5 Essential Ideas for Mastering Water Photography

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Of all the subjects in landscape photography, water continues to make a splash at the top of my list. When in the wilderness or the city, I’m always willing to go the extra mile(s) to end up at a location with a water feature. Whether a seascape, river, lake, or waterfall, here are five tips to improve your water photography.

5 Tips to Improve Water Photography

Spruce Flat Falls under even lighting conditions

Utilize Even Lighting Conditions

Some photographers are disappointed to wake up to 100% cloud coverage. While a cloud-filled sky makes for a boring sunrise, it creates spectacular conditions for photographing water. The clouds provide even lighting conditions which allow you to almost effortlessly create soft and silky water scenes. If the weather decides to leave me cloudless, I often try to photograph my desired location in the early morning before the sun is high enough in the sky to create harsh shadows. Another option is to play the waiting game on partially cloudy days, assuming I have the time to wait for a cloud to pass over the sun to act as my own personal diffuser. This doesn’t mean you should avoid sunrise and sunsets entirely. Colorful skies can produce amazing reflection scenes. Simply try to utilize all times of day and weather conditions to your advantage.

A Swedish sunrise still produces even lighting with colorful reflections

Bring Your Tripod

Assuming you want to capture silky water cascading over your scene, you need to slow your shutter speed. A handheld shot isn’t ideal; therefore, a tripod is crucial to capture wispy water. In addition, I use a remote shutter release or a two-second delay on my camera to reduce camera shake. Depending on the scene, slow motion water tends to look best between a ½ second and two seconds. Keep in mind that is a recommended shutter speed starting point. Some scenes may look best with a shutter open for ten seconds. The exposure time depends on the story you want your image to convey.  It can be a splash frozen in time or a dreamlike cascade.

Use a Circular Polarizing Filter

With water photography, a circular polarizer (CP) filter should be at your disposal. The CP filter affects your images in a few ways. First, it saturates the colors in your scene. For example, the CP effect is often seen in darkening a blue sky. It helps manage reflections and reduce glare from the surface of the water. In addition, it helps remove distracting glare from wet objects in your scene, such as rocks or leaves. Last, a CP filter can block one to two stops of light from entering your camera, thus slowing down your shutter speed. This aids in delivering the silky water effect. A CP filter is really a super hero tool for water photography. It allows you to alter your image effortlessly with changes that cannot be replicated in post production.

1.0 second exposure made possible in daylight conditions by stacking a CP and ND filters

Try a Neutral Density Filter

Depending on the brightness of the sky, a CP may not be enough to slow your shutter speed. If that is the case, you may want to use a neutral density (ND) filter with the CP filter. ND filters act like sunglasses for your scene, reducing the amount of light coming into the lens. With less light entering the lens and hitting the sensor, the camera keeps the shutter open longer to properly expose the scene. Thus, ND filters are the key to capturing ethereal water scenes in bright conditions.

4.0 second exposure with ND filters

Challenge Your Perspective

When arriving at a water photography location, challenge yourself to find multiple perspectives of the same scene. This may mean getting down low to the ground, climbing to get a higher perspective, or even getting into the water safely with your tripod. Be conscious of how the water will be flowing through the frame. Look for patterns or curves, particularly S-shapes, to lead the eye through the composition. Finally, be cognizant of objects which can be used as foreground elements to anchor the image. These are the aspects to help draw the viewer into the image.

As a final note about shooting water scenes, be careful! Salt water and electronics do not play well together; protect your equipment from even minor salty splashes. Waterfalls typically have slick rocks and steep inclines so ensure you are wearing proper footwear with good tread. If you are up for it, grab a pair of waders, gaiters, or waterproof boots, and carefully carry your gear in the water for a unique vantage point. Happy shooting!

About Author Chrissy Donadi

I’m a travel, nature and landscape photographer originally from the beautiful Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. After working for several years in the engineering world, I found photography. Now, my life is a constant back and forth between spending time at home with my wonderful husband and Bernese Mountain dog and traveling the globe doing what I love, capturing moments in time that exemplify the beauty of this amazing world.

I believe in continuous improvement and forcing yourself outside of your comfort zone. So I hope that you’ll follow me on my adventures and allow me to share some of the lessons I learn along the way. Safe travels and happy explorations!