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Have Fun With Slow Water Photography

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

In January our club member Sue Shreeves presented a brilliant talk on slow water photography at one of our weekly zoom meetings. This subject is a particular passion of Sue's. She shared with us her top tips for capturing great long exposure images of water with various levels of movement; including tips for equipment, what to look for that will make interesting patterns in the images, and how to make sure you don't get cold and hungry whilst you're waiting for those great shots! Sue has kindly compiled the information she presented for us to share with you in this article. She has also included links to resources that provide additional information on how to capture slow water and other types of long exposure images, and how to choose and use filters.

Sue's Guide to Slow Water Photography

I love experimenting with different effects in my slow water images. The effects you create are dependent on exposure time/shutter speed. Fast shutter speeds freeze the movement in water. When you slow the shutter down you can start to create some interesting effects, making water more fluffy, or smooth and misty.

When using slow shutter speeds you obviously want to avoid overexposing your images and you do this by narrowing your aperture and lowering your ISO and/or by using filters, depending on the light conditions. In an area with less light such as woodland, or on an overcast day, if you set your camera to the lowest native ISO (this will be 64, 100, or 200 depending on your camera) and choose a narrow aperture of about f16 you should get a shutter speed slow enough to give you fluffy water without using a filter. If it’s a bright day and you want to capture fluffy water or even misty smooth water this typically requires shutter speeds of 1 second or longer and you will then need to use a neutral density filter.

Neutral Density (ND) filters are like sunglasses for your camera! They are basically darkened glass that you put in front of your lens, with different levels of darkness available. The number assigned to the filter indicates how many stops of light it reduces the exposure by. A 10 stop is very dark and enables really long exposure times. I will use this type of filter on bright days and for capturing very smooth misty water. A 6 stop is less dark and the one I use most often, particularly as I like to shoot around sunset and sunrise. A 3 stop is lighter still and this is what I would use for lower light conditions, though when it reaches blue hour I typically shoot without a filter. Graduated filters are also useful if you want to balance the light in your image. If you want to invest in one filter a 6 stop is nice and versatile.

I almost always use a polariser too when I am shooting water as it reduces reflections and brings out lovely detail in the sky. Polarisers can impact the exposure by around 2 stops, depending on the brand, so do consider this if you are combining a polariser and a filter. Filters come in various shapes, such as square ones that use an adapter, round ones that screw onto the front of your lens, and even magnetic ones. The ones you choose will probably be dictated by your budget but it’s worth doing a little research and investing in a brand known for quality.

These are the steps I recommend for capturing slow water images…

1. Because you are shooting with slow shutter speeds I’d advise using a tripod. If you don’t have a tripod find a steady surface such as a rock to perch your camera on. I use a tripod 99% of the time. You might find you can shoot without a tripod if you are photographing fast moving water, such as waterfalls, as you won’t need such a long exposure time to soften the water. I also recommend using the inbuilt timer or a shutter release to avoid camera shake. And don’t forget to turn off vibration reduction (also called image stabilisation) as it can actually introduce camera shake issues if it is switched on when you are using a tripod.

2. Set up your composition and focus before you put your filters on as focussing can be tricky through a very dark filter.

3. Focus on something that won’t move. This will give you nice sharpness in the static objects and really emphasise the movement of the water. Rocks make good focal points and provide foreground/background interest in your image. In the image below my focal point is a beach hut that had blown into the sea on a stormy evening! I was also able to get the effect in the water without a filter and a tripod as it was blue hour and the water was moving quickly.

4. Make sure the horizon is level.

5. Choose your shutter speed. First, set your camera up to take a well exposed image without your filter. Choose your ISO and aperture and see what shutter speed the camera gives you (e.g. ISO 100, f8, SS60). When you put your filter on you will need to adjust your shutter speed so that it allows enough light in to get a well exposed image and gives you the effect you want in the water. Experiment! I often start at 1 second, which might be enough to soften the water but still get a sense of movement. For more misty and smooth water I will use longer shutter speeds. Adjust your ISO/ aperture to achieve your desired shutter speed. In the image of Old West Pier in Brighton I wanted a really milky effect and used an exposure time of 50 seconds.

There are various phone apps available to help with calculating shutter speed when using filters. You simply enter the shutter speed you would use without a filter, the filter you plan to use, and the app tells you the shutter speed to set for a correctly exposed image. There’s no right or wrong shutter speed though, it depends on the effect you want to create. Speed it up and slow it down to see what effects you get.

6. Look for aspects that will make interesting patterns in the water, such as foam and swirls. In this image I really liked the way the incoming water was swirling around the rock and wanted to see how that would look when softened.

7. Be aware that fast moving, splashing water is often white and so it will probably be the brightest part of your image. Set your exposure carefully and keep an eye on your histogram so that you don’t blow those bright highlights.

8) Keep a lens cloth handy to wipe off any water splashes from the filters to avoid having to edit out water droplets from your images!

9) Stay safe and warm. Check the tide times, make sure you know if it's coming in or going out. Take care around the ocean and be aware of surging might get wet feet! Ensure you have space around you to move to if you need a quick exit. Make sure you wrap up, it can be cooler and windier standing around the shoreline especially if you plan to stay after sunset. Take drinks and snacks. You're more likely to be happy standing around waiting for the great shots if you're warm and well fed and watered.

10) The most important tip of all.....have fun and enjoy your surroundings!

In a Nutshell:

  • Steady your camera, preferably with a tripod; use a timer or shutter release; turn off image stabilisation

  • Set composition and focus before putting on the filter

  • Focus on something static

  • Make sure the horizon is straight

  • Set the shutter speed for the effect you want to achieve. Experiment!

  • Look for details in the water to create patterns

  • Keep an eye on your histogram to avoid blowing out highlights

  • Have a lens cloth handy

  • Stay safe and warm - and fed and hydrated!

  • Have fun!

Check out Sue's instagram feed to see more of her amazing images:


Recommended Resources

How to Shoot Great Waterfall Pictures Using Shutterspeed

A short video advising how to choose your shutter speed depending what effect you'd like for your water, e.g. how fluffy or frozen you'd like it.

9 Great Tips to Photograph Waterfalls

Great advice for how to compose your images, whether for big or very small waterfalls! Including how to think about the light, foreground, and background interest in your images.

Long Exposure Photography Guide and Tips

Gordon Laing describes how to capture great long exposure shots that need little or no editing.

ND Filters? What Are They? ND Filters Explained for Beginners

A great short video demonstrating why and how to use ND filters, taking into consideration depth of field and water movement.

A Guide to Neutral Density Filters An in-depth article about choosing and using ND filters. Including a table to work out shutter speeds for exposure requirements, and practical guidance for settings with example images.


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