Nature in Motion II - Flowing water

October 15, 2012  •  2 Comments

In part II we're touching on one of most popular subjects in landscape photography for longer exposures - flowing water. As before, all images here were shot without the use of ND filters - some use a polarizer, but that's it. The use of filters can of course give you an extra level of control over your exposures, but these articles are to demonstrate that it's still possible to capture the flow of nature without the need to fork out beyond a camera, lens and tripod :-)

Sgwd yr Eira, Brecon Beacons

Besides, I think the fun with long exposure water photography comes from experimentation. It does depend on the conditions, but I find there is often a 'sweet spot' for a given scene in terms of shutter speed - a length that maintains texture and form in the water while introducing just a touch of silkiness.


Choosing a shutterspeed

Below I've put together a brief slideshow to illustrate. With cascades like these you will begin to register motion blur with shutter-speeds longer than about 1/15s. The photos below have been converted from RAW format, but are otherwise straight out of the camera. If you press 'play', you will see that once we get to around the 1/4 second mark the choppy patterns in the water begin to smooth out.

The longer your exposure, the smoother and more dreamy the water will become, but bear in mind that beyond a certain point you will lose all texture in the water. No problem if that's what you're after, but generally I find the challenge and fun is in seeking out the right balance between flow and texture. With falling or flowing water this tends to fall between about 1/10 second and 1 second.


Falls of Dochart

Conveying currents

The image to the left shows a raging river at the bottom of the Falls of Dochart after nearly a week's solid rain.

Too long an exposure would have smoothed out the wispy textures on the water and made the flow seem more peaceful than it actually was. While too quick an exposure (1/60s or faster) would have frozen the movement too much.

In the end a shutter speed of 1 second has left a decent balance between the smooth flow of the water and the raging currents.

(Canon 5d Mk.II, Canon 17-40 @ 19mm, f/13, ISO 200, 1 sec)

Visual flow

The image on the right is of Sgwd Isaf Clun Gwyn in an area informally known as 'Waterfall Country', in the Brecon Beacons.

I found this to be a pretty straight forward composition, but again the fun came from experimenting with shutter speeds and the varying patterns they created in the plunge pool.

The pool itself was full of action and made for a great foreground subject / anchor for the eye in the lower part of the frame.

(Canon 40D, Tamron 28-75 @ 35mm, f/8, ISO 200, 1 sec)

Sgwd Isaf Clun Gwyn

McWay Falls, Big Sur

Backwash and tidal patterns

I took this photo at a friend's request and enjoyed playing around with timing to try and capture the incoming tide meeting the flow of the backwash.

By closing down the aperture and lowering the ISO I was able to achieve a shutter speed of just under a second. This turned out to be about right for capturing the backwash and the incoming wave as it crashed against the shore - then it was just a matter of timing.

The beauty of the digital age is that I had a shot in my mind and was able to experiment and refine, until I had some tidal patterns I was happy with.

McWay Falls, Big Sur, California.

(Canon 5d Mk.II, Canon 70-200 @ 127mm, f/16, ISO 50, 0.8 sec)

As you can see from the details, none of the images above were exposed for longer than a second - totally doable without filters if you shoot in the right conditions. True if you want to go out and shoot long exposures of the sea in the middle of the day you're gonna need some ND filter action, but if you're shooting on an overcast day or in the golden hour then all you need do is lower your ISO, stop your lens down and have a play!


canvas prints(non-registered)
the photos here look so great.
Mark Davis(non-registered)
I very much agree with the view of being able to achieve motion without use of an ND filter. I made an image of Scaleber Force waterfall in Yorkshire using only a Polariser which produced a shutter speed of 1.6 secs at f16 with an ISO of 200.
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