Water holds a special significance to people; it makes up 70% of the Earth’s surface, and about the same of our own bodies. It’s the only thing we absolutely cannot live without.
Because of this, images of water can stir very profound reactions inside of people – excitement, serenity, longing, awe, and even fear of its immense power. After all, it can literally move mountains. Sure, it may take thousands of years, but water is infinitely patient.
When we pick up our cameras and snap a shot of the ocean, a waterfall, or even a drop of water in a glass, all these ideas are being absorbed into the image, yet every composition will invoke different associations in the viewer’s mind. What you decide to shoot, and how you decide to shoot it, will greatly affect the impact of the image.
When photographing water, there are a few pieces of equipment you might want to have handy:
When the air is calm over inland bodies of water (lakes, ponds, puddles), they can reflect the surroundings off their glassy surface, creating beautiful patterns and repetition that keep the viewer absorbed in the image.
Capturing this in a photograph can be tricky, though. To maximize the power of your photo, give some thought to a few things before hitting the shutter.
Water doesn’t have to be still to be smooth, though. Use long exposures when photographing rivers, waterfalls, and even man-made fountains to make the rushing water appear soft and fluid, even creamy.
The faster the water is flowing, the shorter the shutter speed needs to be to blur it. Slow-moving creeks, on the other hand, may need a full second exposure to achieve this effect. If you’re shooting in broad daylight, you may need a neutral density filter to allow the aperture/shutter speed combination you want without overexposing the picture.
Whenever you use a long shutter speed, be aware of the movement of other objects in the frame such as trees, boats, and people, as their movement will be blurred as well. Balance your shutter speed with every element in mind to achieve the perfect level of harmony between the water and its surroundings.
If you use the same technique on ocean shores instead of waterfalls, the spray from the surf creates mist that hovers over the water. This is most pronounced when the tide is coming in, or when the sea is rough due to a nearby storm, so keep your eyes on the weather. You’ll see the effect much more on craggy shores, where the waves crash against the rocks or cliff faces and spray in all directions. Shooting these scenes with a long exposure forms a hazy, somewhat ethereal seascape.
In some conditions, the cool sea breeze colliding with the warmer inland air creates fog – sometimes a thin wisp that covers the water’s surface.
A fun alternative to all of these techniques is their very opposite. When water is in motion, such as on a river or rocky seashore, use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. This can create a very lively, dramatic composition that suspends the water’s movement in time, capturing its shapes and forms that usually pass so quickly.
A fairly fast shutter speed is necessary to stop a splash in its tracks, so brighter conditions are better for this type of photography. Use a wide aperture to allow these short exposures and to focus the viewer’s attention on the water’s detail. This is especially necessary because a polarizing filter should still be used to cut the water’s glare, which will decrease your light by roughly two stops.
Whatever type of shot you’re taking, when you’re near the water with expensive photo equipment, it’s always a good idea to keep your camera and other electronics tethered to the shore to prevent any unhappy accidents! Consider your rules of composition when framing your shot, using the water as an element to draw your viewer into the photograph and keep them there.