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Time exposure captured this peaceful woodland waterfall.
Time exposure captured this peaceful woodland waterfall.

Water in its many forms can produce some beautiful photographic effects – from the dramatic, frozen instant of a crashing ocean wave, to the softly surreal brush strokes of a forested brook, to the timelessness of a landscape reflected in a tranquil pond.


A sturdy tripod and cable release are essential to capturing the full range of water photography. Combined with a good quality, slow-speed film, they will allow you the latitude to experiment with the long (1/8 to 5 sec.) exposures necessary to capture the serene brush strokes created by moving water while providing the fine grain and color saturation of a superior landscape photograph.

A polarizing filter or neutral-density filter will allow you longer exposures when the light is too strong.


Think of large bodies of water (lakes, rivers and oceans) in terms of form and color. The texture of the surface may evoke a mood, tranquility or excitement that you want to capture. Ripples are generally gentle, but waves can be dramatic and powerful, even threatening. Plan your exposure and framing to reflect your feelings about the watery scene that is before you. Shoot a huge wave using a fast shutter speed the split second before it crashes onto a rock, freezing it in mid air, and you will have a dramatic image that will always suggest the anticipation of an impact about to occur. Then, try shooting the same scene with a much-slower shutter speed, and your scene will be more moody and perhaps dream-like, showing more of the motion of the water. Try both these shots again, only this time underexposing, and your scenes may convey darker emotion and power.


Look for interesting patterns in the waves or in ripples, or in the rushing water of a stream or its swirling pools. Follow a leaf or a log as it descends a watercourse. Change your vantage point.

The boiling surf is the subject of this image
The boiling surf is the subject of this image

Early morning light perfectly lit this scene.
Early morning light perfectly lit this scene.

Get up high to show a series of waves; get close to show a detail in the swirl of a slow-moving pool. Use combinations of long and short exposures. You will notice that water will appear lighter in the distance and darker when close to you and shallower, especially if it is clear. Deep water usually appears dark, but all water reflects the sky to one degree or another. Watch the sky for changes. The same body of water can appear blue or grey depending on what the sky is doing and upon your angle of view. Change your shooting angle to enhance or decrease sky effects.


Keep color and form in mind in every water shot. The sun at dawn will provide water with a different look than the light at noon or at sunset. Return to a scene when the light has changed to shoot under different conditions. Long exposures (5 to 30 sec.) of water on slow-speed film at sunset can produce awesome pictures, particularly if there are ripples or swirls that turn into a blur.


Water can also produce reflections. If absolutely still, the reflection can be mirror-like. If the surface is rippled, the reflection will be scattered. Trees in autumn with a slight wind on the water can make a particularly colorful water shot. Dark, shadowy reflections can make a shot more moody and sombre.

Reflections can often be reduced or eliminated through the use of a polarizing filter. Polarize a shallow stream and the fish or gravel stream bed that you couldn’t see before just below the surface may be suddenly sharp and clear.

Use a gradated neutral density (or gradual density) filter on the upper portion of a scene to darken the sky and balance out exposure of upper and lower halves of your frame.

 Reflections in water can make the picture by adding tranquility and a sense of unhurried peace.
Reflections in water can make the picture by adding tranquility and a sense of unhurried peace.

 The sun at dawn lights this moody image
The sun at dawn lights this moody image


  • When shooting fast-moving water activities, like surfing and kayakers shooting the rapids, you will probably want to freeze the action, which means you will need a high shutter speed. This is not the time for slow film.
  • If you are a passenger in a sailboat or canoe, take a very wide angle lens or a zoom lens that has good wide angle capability to get as much of your own craft in your pictures.
  • Include among your pictures some shots of the environment in which the activity is occurring – the extent of the river, the height of the waves or, the drop of the waterfall.
  • Be aware that, as with snowy scenes, water can fool your light meter with its reflectiveness. So can a large white sail in the frame or a good deal of spray. If you can’t take an ambient light meter reading, take a light reading from a neutral object in the scene to get a more accurate reading (or use a gray card if you happen to have one).
  • Remember to bracket your exposures if you are in any doubt.


Above all, be constantly mindful of your own safety. Is the shot really worth the risk of leaning out so far, or undoing a safety harness. Of course not. No picture is worth endangering yourself, regardless of the temptation.


One tip we should not overlook about shooting water is to take a moment and remind yourself of its beauty and the joy of nature as you are taking your shots. You should enjoy yourself while you are shooting, and you will get greater joy when you view your pictures later.

Water in motion. The enormous power of a massive tidal change can be awe-inspiring.
Water in motion. The enormous power of a massive tidal change can be awe-inspiring.
Further information...

Waterproof your equipment
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