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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