Make a Splash: Tips for Photographing Water

Depending on your technique, images of water can be calm or exciting

09-09-2010 // Hannah Schardt

water droplets on spider web by Barbara Maclay

AS ANY PHOTOGRAPHER or photo enthusiast knows, water is never just water in a photograph. Think of the different feelings an image of water can evoke: the misty rush of a mountain stream, the splash of a bird landing on the ocean, the quiet stillness of a placid lake.

Each of these presents its own challenge to a beginning photographer: How to freeze water in time? How to make it look soft? How to get the clearest image of a reflection? How to best capture the movement of an animal through water?

Here are a few tips to get you started, along with a photo slide show of images by members of National Wildlife's Flickr group to inspire you. Now get out there and get wet! 


waterfall by Tom F Wood
Moving softly: waterfalls, rivers and streams

To capture the smooth, misty look of moving water, allow your shutter to remain open for a long exposure time—as long as five seconds. Of course, such a long exposure will capture any movement in the frame, including camera motion. To minimize this, use a tripod or other means of steadying the camera (such as a beanbag) and place it on a steady surface.

You will want to use the smallest possible aperture. This means a high f-stop—f11 or even f22 if circumstances allow. This will keep too much light from entering the camera during the long exposure time.




lioness in water by Ron N Magill
Stopped in time: splashes, sprays and waves

Just as blurring water with a long exposure creates a sense of calm, freezing it in time creates a feeling of action and immediacy. This is especially the case when the water is moving in reaction to a living creature such as a leaping dolphin or, as seen here, a splashing lion. Moving water can be “frozen”—that is, not turned into a single flowing body—with a fast shutter speed. If your camera has an “Action” mode, you may use this. Otherwise, set shutter to 1/250 or higher.

Assuming you are using a digital camera, press the button halfway down to focus the shot. Frame the water as you want it to appear in the image, then press the button fully.



pelicans in reflection by Diana C Johnson
Reflecting the landscape: lakes and puddles

Flat, still water provides a great way to emphasize the landscape. Majestic mountains and lush trees—or, for that matter, thirsty wildlife—make a greater impact when they are duplicated in a reflective body of water—even a puddle.

To get the clearest images of reflective water, try to find shallow, relatively motionless water. Blue skies look particularly gorgeous in reflection shots, but try to avoid having the sun shine directly on the water; aim, instead, for a time and angle where the sun is shining on the objects (mountains, trees, etc.) that are being reflected.

As with most photography, the best times of day to capture reflection are in the early morning or twilight hours when the sunlight is less harsh. And hunker down: To get the best angle, you will generally want to get close to the water and low to the ground.




Hannah Schardt is a senior associate editor of National Wildlife Magazine and the editor of PhotoZone .



 Slide show images are provided by members of our Flickr group. For best results, click to view in full screen mode. Press the escape key to exit.

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