The narrows

How to Effortlessly Photograph Flowing Water

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One of the very first tricks that aspiring landscape photographers want to learn is how to make flowing water smooth as in the waterfall in the photo below. Beginner photographers often get frustrated and wonder why their camera won’t do that… as if there’s a special button that automatically makes the water look smooth.

Crabtree falls

Crabtree Falls, NC

Well, pretty much every camera can do it… even your phone’s camera. All you need are the correct tools and the knowledge.

Camera

The tools are fairly straightforward. You definitely need a camera that allows you to control the shutter speed. And I wasn’t kidding about using your phone. There are quite a few apps that allow you to control your phone camera’s shutter speed even if there’s no physical shutter like in a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Halide, ProShot, and Slow Shutter Cam are just a few that allow you to do amazing things with the little camera that you always have with you.

For DSLR, mirrorless, or other interchangeable lens cameras, you must be able to shoot in either shutter priority or manual mode. I almost always shoot in manual mode because I do not want the camera picking an aperture/ISO combination for me. Call me a control freak, but I want to make all those decisions myself.

Tripod

Besides the camera, you also need a tripod or other steady surface for your camera. In regards to the type of tripod, any tripod is better than none but you need the sturdiest tripod possible for the shooting conditions. When on solid ground with a lightweight camera, you can use a small, lightweight tripod. If you’re standing in a moving current with splashing waves or in a stiff wind with a hefty camera, you’ll want a very sturdy tripod. If you choose to leave the shutter open and want to blur the water while maintaining sharp focus on the other subjects and surroundings, you must keep the camera rock solid still during the exposure.

Remote Release

Another tool you may want to consider is a remote release. If you do not own one but wish to give this technique a try, use the 2 to 5 second self-timer on your camera. This reduces the chance of camera shake from pressing the shutter release button. There are definitely some advantages to owning a remote. If you’re photographing a waterfall where the movement is fairly consistent, a two-second timer suffices. However, if you’re photographing waves, timing is everything.

For example, look at the following image. I took a lot photos of approaching waves connecting with the log. If I was using the two-second timer, judging when to press the shutter button at exactly the right moment would have been an effort in futility. I probably would have left unsatisfied with the results. Instead, I used my remote release to trigger the shutter at the exact moment I wanted. A bit of observation showed that the water swirled around the log on an approaching wave rather than a receding one, so I pressed the shutter release accordingly.

boneyard beach

Boneyard Beach, Big Talbot Island, FL.

Shutter Speed

As an instructor, the most common question I get is, “What shutter speed should I use?” The easy answer is… anywhere from 1/4 second to 1/2 second will give you smooth water. While this may be a good starting point, this answer alone is a disservice because it only works in certain situations (such as waterfalls). The not-so easy answer is… it depends on the direction the water is moving in relation to your camera, how fast the water is moving, and what type of effect you’re going for. Water blurs more if it is moving across the frame rather than toward it at a given speed. If you zoom in on a tight segment, water blurs at 1/20 or 1/15 of a second. For most waterfalls, my starting point is a half second and I’m usually pretty happy with the results.

In the image below, I wanted to smooth and level out the ocean waves. Because I shot it at midday, this required a 45-second exposure. The longer you leave the shutter open, the smoother the ocean water gets. You can even introduce reflections that would otherwise be obscured by waves.

long exposure

Folly Beach Pier Long Exposure

For the next image, I wished to convey a dramatic feeling with the approaching waves. A wide angle lens, low perspective, and a one-second exposure helped achieve this look. My sturdy Gitzo tripod was necessary to avoid camera movement. When attempting this technique while in the water, push the tripod legs deep into the sand to help stabilize them against the wave action. Otherwise, you’ll not only have water movement, but pier or other subject movement as well. Be sure to experiment with both incoming and outgoing waves because the results are quite different. If you leave the shutter open for several seconds, those little bubbles and foam leave white trails on an outgoing wave.

flowing water at Amelia Island

Rushing sea at Amelia Island, FL

For this next photo shot in the Narrows of Zion National Park, the amount of available light dictated my shutter speed. This image was taken with a five-second exposure due to the low light situation. Five seconds is not necessary to achieve flowing water in an image. My point is that you do not need a lot of neutral density filters to get ten-second exposures at a waterfall. Flowing water is flowing water. More time doesn’t make a difference unless it’s a large body of water like the 45-second image displayed earlier where the goal was to remove the waves.

The narrows

The Narrows, Zion National Park, UT.

Filters

The one filter you do need, however, is a polarizer. A polarizer serves more than one purpose when photographing flowing water. Not only does it darken the image giving you a longer shutter speed, it can also reduce the reflections off of objects within your frame.

The following is a simple example of the same scene shot with the polarizer off and then on and turned to full strength. Notice how the colors of the wet rocks and the bright red leaves really stand out when you use the polarizer. I never leave home without one.

polarized vs unpolarized

Enjoy your time in the field working with flowing water… but try to keep that camera dry!

About Author Kate Silvia

Kate is a professional landscape photographer and educator based in Charleston, SC. Her intense passion for the natural world is matched only with her desire to share that passion with her students. "Being a great photographer is not about what kind of camera you own. It's about studying the light, crafting a great composition, and expressing your vision through practice and education"