Water is one of the most photographed elements in nature. Whether it’s a huge, curled wave on the shores of Hawaii or the gentle trickle of a stream over rocks, water calls photographers from all over the world. We tend to find the movement, shape, reflection and energy quite fascinating. Not only do we love its movement, but we love to “blur” that movement to create something quite special.
When the motion of water is blurred by the camera it tends to take on quite a magical element to it. You could say it looks ethereal, even ghostlike. These qualities are created by slowing the effect of motion, and, light. Once the motion is blurred the camera can then capture the light of the body of water, rather than smaller sections of it. I’ll explain more.
The secret of create magical scenes with water is the controlling the exposure. We are, in effect, creating a time lapse exposure. A time lapse exposure is a photograph that has a long shutter speed and good exposure that shows nice detail. The good news is that as long as you have a dimly lit scene, you can potentially create these types of photos.
There is not much to it really. The first thing to do is find a simple scene. Don’t capture scenes with too many subjects or elements in them because clutter will detract from the simplicity and magical quality of your final photo. If you can’t find a scene that is simple then try zooming in closer to remove any irrelevant elements. A good rule of thumb to remember is “if it doesn’t enhance the story, then get rid of it”.
If you shoot during the day try using an ND filter. ND stands for neutral density. These filters go on the front of your camera. They reduce the amount of light coming into your camera without affecting the colour information. You may ask “why not just make the aperture smaller to reduce the light? Or make the shutter speed faster?” When you make the shutter speed faster you are going to reduce the magical time lapse effect. If you change the aperture you will be changing the depth of field. To be technical, an ND filter reduces or modifies the potency of all wavelengths of light evenly. This means no colour will be affected over the other.
Let’s take waterfalls for example. They are a fast moving body of water that looks great when blurred. If you want to shoot the waterfall at a slow shutter speed to blur the motion you may be looking at a 30 second or 1 minute exposure. This simply won’t work if you shoot on a very sunny day. At 30 seconds your waterfall is going to look like a big block of white. There will be no data at all, just an overexposed mess. Instead of missing out on the photo you can place an ND filter over the front of your lens. This reduces the light and retains the colour whilst giving you the blurred motion affect.
To begin with, work out what you want to capture. Think about how to position your camera and what composition you will create. This will ensure a captivating and artistic photo. By placing the camera towards your subject in line with the rule of thirds, you’ll be creating much nicer photos to look at. You can then do minor edits rather than spends ages deleting unwanted elements from your photo.
Remember that certain times of the day the light is soft and hard. You may want to shoot at a time of day that offers you a soft light such as early morning or later in the day. Depending on where you are in relation to the equator, you may have very little time to capture dawn or dusk shots. Always keep this in mind because you will be able to plan and capture a lot more effectively.
Take a tripod with you so you can create long exposures. If you are walking a fair way to your waterfall or body of water, then make sure the tripod isn’t too heavy. I love sturdy tripods as much as the next photographer, but I certainly cannot haul the thing up mountains and walking tracks for hours. Ideally, we need a tripod that’s going to keep the camera very steady without hurting ourselves when we carry it.
After you arrive at your body of water and decide on the best capture, mount your camera on the tripod and carefully attach the ND filter. Work out the best exposure for your scene. If you are not sure then bracket a few exposures to see what works best. You may be pleasantly surprised that 10 seconds works better for the scene that 30 seconds does. Either way, it’s best to try different exposures.
Once you are home and are ready to view and edit your photos, have a look at them carefully to see what needs removing and what needs enhancing. Keep in mind what you want your final outcome to look like. This will help you determine what needs to be done first. If you are working in Photoshop then always create a duplicate layer of the background so you maintain a non destructive editing process throughout all your work. Keep your editing simple so as not to get too carried away. Remember the idea is simplicity.
Once you have edited your photos you may decide to print them. Before printing, apply a softproofing profile based on printer and paper. This will enable you to see what the photo will look like from that printer and on that specific paper you’ve chosen. You’ll be able to see the before and after image and make the adjustments accordingly. This is an essential process if you want high quality prints that last a very long time.