Photographing moving water is fun and unpredictable. Fast-moving streams with a few rocks here and there are a favorite of mine. The rocks are the sharp anchor points, and the moving water and reflected colors create interesting designs.
Waterfalls are also great subjects for moving water shots, but often we have to go farther afield to find them. Most of us have more opportunities to find photogenic streams closer to home.
Here are my Dirty Dozen tips for getting successful moving water shots:
1. Use a sturdy tripod. It is crucial to use a tripod that is rock steady, no pun intended. A flimsy tripod may move slightly or might be shaken by a strong wind.
2. Find a relatively flat and solid place to stand. The area around streams and waterfalls can often be wet and slick, especially if there are wet leaves underfoot. You don’t want your gear or yourself to end up in the drink.
3. Look for areas with both whitewater and smooth water with reflections. The combination of the two adds visual interest to images.
4. Whenever possible, shoot either early or late in the day. At those times it is more likely that there will be no direct sunlight on the surface of the water. It is better to shoot moving water when the light is soft and even, and the area you are shooting is in the shade. Areas of sunlight can cause the whitewater to be very bright and easily overexposed with no detail. Soft light assures you that the whites will still be white, but with detail as in the shot above.
5. While you want the water to be in the shade, the best reflections occur when the shoreline is sunlit. The sunlit areas are not in your frame, but they provide colorful reflections in the surface of the water. Autumn trees will reflect golden and warm, spring leaves will reflect green and bright. And any blue sky above will reflect as well. This shot was taken in the early morning in autumn when the sun was lighting the trees on the far bank, but the surface of the stream was still in shadow.
6. Set your camera to Aperture Priority (Av on Canon, A on Nikon).
7. Set your ISO to 100.
8. Set your aperture as small as it will go on your lens (f/22 or f/32 or smaller).
9. Take the first shots at whatever shutter speed your camera has set itself to, often half a second or slower. For fast moving water this might be slow enough to create the silky look that moving water can provide. For slow moving water, a slower shutter speed might be required. If you cannot slow the shutter speed down enough, place either a polarizing filter over the lens, or use a solid neutral density filter if you have one. The polarizer will cut exposure by about 2 stops, enabling you to get slower shutter speeds. Solid neutral density filters come in different strengths - mine is a fixed 10-stop filter, meaning that it cuts exposure a full 10 stops. Depending on conditions, this can allow exposures of 30 seconds or longer.
Try different shutter speeds if possible. Start at half a second, then one second, and so on as far as your camera will allow you to go and still provide good exposures. There is no “magic” shutter speed that will always be best for moving water.
10. Camera height and angle can change the location and appearance of the reflections. Check out different angles to determine which ones give you the best color and reflections.
11. Have a rain cover or plastic bag handy if there is a lot of water spray. Moving water can kick up a good deal of spray and you want to keep your camera and lens high and dry.
12. Shoot many different angles and different shutter speeds whenever possible. Once you have found a spot you like, try different views to see which ones you like best.
So get out there, practice, and play. You will find the possibilities exhilirating.
Shutter Speed ½ second. Aperture f/20. ISO 100. Lens: Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS, set at 78mm. Camera: Canon 40D. Gitzo tripod with ballhead.
TODAY’S QUOTE: “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” --Loren Eisley