You can elevate your photos of moving water from “Okay” to “Wow!” by stretching out your exposure time. While fast exposures freeze the look of moving water, long exposures produce misty creeks and waterfalls and impart a silky smooth, dreamy quality to larger bodies of water.
Go long on exposure
To give your photos of surf, creeks and waterfalls that misty, dreamy quality, dial down your camera’s ISO and aperture as far as possible. The idea is to get your shutter speed down to a half-second or longer to capture cascading currents, and even longer exposures – up to 20 seconds or more – are needed to smooth out ripples and waves.
Check out your camera manual to learn how Program mode can lower the shutter speed. You’ll have to step away from your camera’s automatic settings a bit to get these types of photographs.
The best light for shooting moving water occurs early or late in the day when lighting is less intense, warm and at a low angle. This time of day, known as the Golden Hour, is a favorite among photographers.
You can also shoot moving water almost any time on an overcast day. Direct sunlight casts harsh shadows and makes it difficult to achieve the long exposure time needed to blur the water’s movement.
Filtering your water
In addition to decreasing the ISO and aperture, use a circular polarizing filter to cut the light further. A polarizer also minimizes bright reflections in the water that can show up as distracting blown-out white blotches.
Placing a neutral density filter on top of the polarizer will cut the light even further, ensuring that your exposure time is plenty long enough to make moving water go misty.
More hints for photographing water on the move
- You’ll need a sturdy tripod or other means of holding the camera still, such as bracing the camera against a solid object. This is a must for minimizing camera shake during long exposure times.
- Try to get as close as you can to the moving water and set up low to the ground. This will magnify the effect of the water’s motion and make it more prominent in your picture’s composition.
- The great thing about digital photography is that you can easily try out some shots, note the results and make adjustments as needed.
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