Over 70% of the earth’s surface is covered in water and there’s anywhere from 50-65% of water within us. As photographers, we see and take images of water in many forms. From reflections, silky waterfalls, rippling waves, abstracts to seeing to the bottom of the pond, water serves as a picture-perfect subject, stage and back drop.
Taking advantage of water’s diversity is easy, finding your own style and creative composition is where the work begins. It may be slight adjustments of settings is all that’s needed to maximize the shot or choosing a different lens. Other scenarios may call for an extra tool or two.
Let’s explore how to creatively and effectively photograph the various states of water using reflections, abstracts, tools, shutter speeds and lenses.
→ Related reading: Essential Seascape Photography Tips
Water as a Mirror
While the eyes are the mirror of the soul, water is a mirror for nature. To create images that have reflective properties, all you need is a willing subject or imagination.
Using a large depth of field (large f/stop number) will maximize the the larger view and big perspective.
Majestic mountains reflected in still pools immediately come to mind. For a mysterious and calming touch, amethyst hues during the blue hour illuminate the ripples caused by the light breeze.
Still streams and ponds with heavy cloud cover surrounded by rich colors travel into the distance.
In addition to the traditional reflection image, watch for water surfaces bathed with colors and abstract shapes. With a light breeze and shade, combined with the surrounding foliage, a slightly mysterious watercolor effect was the outcome.
Night reflections on water equals mood, romance or even a sense of mystery.
→ For more please see Using Reflections in Landscape Photography.
Beneath the Surface
While water reflection photography shows what is on top of the water, interesting shapes, colors and life are underneath the surface.
A Circular Polarizer (think sunglasses for your lens) filter placed on the front of your lens will eliminate glare and reflections from the water’s surface so that you can see underneath.
Smooth and Silky
A favorite for many photographers is water images where a creamy, silky effect is created by using slow shutter speeds. Two tools are always needed to maximize image quality when using slow shutter speeds. 1) A sturdy tripod and 2) remote shutter release. Additionally, the time of day and lighting will also determine if a filter is needed. Before sunrise or after sunset, the lighting may allow for slow shutter speeds from 1/2 second and longer. When the lighting conditions are too bright for the needed shutter speed, I’ve used circular polarizing filters and also neutral density filters.
The Smoky Mountain waterfall was taken at about nine in the morning. The lighting was filtered by many trees, but still too bright for the desired shutter speed. By using a B+W 6-stop equivalent neutral density filter on a Nikon 28mm 1.8 lens, the shutter speed was 8 seconds.
Before sunrise in Nags Head, a picture-perfect blue hour provided soft, low light. With the low light, a shutter speed of 1.3 seconds was all that was needed to show soft water movement and the diagonal patterns left in the wake. The lens was a Nikon 14-24mm with settings of: ISO 125, f/20, 20mm. Tripod and cable release was used.
→ For more please see Guide to Long Exposure Landscape Photography.
When photographing water, whether it’s waterfalls, streams or waves, don’t stick with one effect or even one type of lens. Alter your composition, lenses and settings to capture the water’s power. The morning waves (and I) were being blown by stiff fifteen to twenty miles per hour winds. Each wave’s crest glimmered in the golden-hour sun. The wind created a dense mist that intermingled with the wave’s splash.
ISO was raised, shooting at 1/250 second at 200mm using a 70-200mm 2.8 lens. As there was still too much in the overall image, I cropped out a bit of the distracting foreground to hone in on the wave’s depth.
Mist & Fog
Mist and fog consists of a varying density cloud with tiny water droplets hanging in the atmosphere. Photographing mist early in the morning, late in the day is made hazier, soft and more dense with long exposure. Shorter, fast exposures show the texture and actual density.
→ For more please see How to Photograph in Mist & Fog.
Two guiding principles in water photography:
- Use settings and brighter light conditions that enable fast shutter speeds to capture fast action such as water splashes, droplets.
- For softer images, use lighting, settings and tools such as filters that support slower shutter speeds.
To maximize shooting time in either case, bracket your photos (BKT) to get multiple shots of the same image using faster and slower speeds so that you’ll have plenty to choose from.