How to: Rushing Water

One second at f/22 and ISO 200.

One second at f/22 and ISO 200.

I’d been to this spot two times earlier to photograph the moving water but the images lacked a “pop” that I was hoping to get.  Then on one cold, fall day (when the leaves seemed to be raining around my house), it occurred to me that this spot on Hemlock Falls Creek (north Georgia, USA) might be an interesting image if I could incorporate some of the brightly colored leaves.

So, I returned.  Two things went well and one didn’t.

The “good” was that an early morning rain left the boulders darker and caused the leaves to adhere instead of blowing away.  Additionally, the sky was still overcast so that I didn’t have too many hot spots to deal with — spots where the direct sunlight penetrated the tree canopy. 

(The “bad” was that I dropped my camera while climbing down the river bank.  It landed lens-first and messed up the screw threads on a very expensive lens.  Lessons learned:  “Keep your filter adapter in place since it is less expensive than the lens and use your head.”)

But this post is about photographing rushing water.  Streams provide an opportunity to make really pleasing images.  You’ve seen them:  “Silky” or “milky” little water falls, etc.  It is surprisingly easy to make a these pictures.  The trick is slow shutter speed. 

To make a cascading stream look silky, you’ll want to shoot at a shutter speed between one-fourth and one second.  If slightly slower or faster speeds are more pleasing to you, go for it.  Experiment!

If you’ve made slow shutter images of water you probably have your own routine.  Mine might be a bit quirky but it’s my method.  It’s simple and I like it. 

1.  If you have a circular polarizer filter, put it on the lens.  Compose and adjust the polarizer as desired (I find that reducing the reflections from the surface of the water usually makes a more pleasing image.)  Mount your camera on your tripod.  What, no tripod?  Ooops.  The whole trick here is using exposures longer than you can hand hold.  You must have a tripod to hold the camera still enough for long exposure. 

2.  Set your camera for aperture mode.  I almost always leave my camera in aperture mode because aperture determines depth of field and that’s something you can’t change later in post production.  You’ll probably want to use f/16 or smaller to get a sharp image front-to-back.  (Another benefit is that smaller apertures mean less light which facilitates using longer shutter speeds.  The polarizer also decreases the exposure about one stop.)

3.  With ISO set somewhere around 800, have a look at the shutter speed that your camera determines will make a properly exposed picture.  Now move the ISO up or down to get the shutter speed you want.  I’ve found that, for my camera, I can’t discern a difference between a photo made at 200 ISO or 3200 ISO.  If you go all the way down to 100 ISO and the shutter speed isn’t slow enough, add a neutral density filter (I use a 3 stop filter) and start over with ISO at 800, etc.

4.  Fire away.  Change the shutter speed a notch or two up and down and shoot again.  You’ll like having choices later when you’re at home in front of your computer.

A couple more things:

At any given focal length, effective speed of the water is faster the closer you are to it.

Get wet.  My theory is that if you are not getting wet you are not getting the best images.  Of course that sets you up for another good way to have a bad day.

If you are new to my blog I encourage you to plunder around in the earlier posts.  You’ll find stuff from illegal travel visas to ducks and Nazi atrocities to charitable photography.  And speaking of that last subject, thanks go out to all who answered my request for ways to give back with your photography.

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