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Go With The Flow

John Lennon said, “Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.” When it comes to your photography, it’s your imagination—your creativity—that makes you who you are. That’s very cool.

One of the controls we can use to create our own photographic reality is the shutter speed setting on our cameras. With that simple control, we can alter time—by “freezing” it (with fast shutter speeds) and by blurring it (with slow shutter speeds). Other elements we can use to create our own photographic reality include Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom and plug-ins.

When it comes to photographing moving water, most photographers like the effect produced by using a slow shutter speed, which creates the silky effect. “Frozen-in-time” water, on the other hand, isn’t as pleasing to look at, in most cases.

In this article, I’ll share with you my top techniques and accessories for creating the silky water effect. Let’s go!

Watch The Water’s Direction

The direction in which the water is moving can affect the mood and feeling of a photograph—and it’s the mood and feeling that are the most important elements in the making of a photograph. After taking several photographs of the Coquille River Light on the Oregon coast, I realized the most dramatic image was created when the water was flowing around the rocks in the foreground and out toward the sea. To make the photograph even more dramatic, I converted the image to black-and-white in Lightroom. The direction of moving water can change fast. To capture subtle differences in the movement of the water, set your camera on high frame rate. You’ll be surprised at how a fraction of a second affects the impact and drama of an image.

Compare Exposure Times

Here’s an example of how different shutter speeds change how the movement of the water is captured in a photograph. While photographing Thor’s Well on the Oregon coast, I used a shutter speed of 1/4 of a second for the photograph on the left, and a shutter speed of 1/50 of a second for the photograph on the right.

ND Filters Are a Must

To achieve a long exposure, start by setting your ISO to 100 (or 200, if that’s the lowest ISO setting on your camera) and your aperture to ƒ/22 (or smaller, if available).

In bright daylight, those settings may not be sufficient to let you shoot at a slow shutter speed to create the silky water effect. Neutral density (ND) filters reduce the amount of light entering the lens, letting you use long shutter speeds even on sunny days. You have two choices: a variable ND filter (usually 2 to 8 stops) or a fixed ND filter. Many photographers have a set of three ND filters (0.9, 1.2 and 3.0) that reduces the amount of light entering the lens in various degrees, offering total control over shutter speeds and apertures. Fixed ND filters also can be stacked for extremely long exposures.

A polarizing filter, which is often used to reduce glare on water, also can act as an ND filter. And, speaking of polarizers, a variable ND filter is basically a double polarizing filter. With a polarizing filter, you can over-polarize an image, which can cause a dark band, or a dark center spot, in a photograph. That can happen when using a variable ND filter, too—to a much greater (worse) degree. Be very careful not to “dial in” too much of the effect when using a variable ND filter. Check your image carefully on your camera’s LCD monitor.


If you don’t have an ND filter, use Mother Nature’s free ND filter: low light. Shoot before sunrise or after sunset, or on a very overcast day.

Other Accessories: Your camera must be rock-steady during long exposures. Don’t cheap out on a flimsy tripod. Use a cable release, an app or your camera’s self-timer to trip the shutter.

Always carry a lens cleaning cloth to wipe water spray off the front element of your lens—and never change lenses around waterfalls or a pounding surf!

Camera covers, such as OP/TECH Rain Sleeves, keep cameras dry in misty situations. NEOS overshoes, which fit over hiking boots and sneakers, keep feet dry when shooting in water. Rubber boots work, too.

Shoot Wide

When photographing waterfalls (or rivers or streams), take close-ups and wide-angle shots. Close-up shots are cool, but wide-angle shots, like this image I took in Iceland, add a sense of place to the main subject. I took this photograph with my Canon EF 17-40mm lens set at 17mm.

Try Black-and-White

Sometimes, close-up waterfall images, like this one that I took at the New Croton Dam in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, don’t have a lot of color or contrast. If that’s the case, try converting your image to black-and-white and then boosting the contrast. When boosting contrast, be careful, very careful, not to blow out the highlights, which is easy to do in whitewater images.


Usually, the enemy of HDR is movement—moving people and moving leaves. Not so with moving water. When you shoot HDR of moving water, the water is in a slightly different place for each image, so the blurred/silky effect is enhanced. This is a Canon EOS 5D Mark III in-camera HDR image that I took in Iceland. My exposures were 0 EV, +2 EV and -2 EV. The HDR mode was set to Art Vivid.

Expose for the Highlights

When photographing bright subjects like water against dark subjects like rocks, it’s easy to overexpose the water. To ensure a correct exposure of the water, make sure your highlight alert is activated. If you get “blinkies” (an overexposure warning), reduce the exposure to the point where you have no “blinkies.” Also shoot with your histogram (your in-camera light meter) activated. Make sure you don’t have a spike on the right. If your image is overexposed more than a stop or so, it may be impossible to rescue those highlights, even if you’re shooting RAW. I took this photograph in Iceland with my highlight alert activated and histogram displayed.

I hope these tips help you capture some of nature’s natural wonders. As always, don’t get so involved in the technical aspects of photography that you miss out on experiencing the moment. Stop and smell the roses.

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