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Photographing Water

Water is one of the most important items to all of the people and other life forms on this planet. Oceans account for 4/5ths of the earths surface, and the water cycle from evaporation to clouds to rain or snow, feeding streams and rivers is necessary for life. A large percentage of our bodies and other life forms are made up of water.

Water is normally in a liquid form, evaporated it turns into gas, condensing into small droplets can be seen as steam or clouds, frozen it becomes a solid in the form of ice or flattened ice crystals as snow.

Photographing water in all its forms is therefore a large field, but we have a variety of other articles on some aspects of this, and here I want to look principally at how to get different effects when photographing running water. We in part covered this when looking at how to photograph waterfalls with three articles Photographing Waterfalls How to photograph waterfalls - shutter speed  and How to photograph waterfalls - covering exposure, white balance, perspective and more.   We have a lot of information on waterfalls, including location guides for many, and detailed listings of all the major waterfalls and many of the others. You can find this from the Waterfalls Topic Index, Waterfalls Section and Waterfalls Doorway.

In the second of the articles above  we have a table that looks at the effects of shutter speed and effects that can be produced when photographing a waterfall, this table is also below.

Emotion Example Amount of Blur Shutter Speed
Surrealistic Motion Dreamy, surrealistic, waterfall image Large amount Long shutter speeds are required.
The moving water is very blurred causing a loss of much of the detail in the water. This produces a romantic, peaceful image.
Realistic, Fluid Motion Realistic waterfall image Moderate amount A moderate shutter speed is required.
The water is blurred to emphasise the continuous motion of the water. Some detail lost in the water is acceptable in order to achieve the blur effect.
Frozen Motion Water crashing forcefully against rocks Small amount A moderately fast shutter speed is required.
Here, we want to freeze the action, but not completely. There should be a small amount of blur to emphasise the movement of the water.
Turbulence, Action, Danger River rafting the rapids None Very fast shutter speed is required.
This will freeze the motion of the water, producing an image that is frozen in time and space.

We also mention the affects of speed when looking at Photographing Seawater, to get the misty effects of moving water or to freeze a wave or spray.

In these and other occasions when we photograph water the common element is the affect of shutter speed on the image of the water.

We can illustrate this with a simple experiment that you can do yourself at home, this is a running tap photographed at different shutter speeds. In this case I chose an indoor tap and used Cool-Lite's as illumination for the slower shutter speeds and flash for the faster shutter speed. You could do it outside using daylight and a  hose pipe, but in January this did not appeal to me.

Water from the tap photographed  normally, as you would see it.

Some say the best shutter speed to see the equivalent to our eyes is 1/60th of a second, others 1/125th. In this case I chose to use 1/100th second.  The shutter speeds are shown below the photos.

1/100 second

Water from the tap photographed with a slower shutter speed, so more blurred and softer.

  shutter speed 1/30th second

 shutter speed 1/4 sec

Water photographed with a high shutter speed to freeze it, making it look more like an icicle than running water.

Note: You will need to check the instructions on your camera to see how fast a shutter speed the camera can synchronise flash to, otherwise, ignore setting a high speed and have a dark room with flash, as the flash duration is very short.
  Shutter speed 1/640th sec but flash duration produces an even faster shutter effect.  

If we apply this to a waterfall we can see it with natural water, surreal or a frozen effect. If we put our camera on a tripod and take several different versions we can, if we wish, combine these, either in your camera if it has this capability or in editing later, getting the surreal water effect as a background and detail of the frozen water, giving a most impressive waterfall, perhaps ideal for a tourist brochure.

Water Frozen in Time

By using a very fast shutter speed, as with electronic flash, we can freeze water in time, used with running water we get an icicle effect as shown above, but we can go further and explore aspects of water that we cannot see, exploring turbulence, the effects of surface tension and magical effects that happen in all our homes and go unseen. This is explored further in the article Water Frozen in Time.

Rainbows Natural and Manmade

We cover photographing rainbows in Rainbows - How to photograph, a rainbow is caused by sunlight passing through drips of water. The best rainbows are always when the sun is immediately behind you. You can create a rainbow in your garden on a sunny day by having the sun behind you and putting your thumb over a hose pipe sending a fine spray into the air.


Lower Slaughter, Gloucestershire - with reflections in the river

Water acts as a good reflector, allowing us to have great landscapes when lakes or slow flowing rivers are in our photos. Reflections can be enhanced by using a Polarizing filter.   Polarizer's can also be used turned 90 degrees to help us see through the surface of water removing reflections as in the case of photographing fish in a  river.


See Also:

Water Frozen In Time

Shutter Speed


Lighting and Reflectors Section


By: Keith Park Section: Key:
Page Ref: Photographing_water Topic: Photographic Techniques  Last Updated: 01/2011

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