How To Take Sharp, Stunning Photos Of Water In Every Lighting Condition

Ever wanted to freeze a water droplet? Or perhaps take a photo of a river that looks like a silk ribbon? Taking photos of water is one of the most enjoyable and challenging ways to capture really exciting natural photography. The best thing about taking shots of water is that you can generate some diverse effects each time you photograph. Some of these effects can be smooth and subdued. Other effects can be dynamic and dramatic. It all depends on your light and your shutter speed.

What does lighting and speed of the shutter have to do with taking photos of moving water? In order to get a clear shot of your water photograph you need to have the accurate amount of lighting. Because most flowing water photos are taken outdoors you will be at the mercy of the elements. You will also have to be able to work with your ordinary light in an ideal way.


Let’s take a fountain for example. Fountains in the city can supply beautifully creative  photos. We can try to capture them a couple of ways. We can shot the movement of the water to look like a silky-smooth ribbon. On the other hand we can photograph the flowing water so we see each drop. These two things depend heavily on your shutter speed.

A fast shutter means that you can freeze the action. This means that you will be able to make out every droplet of water suspended in the air as it shoots out to the fountain. You need a large amount of lighting to be able to do this. You need lots of good lighting so that you can have a fast speed of the shutter.

A slow shutter speed means that you can slow the movement. This creates what is called a silken effect. A silken effect is where your shutter speed slows down. The water looks like it is streaking across your photograph. You also should cautiously look at your light so that you do not over expose your shot.

So how does this work? Let me go into more detail. The longer you have your speed of the shutter open the more light comes in. And it works the other way too. The faster your shutter speed the less light that you have to work with. So you must find the balance between what outcome you want to create and your lighting.

Lets say for example you wanted to shot the water water fountain. It is a dim day. Perhaps there are clouds coming and generating some overcast light. You already have in mind that you want to stop the speed of motion of the water. You desire to be able to create a photo where you can see each single water droplet. You know that you need a speedy shutter to do this. But there is not a lot of light in the picture. So how do you get a fast speed of the shutter (so you can stop action) and be able to get just the exact amount of light?

The way you would do this is the following. You would decide on a very fast shutter speed. 8000th of a second may be your first choice. However, you see that the camera is telling you that to shoot at the speed you are going to have a very underexposed and dark photo. This will not suffice at all. Therefore you choose a wide aperture. Remember that a large aperture will blur your surroundings. This might be all right given the situation. So therefore you pick F 4. An aperture this large will let a lot of daylight in.

So now you are set. You have set your speed of the shutter at 8000th of a second and you have F4 as your fstop. But now there is one more problem. The camera is revealing you that you are still not getting sufficient lighting. Is there anything else you can do? Of course there is!

This is at the point your ISO comes in. Your ISO is the light sensitivity. When you don’t have adequate light you can easily boost your ISO. When you capture in auto the camera will decide the ISO for you. But while you are shooting in manual you have to decide it yourself. If you are shooting fast moving water on an gray day choose a high ISO. A high ISO is like having another two or three f-stops available. This means that even though you might not be able to get extra light through your manual setting, you can get supplementary light using ISO.

Now how about the silken effect? You will not have to use a very high ISO if you want the silken effect on a gray day. However, if you are shooting your water in a dim forest you may still should increase your ISO.

Your ISO is a helpful function that gives you more light. Just bear in mind the key to shots of flowing water is light and shutter speed. Your shutter captures the movement of water, your aperture and ISO can take care of the light for you.



Amy Renfrey is a professional photography teacher. She is the author of several photography ebooks and a monthly photography emagazine. She shows you how to take stunning photos every single time, even if you have never used a digital camera before. Click here to learn photography to easy way.


About the Author

Amy is an multi-award winning photographer from Australia. She teaches enthusiast photographers how to take beautiful, professional photos in easy, plain English. She has a monthly photography emagazine and ebooks to help you create stunning images every time.

Comments (6)

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  1. Swan says:

    Does this apply to big waterfalls?

  2. Reagan says:

    Can I apply this over all situations?

  3. Joan Fetterly says:

    What about taking pictures of waterfalls on a very bright, sunny, cloudless day? How do you make it so that the light reflecting off the water doesn’t make the water look like a white blob?

    • Hi Joan,
      Thanks for a great question. The reason why your waterfall looks like a blurry mass of white is because the water is reflecting too much light. On a sunny cloudless day photographing your waterfall in the bright sun will usually create this disappointing effect. One of the ways that you can keep your waterfall very well exposed is to decrease your ISO. When you have your ISO a little too high a, what tends to happen is that it over exposes the bright areas. In bright sunlight a high ISO is the first culprit to create blown out highlights.
      I recommend in this situation shoot your photograph at ISO 50 or ISO 100. Many cameras have ISO 100 as the lowest ISO the camera can go to.
      If you have reduced your ISO and the problem is still there then you could try using a filter over the camera. A polarising filter may be just the thing you need to darken down the highlights. Polarising filters are excellent for reducing reflections and hotspots.
      If you find that this still isn’t working, the polarise is darkening everything, then you could try this approach; a zoom right into your waterfall. Decide on whether you want a fast motion or a slow motion waterfall, and select the appropriate corresponding shutter speed. And then choose the right aperture for the overall exposure.
      Choosing to photograph your waterfall this way will mean that you will get a more accurate reading. It also means that there are no dark areas subject that are subject to underexposure. In fact there are no dark areas to speak of any more. You have eliminated them. Now you have an opportunity to just focus on getting the right exposure for your waterfall.
      Alternatively you could try editing the photograph in photo shop light room. Both of these programs come with tools that allow you to select a specific area of the scene and either darken or lighten it. In light room this is called the adjustment brush. It’s very simple. You simply click on the icon and then brush over the waterfall or the subject that needs adjusting, and then turn down the highlights. Or increase the shadows. Or you can simply increase or decrease the exposure. This means that you are choosing a selection to edit. I find this a very handy little tool to work with.
      You could also meter for the waterfall and not worry about the underexposed areas of the photo. And then try and bring up the underexposed areas in light room or photo shop later on. You can do this a number of ways. The adjustment brush will do it. Also making a change in the histogram could also do it.
      Keep in mind that not all photo editing can fix everything. You will see this in the article was written under our photo editing section. However I recommend that you try these suggestions. At least one of them has to work!

  4. Annie says:

    Simply want to say your article is fantastic. The information you deliver to us photo enthusiasts is simply excellent please keep up the great work.

  5. Angie says:

    I love this article Amy. I often take waterfall photos and fountains in the city square in my home town. I love the water the light catches the water to form rainbows. I am a huge fan of your work and love your ezines , thanks for all your hard work.

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