While holding my annual ‘Magic of Water’ workshop this spring, I asked participants what their main objective was. The majority stated they wanted to produce images that gave water that soft, silky flow. “No problem” I said. People love water, and all the nuances it can produce while photographing it. There are, however a number of factors that go into what the viewer’s perception of the final image is and thus the reason for this blog’s advice.
First, let me talk about water flow and shutter speeds. A shutter speed of 1/60 or so will render flowing water close to the equivalent of how our eyes see water in real life. Faster will freeze water and slower of course will produce a softer look. It’s amazing what an effect different shutter speeds can have on the same image.
In some instances though I prefer a much softer look; which brings us to the issue of executing slow shutter speeds. On bright days with the iso reduced to its’ lowest number, for argument sake let’s say 100, and a large aperture number like f 16, we are still left with a shutter speed that will be too fast to create a flow we may want. Solutions? Easy really. You can start with a polarizer if you wish, which will help for about 1 stop of light. For example a shutter speed of 1/15 can now be slowed to 1/8 with a 1-stop polarizer. Another option is with a ‘solid neutral density filter’, which comes in both square formats (using a filter holder) or a screw in filter, which also comes in what’s called a ‘variable neutral density’ and rotates to produce a stronger or weaker effect. Some brands have up to 8 stops in both solid and ‘variable’ varieties. Obviously these filters can be used for other effects as well where motion is needed like flattening out rippled still water as is the case of the sunset image here.
From a quality of light perspective I will say that cloudy days and even flat light produce better water images, especially when trying to produce the silky effect. Sunlight tends to blow out the highlights in the water creating a harsh effect that just doesn’t seem to lend itself all that well to the impact of the image. Of course it also creates faster shutter speeds which takes us back to our first issue. Without filters it can be a challenging day on the water!
People are drawn to water for obvious reasons and it can create truly amazing images, whether moving or still. Try experimenting with different shutter speeds using polarizers or solid neutral density filters if you feel the desire and I think you’ll find that water holds magic on many levels. Don’t forget your tripods, you’ll need them!