Have you ever wondered how to get that beautiful soft and silky water effect images of waterfalls, streams and oceans often have?
The technique to achieve that soft misty water photography effect is not as complicated as you may think. All you need is practice. An excellent tripod. And this step-by-step guide.
Shutter speed, aperture, ISO speed – the secret to getting that smooth effect in water photography lies in increasing the exposure time.
This is because with a fast shutter speed you capture every detail of every drop of water on the scene.
Your waterfall is perfectly clear and sharp but this isn’t always a good thing. It might even make your image less attractive.
What Gear Do You Need
You’ll have to put your camera on a cliff, or in the middle of a rushing river. A stable tripod is essential.
My typical setup low and near the sea water
You can use any camera for this, it doesn’t matter if your setup is a DSLR or mirrorless. Just keep in mind that you will have to fit filters or holders on the lens.
Remote Release Shutter
With this type of photography, camera shake is a real concern. To avoid loss of focus or unwanted blurry images, use a cheap remote shutter release.
This tool allows you to avoid pressing the shutter button yourself and risking disturbing your camera.
ND Filters (and CPL)
This is the most important element for this type of photography. It does not matter if the ND filters are slot-in or screw-in, the important thing here is to have them.
Equally important is to have filters of excellent quality. This will reduce the chances for diffraction or colour-casting.
The polariser is also important. It will remove reflections from non-metallic surfaces and saturate some colours.
This will help you see the bottom of the sea. Tree leaves will not shine like crazy. And the green of the grass will be strong and beautiful.
My Nisi 6 stop ND filter
The first thing to do is to find a subject you want to photograph. It can be a river or a waterfall or a cliff overlooking the ocean.
Once you’ve got this and you’ve reached the place you’ll be photographing from, don’t rush to set up your tripod. With the camera on the tripod one tends not to study the various possible compositions that a location can offer.
You usually choose a small variant of the one that appears before you at the first shot.
To avoid that, start walking around. Get to a lower vantage point, then to a higher one. The point of this is to try to find the most interesting view of your scene.
It took me half an hour to find a nice composition for this one.
Try to think about the direction of light and how much it can or cannot illuminate the scene you have chosen. This will affect the mood of your photography.
Consider how the shadows will fall and how they will influence the scene. Then the highlights.
You can also use these now famous applications for mobile devices (Planit! For Photographers Pro and PhotoPills) to understand how light will affect your scene.
At this point you can pick up the camera and start framing some of the scenes you have found. Find the one that works best.
Once you the compositions you want to photograph, you can use your sturdy tripod to start creating your own image.
Water Photography Camera Settings
To achieve the silky and blurry effect of the water you will find yourself using a shutter speed of at least ½ of a second. This is more or less the shutter speed limit to get a smooth movement and not freeze effect the water.
Whether you have to keep your shutter more open than that will depend on ambient light. This will also affect which and how many ND filters you have to mount to extend the shutter speed.
Dark mood with the tree on the right the help my composition
If you haven’t already done so, set your camera to Manual Mode.
An aperture value between f/11 and f/16 is more than enough to get a clear shot in every part of the frame with most lenses.
To help you extend the shooting time as much as possible set the lowest ISO value possible. Go for 100 or 200 ISO.
At this point you can set a shutter speed from the reading that the exposure meter makes of the scene. Write down that shutter speed, it will be very useful in a few moments.
Set your focus. Usually I take a point that falls in the lower third of the rule of thirds and I focus at there.
Now you can take some test shots. This will help you to verify that the composition is free of errors and omissions. It will also help you to decide if the subject has the right space in the frame.
Next, it’s time to check the histogram. It will show you if your exposure is correct or if you need to improve it. To improve your exposure you can play around with shutter time, aperture or ISO speed.
You can also use GND filters, to balance out the highlights and darks.
How to Use Filters for Misty Water Photography
Once the composition satisfies you and you have an idea of the amount of light in the scene, you can move on.
To start try to insert a polariser filter to remove any type of reflection.
If you are photographing the sea, this filter will allow you to see details at the bottom of the water’s surface. It removes the reflection from the surface of the water.
If you are shooting a waterfall, you will have the same result for the stream in the foreground. Plus, it will remove reflections and shine from the tree leaves and grass.
One more effect the green of leaves and grass will be more intense and saturated.
CPL Filters in Action
You have to remember that the polarising filter removes almost 1 stop of light from your camera. So if you are shooting at ½ of a second, with the polarising filter you will reach 1 second of exposure, keeping the other parameters unaltered.
If you are already shooting at 10 seconds, adding the polarising filter will allow you to reach 20 seconds.
This is already a first test to see how the shape of the water and the composition change as the exposure time increases.
Always rely on the histogram of your camera. If you do not have a soft effect on the water with the addition of the CPL filter, start adding an ND filter.
CPL filters in action
There are many types of ND filters available to buy. You can go from 1 stop to a 20 stop ND filters. For example, I use NiSi ND and GND filters mounted on the V5 holder, which also contains the NiSi polariser.
When you insert the ND filter for the construction of your photograph you must keep in mind that these filters are very dark. They are built to filter the light without introducing strange artefacts and colour casting.
My advice is to start using them once you’ve figured out everything else about your photo.
With an ND filter mounted the camera will no longer be able to focus in the right way. And even in manual focus you will have a hard time understanding what is in focus and what is not.
A classic setup with CPL (in NiSi system is the filters near the front lens so trust me), a 3 stop Medium GND filter and a 6 stop ND filter
Now take a big breath, you have arrived at the end of the process.
If you don’t have a wireless remote shutter, move as far as the cable allows. Otherwise, move to a quieter and safer area.
One thing that can help to further reduce the vibrations on the camera body is the mirror lock. This only applies if you use a DSLR, but if you have a mirrorless you do not have to worry.
At this point you take a first photo and analyse it.
You might find that it needs some minor tuning of the exposure. But these should be very small refinements to get the best image in the shooting phase.
If everything is OK, the image is done. I always shoot more than one image for each scene, however. I would not like to go home and find any mistakes I had not noticed in the field.
It won’t happen immediately that you’ll get those great water photography shots. The only thing you can do is keep trying. And keep shooting.
And the best thing you can do to do this is to explore and enjoy yourself. The beautiful images will come naturally.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
Thank you for reading...
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