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Photographing Waterfalls and Waves

By Edited Aug 18, 2015 1 2

Photographing Water Movement

Capturing that nice, smooth, milky type movement of water in your photographs is not difficult, but it does take a little practice.

If you wish to take consistent, high quality images of this type then there is no getting around the fact that you need a DSLR.  The majority of compact cameras just don’t have the required settings to obtain the desired effect in all circumstances.  For example, this type of photography requires a slow shutter speed.  Reducing the shutter speed means the aperture will have to be adjusted to obtain the correct exposure.  If we have our shutter speed set, but then realise that out aperture is too large (small number) then we can go smaller, right down to f32 on modern DSLR’s.  With a compact camera, the smallest aperture is f8, so there is no was we would be able to maintain the slow shutter speed and still have correct exposure.

At times, f8 will be adequate, especially in very poor light, but if possible, a DSLR is the way to go.

Lens selection is personal choice, but the same rules apply whether you are using a zoom or a wide angle lens.

A tripod is essential.  There is no way around this.  Even with image stabilisation, whether in the camera body or the lens, you just can’t hold the camera steady enough or for long enough to obtain sharp images. 

Waterfalls and waves are probably the two most photographed examples of water movement.  The same principles apply when shooting either scene, but the most important thing that will influence your camera settings and will even decide whether this type of shot is possible at the time, is the light.

How many waterfall photographs, in which the photographer has captured the water movement and a lovely smooth white, have you seen that have been taken in bright sunlight?  Probably none.  Ideal weather conditions for obtaining this kind of effect with waterfalls is overcast.  This allows us to use slow shutter speeds to blur the water movement.  It also prevents shadows and bright spots from ruining your picture.

So pick your day and find your waterfall.  It’s nice and overcast and dingy.  Take you time composing your shot.  Find exactly the position you want and set up the tripod and camera.  Use a shutter speed of no more than a couple of seconds.  If you are using manual mode, set the aperture to obtain correct exposure.  You can use shutter priority on the camera and this will automatically select the correct aperture for you.  It’s best to use manual if you are comfortable, as this gives you absolute control.

When you are set to shoot, use a remote or the timer to trigger the shutter button.  This will ensure there is absolutely no camera shake from you pushing down on the button. 

If it’s all gone to plan, you should have the effect we were after and the rocks, trees, shrubs and whatever else is in the frame should be nice and sharp and in focus.

Waves are an easier subject and the same method is used. 

Generally, you are going to have to get up early or stay late to be there at the optimum time.  Predawn is a magic time to be on the beach in most areas, so this is my preferred time.  Photos should be taken before the sun hits the water.  The added bonus with this is you will probably end up capturing the predawn colours in the sky as well as the blurred water movement.

Water movement

Timing is important with the waves.  Don’t be afraid to take heaps of photos; you can always go through them later.  Take shots of breaking waves and waves running up the beach.  Even if there are no waves, the slightest movement will be captured by the camera if a slow enough shutter speed is used.

If the sun rises too high, then it is going to be impossible to get that blurred effect.  You will overexpose the water or the sky.  You can, however, always revert to photographing the waves as they really are, without the blurring.  This is quite simple and you can do it hand held. 

The idea here is to freeze the water movement at a particular moment.  To do this you need the fastest shutter speed you can get away with under the conditions.  Even compact cameras can take nice shots of waves using this method.

Don’t just have the wave on it’s own in the image.  This will make for a boring shot, even if you have got the water movement right.  Subjects like jetties, rocks (especially if they are covered in algae or weed), breakwalls, people or even the patterns in the sand, will all add interest to the shot and give it a sense of perspective.

There may be a little trial and error involved initially, but obtaining the blurred water in your images is not difficult at all and it is quite a pleasing effect.



Jul 5, 2011 1:19pm
Very nice article. As I live near the beach, this will come in very handy. Very good and clear explanations on how to set up the camera.
Jul 5, 2011 7:29pm
Thsnk you
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