your eyelid and the image sensor as your eye. A a short time between blinks is fast shutter speed, and a long time between blinks is a slower shutter speed.
The longer the time, the greater the exposure the image sensor has to create an image. Therefore, if you have a moving subject such as a waterfall or rain, then a long shutter speed will create a blur. Here’s an example where a long shutter speed was used:
Notice how the water takes on a misty look that gives the impression of flow and movement in a still photo. However, the longer shutter speed doesn’t capture the fast splashes of water that are flying among the rocks. A faster (or shorter) shutter speed freezes the action, giving results like this:
Instead of a long stream and misty motions, there’s drips and individual waves and ripples showing. The chaos of the body of water is evident with a fast shutter speed, while a slow shutter speed highlights the overall order and flow.
The speed needed depends on how fast the water is moving as well as the ambient lighting conditions. Remember that the faster your shutter speed, the lower your light exposure becomes. Therefore, it’s necessary to adjust either your ISO value or your aperture. When photographing water, unless it’s a closeup, you’re likely going to need a fair amount of aperture to ensure everything in your field of view is sharp. So keep an eye on your ISO value, or set it to Auto ISO to ensure proper exposure with your chosen shutter speed. Slow shutter speeds allow in much more light, but also have certain problems, which we will discuss in the final section.
2. Understanding glare and polarization
On a sunny day at the beach or lake, you’ve probably noticed that it’s not easy to see under the surface of the water. The glare from the sun can be a problem for both casual viewers and photographers, as solar glare also erases many of the surface details we want to capture with our photography.
The solution is simple: invest in a circular polarizing filter. Filters in general can be very specialized tools. But a circular polarizing filter is essential for anyone who spends time in the outdoors. A CPL screws onto the outside of a camera lens, and so they come in different sizes, depending on the diameter of your camera lens. Polarizing filters help cut down on the amount of scattered light (glare) reaching the lens. With mostly direct wavelengths reaching the image sensor, the glare is reduced or eliminated; fishermen often use polarizing glasses for the same reason. They let you see below the surface of the water to avoid rocks and spot fish. A CPL is an essential tool for capturing maximum detail when photographing water in the outdoors!
3. Putting it all together
There’s a few important tidbits to keep in mind when using long shutter speeds. Because a long shutter speed lets in more light, while you’ll get smooth water effects, you’ll sometimes overexpose the rest of the photo; meaning the image looks too bright and washed out. So if it’s a bright sunny day, you’ll need to reduce the amount of light entering the camera while keeping the shutter speed long.
The solution? Neutral density filters. Like circular polarizing filters, ND filters screw onto the front of the camera lens. ND filters reduce ALL light by a set amount. An ND 4 filter reduces incoming light by 4 stops, for example. So you’ll need to play with your ND filters, and see how much or how little light is required for your chosen shutter speed.
Don’t forget you can also adjust aperture and ISO to raise or lower the amount of light reaching your camera. And finally, you absolutely have to use a tripod with this technique, because your hands are just not stable enough. With shutter speeds of 1 to 4 seconds, your result will be a blurry mess if you don’t have a stable platform for your camera.
Capturing water efficiently is a delicate dance revolving around the exposure triangle. Aperture, ISO, and shutter speed are all balanced to achieve dramatically different results from the same scene. Polarizing and neutral density filters as well as your trusty tripod round out all of the tools required to get the photo you want. Spend time in the rain, a river, a lake, or the ocean, and play with these tools and settings. Water photography is subtle in its science, but dramatic in its results!