The photography of moving water

My online talk about the photography of moving water went ahead live on 20th March 2024, and below is a recording of that talk. I hope you’ll enjoy watching it. What follows on this page is a blog that summarises much of the talk’s content, showing how to make the most of the photography of moving water.

The principal challenge in the photography of moving water is how to capture and convey the dynamism, energy, power and movement of water in a still image. All too often we take a shot of some thunderous surf or a powerful mountain river only to find the resulting image to be flat and lifeless, totally failing to put over the beauty and majesty of the scene.

How to fix this is the subject of both the above talk and this blog.

There are essentially two methods to the successful photography of moving water:

1) to freeze the movement

2) to blur the movement

So, we have two quite opposite techniques, which can produce very different results, and each one applicable to rather different situations.

I should emphasise at this point that these techniques don’t really apply to still water, such as a placid water. What I’m talking about here is solely about the photography of moving water: shoreline surf, a fast-flowing river, a tumbling waterfall, and so on.

Let’s look at the two techniques in turn and then make a comparison. We’ll start with the technique to freeze moving water.

The photography of moving water. Giant curling wave

This is actually what most people do by default when they take a quick snap of moving water. They simply point the camera at a watery landscape, compose a rather wide, general view, and fire the shutter at whatever speed the camera happens to automatically choose: usually about 1/60 or 1/125 second.

The resulting image is rarely very satisfying, lacking drama, the subject (ie the moving water) usually rather small in the frame and lacking impact. Furthermore, the moving water is rarely quite a sharp as you might think it ought to be. Shutter speeds of 1/60 or 1/125 second are rarely fast enough to truly freeze moving water in mid flow or flight, leaving some annoying blur in the image.

What the freezing technique is really good for is to capture the drama of tumbling water, droplets of spray caught mid-air, a folding wave caught just as it’s about to tumble over. But to achieve good results with this follow these techniques:

  • Come in very close to the centre of the water’s drama, using a good telephoto lens to concentrate on just one wave, one splashing area of a waterfall etc;
  • Don’t attempt to photograph any kind of wide view: this is all about coming in close on a detail;
  • Use a fast shutter speed: the water is always moving much faster than you think it is, and consequently will require a much faster shutter speed than you expect: 1/500 second is rather a minimum: for water cascading down a waterfall think more like 1/2000 second.
  • To achieve such fast shutter speeds you’ll need either a lot of light or a high ISO, the latter to increase the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor: both strong light and high ISO come with some disadvantages, as we’ll see below.

Follow these points and you’ll be a long way towards pulling off the technique to freeze the moving water. Images caught in this way really capture the sense of drama and power in the crashing, tumbling water, whether it be shoreline surf or babbling stream.

The photography of moving water. A woodland stream, water frozen in motion

But watch out for some disadvantages: as mentioned above, to get really fast shutter speeds you need either very bright light or a high ISO. The former usually means bright sunlight, but that invariably causes areas of white water in the scene to burn out, destroying detail in the affected part of the image. And in scenes containing fast moving water, there’s nearly always white foam somewhere.

In duller, flatter light the usual option is to put the ISO up, perhaps to 1000 or 2000. This solves the shutter speed issue, but can introduce graininess into the image. Although modern cameras are much better in this regard than they used to be, it is still an issue.

Finally, one problem associated with any photography using fast shutter speeds is that you inevitably end up with a wide-open lens aperture, which in turn causes a limited depth of field: that is the amount of the image sharply in focus can be quite small. This can be partially overcome by increasing the ISO, as above, but again you may then face the problem of graininess.

As so often is the case in photography, using the freezing motion technique is filled with swings and roundabouts, often necessitating compromises.

The photography of moving water. The seashore at dusk

A very versatile method in the photography of moving water is simply to blur it. Put the camera on a tripod, use a very slow shutter speed (too slow to be able to hand hold the camera), and just let all that movement blur out.

The resulting image shows the flowing water as a silken sheet (if the sea) or a silken ribbon (if a river/stream) that really conveys mood and puts over the sense of movement. The exact effect does depend on just how long the exposure is and how fast the water is moving. With exposures of, say, 20 seconds or more the water will be blurred out into a featureless and rather ethereal blur, often appearing to have a layer of mist hovering above it, the result of waves being almost completely blurred out. This can be particularly effective when photographing the sea at dawn or dusk, the resulting images being hugely moody and stunning pieces of art.

Faster shutter speeds, such as 1/4 or 1/2 second, while greatly blurred, will in general still show the water’s movement, including splashes of spray leaping upwards in a manner that I usually call ‘shards of glass’.

One point to note is that, although I’ve given some shutter speeds above, these should not be taken too literally as much depends on the speed of the water’s movement. The faster the water is moving, the faster the shutter speed can be and still end up with a given type of blur.

The beauty of this technique is that you are not tied to homing in on details: it works with both those details and wider views. Furthermore, because a long exposure/slow shutter speed is being used you’ll inevitably use narrow lens apertures, resulting in a big depth of field: the entire image will be sharply in focus.

The photography of moving water. Dawn over the coast

Inevitably, there is a limit to how slow a shutter speed can be used in any given type of lighting situation. Once you’ve reached the point where the lens is closed all the way down to its narrowest aperture any further slowing of the shutter speed will simply result in over-exposed images.

This problem is rarely encountered when shooting during really low light levels, such as at dawn or dusk, or even during the daytime when the sky is heavily overcast. However, it does become a major problem in the middle of a sunny day. In such conditions your lens aperture will be shut right down long before you get to a shutter speed that is anywhere near slow enough.

The solution? Use a neutral density filter, usually called simply an ND filter. This is a filter that greatly reduces the amount passing through the filter and on to the sensor across the whole of the image view, and – hopefully – without changing the colour balance.

They come as both circular filters that screw onto the front of your lens, and rectangular filters that slide into a filter holder, which in turn is held in place on the front of the lens by a screwed ring. Among the circular filters some can be adjusted for the amount of darkness, which can be quite handy. Rectangular filters come into their own when you want to use them jointly with neutral density graduated filters (ND-grads), which selectively darken just a brighter part of the scene, usually the sky.

Some filters can be really quite dark, and when using these it is often necessary to line up the image composition before then carefully sliding or screwing the filter into place. In such circumstances, the in-camera light meter will still work, though I do find that it will often cause the final image to be under-exposed. It may be necessary to over-expose by up to two stops (2 EV) to get the right exposure.

As a final note here, I should point out that you’d never use these filters for the freeze motion technique. There you’re always trying to get the fastest shutter speed possible, and hence the maximum light possible. Adding an ND filter would only make matters worse!

As you can see, there are two very distinct techniques for capturing the power and flow of water in stills photography, producing very different but nevertheless highly effective results.

Reserve the freeze motion technique for when you want to home in on details in surf or a rushing river/stream, to capture droplets of spray flying through the air, for example. And reserve it most especially for when light levels are good.

The blurred motion technique can be rather more widely used, lending itself to a range of view types, both details and wide scenes, and effective in both low and high lighting levels. With the latter you may well need to use neutral density filters to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor. As with the freeze motion technique, the blur technique will struggle with bright sunlight, when areas of white water a likely to burn out and lose detail.

In all photo techniques, compromises sometimes need to be made, but armed with these two skills you should now be able to get out there and get to grips with some fantastic photography of moving water.

My next online talk will be on Wednesday 19th June at 8pm BST, and will be entitled ‘Is Summer Photography a Waste of Time?’. Click on the link below for more details and to sign up to receive the link.

An Icelandic waterfall.

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Seasonal Springtime Photography

What to point your camera at this spring

My first free online talk of 2023 went ahead on 22nd March, entitled Seasonal Springtime Photography. This talk covered the kinds of subject matter you might want to point your camera at during this season of rebirth and new growth.

A recording of the talk is now on You Tube, and you can watch it by clicking on the link below.

Photographing the reawakening of the natural world

Not surprisingly, much of our seasonal springtime photography consists of the natural world, and the processes by which it reawakens at this time of year. This is particularly important for plants, and most especially a succession of wild flowers that burst into colour in our woodlands and grasslands.

Among the earliest are the much-loved snowdrops, followed by the much less well-known but equally beautiful wood anemones, a characteristic flower of our ancient woodlands. Most famous of all the early spring flowers, of course, are the daffodils, ranging from showy garden varieties through to the much rarer and more restrained original wild variety. Flowering from mid-March onwards, garden varieties are of course ubiquitous across UK parks and gardens, and indeed have spread to become wild. The true wild daffodil, can only be found in a few ancient woodland sites, such as on Dartmoor, in Devon.

Most of these wild flowers are of course very small, and so require some patient macro photography techniques, either a dedicated macro lens or an extension tube fitted between lens and camera body. Daffodils are of course the exception, being rather large and hence easily photographed with an ordinary standard or short telephoto lens.

Wood anemones: seasonal springtime photography

Lighting is also hugely important, particularly for white flowers (such as wood anemones), the petals of which frequently burn out and lose detail in bright sunlight. Also an issue for all flowers, particularly small ones, is the comparatively large patches of bright highlight and deep shadow that can be created by bright sunlight, resulting in a contrast range across even just a single flower that is too great for the camera’s sensor to manage.

For these two reasons, it is often better to photograph flowers in softer light, either on a cloudy day, or in the shade, thereby reducing contrast and the risk of bright highlights burning out, or deep shadows becoming too dark. This is often the case even for flowers that look great to the eye in sunlight: the eye can cope much more effectively with a high contrast range than a sensor can manage.

The one time that flower photography can work very well in sunlight is when translucent petals are backlit, resulting in light shining through them, creating quite a magical effect.

Beyond photography of flowers, there is then of course leaves bursting into life to consider, and particularly the stunningly vibrant greens they have in the first few weeks of life. This can be quite magnificent for photography of individual leaves, single trees or entire forests.

Daffodil: seasonal springtime photography

Animals in spring

Many animals also tend to become much more active in spring, associated of course with new breeding activities and the birth of offspring. Birds in particular can look their best at this time of year, especially the males as they put on their best breeding show.

Once offspring start to appear, then there is the annual opportunity for some oh-so-cute photography of youngsters scampering or paddling around close to their parents. Photography of young chicks is perhaps one of the most popular forms of seasonal springtime photography, but always remember that there are laws governing the disturbance of certain species of nesting birds. Always check before getting close to nests.

Then of course there are the migratory species, birds that visit the UK only for a relatively short time to breed during the spring and early summer. These include a number of our marine birds, such as puffins and guillemots, plus also a number of more terrestrial species. Perhaps the most famous of the latter is the cuckoo, arriving in the UK in April or May.

Swan chicks: seasonal springtime photography

Architecture and landscapes in spring

Both architectural and landscape photography can of course be done very successfully at any time of the year, provided the right light is available: they are not photo genres unique to seasonal springtime photography.

That said, certain things are possible in spring that may not be feasible in the winter months. This revolves around the angle of the sun during the spring. Once past the spring equinox (mid- or late March), a time when the sun rises directly in the east and sets directly in the west, the sun starts to move into the northern sky at the beginning and end of each day. This opens up the possibility for photography of north-facing surfaces, whether they be landscapes or building facades, with sunlight shining on them. For each subject you will need to work out whether early morning or evening light is best, and then photograph accordingly.

North-facing landscape.

The human world

Finally, lets not forget the human world. After months of spending time mostly indoors, now things finally start to venture outside. Firstly there’s general outdoor life, such as sport and picnics. In addition, one of the most important things to consider is the series of springtime festivals that appear. In England’s southwest, for example, spring really gets into gear with two annual festivals in Cornwall, namely Padstow’s Obby Oss Festival at the start of May, followed closely by Helston’s Floral Dance. Both are great opportunities to home in on a bit of human action.

The difficulty with photography of street festivals (as the two above examples are), is that the activities can be against a backdrop of both distracting shop and street signage and very unattractve tarmac. Both can seriously mar otherwise perfectly good shots of the event, so consider zooming in very closely on vignettes of the action in order to minimise or even totally cut out these problems. This of course entails using a telephoto lens, and if the action is moving quickly you’ll need a telephoto with fast shutter speeds and whose focussing is fast and accurate.

Inevitably, photography in a crowded place must be handheld – no one will thank you for setting up a tripod, and anyway it will slow you down. So, especially if you’re using a moderately strong telephoto lens, if light levels fall away you may well need to increase the camera’s ISO (ie sensor sensitivity), and put up with the small loss of image quality that this may entail.

Another factor to consider is crowd control. Festivals where this occurs, whether through crash barriers or the presence of police and/or security guards, can result in your photography being seriously cramped. So concentrate of those festivals where this is not an issue. Even then, crowds of spectactors can still restrict your photography. If this occurs, I can only recommend a pair of sharp, though polite, elbows to ensure that you always reach the front and with a good field of view!

Obby Oss Festival, Padstow.

The next talk

I really hope you’ve enjoyed this talk and blog on Seasonal Springtime Photography.

My next free online talk will be on 21st June 2023, and will be Using a Wide-angle Lens. To join this talk you just need to register so I know to send you the link. You can do so by clicking on the link below and then filling in and submitting the simple form.

You can also find out about my photography workshops by clicking on the workshops link below.

I’ll look forward to seeing you!

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Underwater coral reef life: a relaxing video

A few minutes that will help you to feel better about the world!

No long-winded explanations of photographic technique in this blog, just a relaxing four-minute video of underwater coral reef life.

So just put your feet up, chill out with a glass of something nice and swim along with the turtles and fish.

All footage here was shot by Nigel Hicks, on location in the Maldives and the Philippines.

I hope you’ll enjoy the next few minutes, and that it’ll help you feel so much better about the world!

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The Techniques of Underwater Photography

Photography of tropical coral reefs in the Maldives and the Philippines

In my summer online photography talk, given live on 22nd June, I showcased the techniques of underwater photography. Though a relatively small part of my photographic work, it is one that I hugely enjoy. So I thought I would introduce some of the work I’ve done photographing the marine wildlife of coral reefs in the Philippines and the Maldives.

A recording of the talk can now be watched any time. Just click on the image below.

The challenges and techniques of underwater photography

The most obvious initial challenge to underwater photography is of course the very fact that it is under water! Inevitably, a first prerequisite is to be able to scuba dive, or at least snorkel, before any photography is possible. Once that is sorted, then you can start to face the challenges of underwater photography, which include:

  • Light levels rapidly fall away as you go deeper, even in the most sunlit conditions;
  • The colour balance of the light rapidly changes, with red light being absorbed in the first few metres, leaving only blue light by the time you reach a depth of about 10 metres;
  • This loss of white light makes it important to use flash lighting to provide white light, and hence to show up the true colours of any subject;
  • No seawater is completely clear: there are always at least some suspended particles able to block and reflect flash lighting back to the camera;
  • It is usually necessary to come as close as possible to the subject, often using a very wide-angle lens, to minimise the camera-to-subject distance and hence the amount of suspended matter between the two;
  • Two flashguns (or strobes as they’re called for underwater photography) are commonly used, each mounted some distance on either side of the camera, increasing the angle of the flash, and helping to reduce the amount of light bounced back to the camera from suspended particles;
  • High pressures encountered while diving mean that all equipment – especially the camera’s housing – must be highly water- and pressure-resistant, making them rather cumbersome and heavy (at least when on land), especially when coupled with two widely-mounted flashguns;
  • Despite measures to reduce problems caused by suspended particles, most underwater images require considerable amounts of post-photography cleaning up in order to remove specks and make the images appear at their best.

These are just the main photography-specific challenges to the techniques of underwater photography, and are quite apart from the general challenges of scuba diving. The latter include limited dive time due to a restricted air supply, safety limits on the maximum depth of any dive, as well as the speed at which one can ascend or descend, and restrictions on the frequency with which you’re allowed to dive.

Techniques of underwater photography

Photography of corals

Corals are among the most beautiful living structures on Earth, consisting of colonies of thousands of coral polyps that together build complex forms. These can vary from huge 2-metre fans (such as in the image above) or rounded boulder-like solid structures, down to tiny tree-like organisms.

Many are the most important building blocks of the coral reef environment, and to me are a joy to photograph. And yet, they are often overlooked by photographers in search of the more high profile charismatic and mobile animals, such as turtles and sharks.

Corals deserve far more photographic attention. Being immobile, they aren’t going to swim away just when you’re trying to line up a shot. But corals can be fragile and require significant care when being photographed: one badly timed kick of a fin can destroy several years of coral growth. So it is critical for a photographer to have close and exact control of their movements when under water, something that is not always easy.

Techniques of underwater photography

Photography of mobile reef animals

The techniques of underwater photography of course encompass both those of immobile corals and of the more mobile animals, such as turtles and fish, to name just the most obvious.

This of course includes the hundreds of commonly seen reef fish, many of which are extremely colourful and beautiful, but also rather small and shy. The latter points can make them rather tricky to photograph as they will almost always swim off and/or hide in a reef crevass the moment you approach. My usual technique is to zoom in a little with a short telephoto lens. Although this then suffers from the problem of increased amounts of suspended particles between me and the subject, it is a worthwhile compromise that helps me get the shot.

Other animals are rather less of a problem, either being much larger than most reef fish, or not at all bothered by the human presence, or both. When I first started diving in the Philippines 20-plus years ago, turtles were very shy and hard to photograph, but today they’re largely at ease with the diver’s presence. This makes it possible to swim alongside them for some distance, shooting more or less at ease, with or without a flashgun.

Sharks too are generally undisturbed by the presence of divers, and can readily be photographed. Obviously, they do have a fearsome reputation, something enhanced by their aggressive appearance, but the great majority of species are quite safe to be around.

Techniques of underwater photography

Scuba diving versus snorkelling

Scuba diving requires some rigorous training and then certification before you can even consider starting underwater photography via this route. So there is some temptation to give it a try while simply snorkelling, since this is unregulated and equipment-free.

While some forms of underwater photography can be done while snorkelling (such as swimming with whale sharks, as in the image above), it is not at all easy, requiring some tricky control of your buoyancy in order to be able to dive, even for a few seconds, below the surface.

Furthermore, many of the most varied, interesting and photogenic forms of coral and fish can’t be found close to the surface, and so can only be photographed while scuba diving.

So, although photography while snorkelling does have its uses, it is rather limited in what can be achieved. Scuba diving, though presenting more of a challenge initially, does offer a much more versatile and effective way of carrying out the techniques of underwater photography.

Techniques of underwater photography

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Storytelling Through Photography

Creating a set of images that tell a story

My September 2021 online photography talk was held recently, the subject this time Storytelling Through Photography. This is the art of creating a set of images that tell a story about an event, a place or a person, something that is very different from simply shooting high quality stand-alone images. When telling a story, the images must work together as a team, with no single image dominating the others and distracting attention away from the aim of the story.

The talk is now available on You Tube, and so can be watched here. Just click on the image below to launch the video.

The essentials of building a photographic story

The talk runs through a series of tips about how to go about storytelling through photography. These can be summarised as follows:

  • The aim is to create a set of photos that work together as a ‘team’, building the story and without any single photo dominating the collection;
  • Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Without these, it is just a collection of uncoordinated images;
  • The beginning should consist of a couple of images that set the scene – the type of environment or general location for instance;
  • The end should again consist of a couple of images that round off the story, giving a summary of what transpired or the end-result of whatever process is described in the story;
  • The middle is the main meat of the story and is the longest section, consisting of a string of images that describe the heart of the story, such as what is happening, arranged in a sequence that a viewer can follow;
  • Production of technical perfection and spectacular stand-out images is secondary: telling the story is paramount. Things often happen so quickly and unexpectedly in a story-telling situation that perfection has to take a back seat. However, if there is time to craft perfect images then so much the better;
  • Report and record what you see impartially – leave any preconceptions or prejudices behind and photograph what you actually see, not what you think you ought to see or what you would like to see. If you want to put a particular slant on a story, do this at the post-photography image editing phase, not during the actual photography.
Storytelling through photography: Philippine crocodile

Examples of storytelling through photography

To illustrate the process of storytelling through photography, the talk uses images from two of Nigel’s own stories: conservation work with the Philippine Crocodile and reindeer herding in Lapland, in the far north of Sweden. These can be summarised as follows:

1. Conservation work with the Philippine Crocodile: This is the world’s most endangererd crocodile, and the photography in this story illustrated the work of the Mabuwaya Foundation in rearing infant crocodiles in captivity and then releasing them back into the wild once they were large enough to fend off predators.

The photography started with a couple of images that set the scene, one showing the forest and lake habitat, another the team of workers involved. The main part of the story then illustrated the work in catching captively reared crocodiles, taking their vital statistics, transporting them into a nearby national park, and then releasing them into a lake. The final images rounded off the story by showing a crocodile being released and then swimming as a free, wild crocodile in the lake.

Storytelling through photography: Philippine crocodile

2. Reindeer herding in Lapland: Every autumn the Sami people in the far north of Sweden round up their reindeer from the mountains, bring them down to lower winter pastures, and temporarily corral them in order to mark out ownership of newborn deer and to kill some of the older males for winter meat.

The photography in this story illustrated the corralling process and the capturing of both young deer and mature males. The story begins with a couple of images that introduce the environment, showing the wild mountains where the reindeer spend the summer, photographed from a helicopter just as the first winter snows arrived. The images of the main story showed thousands of corralled reindeer, with the Sami people picking out and lassooing newborn animals and mature males. The story rounds off with a summary of the family nature of this process, with a picnic once the work is done, including the presence of the family’s pet albino reindeer.

Storytelling through photography: Reindeer herding

The importance of storytelling through photography

Most photographic tuition available in one form or another concentrates on teaching people how to create fantastic single standalone images, but don’t look at the storytelling process at all. This is a shame, since throughout its history telling stories has been one of the most important roles of photography. It is a skill worth cultivating. Hopefully, the tips in this talk will help give you some ideas about how to go about storytelling through photography.

Storytelling through photography: Reindeer herding

The next talk

The next online photography talk will be about macro photography, and will be held on Wednesday 20th October at 8pm (BST). It’s free to join, just click on the link below to fill in and submit the form. This will enable me to send you the link.

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