The gentle gurgle of a stream can soothe a baby to sleep while the rough waves of an ocean are strong enough to sink a ship.
Water is a fascinating subject that artists use as the theme for songs, movies, and artwork. Photographers are no exception. They too are artists determined to capture moving water.
Admiring moving water is easy – capturing that water with a camera is a challenge. That is why I compiled a list of tips to help you learn how to photograph moving water.
5 Types of Moving Water That Make Stunning Pictures
Studies show that people who live near water have lower stress levels. The reason for this is still unknown, but scientists have observed the calming effects of water on the brain.
Here are five types of moving water you can try to photograph to create that same feeling of calm in your viewers.
- The rolling waves of an ocean
- The strong currents of a river
- The tranquil ripples of a lake
- The fierce beauty of a waterfall
- The small trickles of a stream
5 Composition Ideas for Unique Moving Water Photographs
Moving water, like so many other parts of nature, doesn’t reflect well in regular pictures. Whenever I take a quick snapshot of water, I lose most of its beauty.
I use these five composition ideas when I take pictures of moving water – to preserve some of its natural look and feel.
1. Capture Water in Action
If you want your picture to feel alive, capture movement at the height of its action. A fast shutter speed works best for these types of motion shots.
When photographing rivers, find the spot of most movement. For ocean storms, wait until the wave begins to break. Think of the water as a movie and capture the climax of the film.
2. Turn Your Photograph into a Painting
Think of your picture as abstract art. While an up-close shot of the action generates powerful emotions – a blurred image of a river calms the viewer.
You can achieve this soothing effect by using a slow shutter speed. A tripod is essential to keep your image from blurring. Instead, you will capture the natural flow of water like a sweep of an artist’s brush.
This type of shot is perfect for rivers, streams, and calm lakes.
3. Take Your Picture in the Water
Let your viewers experience the water up close by taking them into its depths. Wear protective clothing and waterproof your camera, then step into the water. You can also use a boat if you would prefer to stay dry.
These pictures will give viewers a different angle than regular landscape shots. If you wanted to add an extra layer of creativity, try a photograph at eye level, with the water lapping at your lens. Allow your viewer to feel like they are swimming in the ocean with you.
4. Make Movement Your Focal Point
Instead of focusing on all the moving water at once, choose one spot of movement and make it your focal point. For ocean shots, zoom into one crashing wave. In a small stream, find the natural leading lines left by the water meandering around rocks.
If you can’t find a specific spot of motion, create your own. Throw a rock into a quiet lake to create a photogenic ripple – or ride a boat down a river to capture rolling waves.
5. Use Reflections in Your Photographs
Calm water is best for perfect mirror photographs, but don’t underestimate the power of reflections in moving water photography as well.
You can capture reflection shots when the sun is low. High light will just give you glares and over-exposed surfaces. Manually adjusting your settings allows for getting the perfect lighting to avoid unwanted white spots.
Instead of trying to capture complete reflections, play around with colors and shapes in the moving water. One beautiful image of this I saw was an ocean wave crashing on the shore while reflecting the oranges and reds of sunset in its waters. Rivers blurring the lights of a city are also picturesque motion shots incorporating reflections.
Necessary Equipment for Capturing Moving Water
Most cameras have a small amount of waterproofing – but don’t rely on their natural casing to protect them during water photography. Saltwater is especially damaging to cameras. If you plan on being around water, add additional waterproofing to your camera.
Store your camera in a waterproof bag when you are not using it. When you take your camera out, use a lens hood to protect it from rain and mist. You may even want to consider investing in a waterproof case for your camera.
Because you are capturing movement, you will want to use a tripod. A tripod will keep your camera steady during prolonged exposure shots. To add extra stability, invest in a remote to take a picture without touching your camera.
The type of lens you use depends on the style of picture you are attempting. A wide-angle lens is ideal for scenic landscapes with moving water – while regular lenses can capture close-up shots of ripples and spray. Avoid zoom lenses because moving water will have too much motion for crisp close-ups.
The Best Techniques for Moving Water Pictures
My top moving water photography tip is to use your manual settings. Each body of water will be unique. It won’t just change from one day to the next – it will change every second. Manual allows you to customize your settings for the exact style of photograph you are trying to achieve.
Faster shutter speeds will capture a moment in time. An ocean wave will need at least 1/250 of a second to freeze it mid-motion. If you want to get more detail – capturing a single drop of water before it falls – you may want to try up to 1/1000 of a second.
If you are looking to capture the full motion of water, opt for slower shutter speeds. Using anywhere from a third of a second to several seconds will give moving water a misty, abstract feel. Photographers often use slow shutter speeds for photographing waterfalls and rivers.
To avoid noise and glares in your water photographs, turn your ISO down low. You can fix a dark image – but can’t easily add color to a washed-out picture.
Take advantage of early mornings, late evenings, and overcast days for water photography. Bright sunlight will wash out water pictures or add unwanted shadows.
Experiment with your orientation. While vertical shots take in a tall waterfall, landscape pictures give context to the image through its surroundings.
Keep Taking Moving Water Pictures
Don’t be discouraged if your first moving water pictures turn out blurry or bland. Water photography is a difficult skill to master.
Just keep practicing! You will eventually find a technique that works well for your style and equipment.