How to Photograph Flowing Water

Click to ViewWhat’s the correct way to photograph flowing water (waterfalls, streams, oceans, etc.)? It turns out there is no correct way – it depends on who you are and what you like!

In my photographs, I like to show what it would look like if I were actually right there looking at it. I want realism. I like that. So I usually shoot water so I can see almost every drop and ripple – a snapshot in time just as if I were there. But, that’s me.

The overwhelming majority of people like to see water as a blurred, fuzziness without drops or ripples. I’ve heard it termed “silky” or “flowing.”

No problem, I’ll show you how to do both:

  • Realistic-looking flowing water:
    • Set camera to Shutter-priority mode (“S”, “T” or “Tv”).
    • Optionally, use a circular polarizing filter to reduce reflections.
    • Select a shutter speed of 1/60 s or less.
    • Shoot.
  • Silky, flowing water:
    • Again, set camera to Shutter-priority mode (“S”, “T” or “Tv”).
    • Optionally, use a circular polarizing filter to reduce reflections. It will also reduce the amount of light coming in and help you extend your shutter time (see below).
    • Possibly use a Neutral Density (“ND”) filter (more about that in the next step).
    • Definitely use a tripod.
    • Select a shutter speed of less than 1/30 s – preferably around 1 s.
    • Shoot.
    • If you can not select a long enough shutter speed (i.e. 1 s results in blown highlights), then add the ND filter and retry. There are different strengths of ND filters available, and the one you’ll need is based on how bright it is when you’re shooting.
  • Both, silky and realistic in one photo:
    • Take bracketed shots or separate ones using both techniques described above.
    • Combine bracketed photos using HDR software.

When the sky is overcast, it is a good time for  shooting waterfalls and streams because…

  1. the diffused light works well in keeping the specular reflections down from all that flowing water, and…
  2. the reduced light allows for longer shutter times if you want the silky, flowing water effect, and…
  3. as an added bonus, when the sky is overcast it is usually because it has just rained and wet rocks surrounding the flowing water look really cool. Wet foliage pops with color as well! A circular polarizer is especially helpful in bringing out color – use one if you have it!

You can easily photography flowing water. You just have to know what you want and how to set up for it!