A stream in the Alps - running water photographed soft - source: René Gropp

Photographing flowing water smooth

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Water in motion such as rivers or waterfalls or beaches are popular motifs for impressive photos. In order to create particularly great water effects, every photographer has to decide whether to “freeze” every single drop of a torrential river or to highlight the flow of a waterfall. In the second case, the water appears soft like silk and the traces of the flow become visible. The water looks like a veil and radiates something mystical.

In this article, we will give you some tips on camera settings and helpful photo equipment to make your water shots appear particularly soft.

Technical camera settings

The exposure time is particularly important for water to appear soft. If the exposure time changes, moving objects of the subject become blurred and static elements remain sharp. The longer a subject is exposed, the softer it will look. The length of the shutter speed should also be adjusted to the flow rate. For a slowly flowing stream, an exposure time of at least 0.5 seconds is necessary, for a tearing waterfall 0.1 seconds. A few test shots with different settings will help here. In addition, the focal length has an influence on the result of the image. At short focal lengths the water needs more time to pass through the image from one edge to the other. Accordingly, a slower shutter speed can be selected for longer focal lengths.

Comparison of photographs of a stream - snapshot and long exposure - Source: René Gropp

Comparison of photographs of a stream – snapshot and long exposure – Source: René Gropp

In order to get the best possible colour and contrast, we recommend choosing a place or time of day that produces less bright and intense light. The Blue Hour, evenings, or rather cloudy days are best suited for photographing the movement of water. To further reduce the light falling on the sensor, use the lowest ISO value (between 50 and 100) on the camera.

The ISO value, exposure time, and focal length should always be set according to the subject and, most importantly, according to the speed at which the water flows and the lighting conditions. Sometimes you may need to try different adjustments to make water appear soft.

Photo equipment for photographing smooth water

SLR cameras are most suitable for photographing water in its flowing motion. In their basic configuration, they already offer the necessary prerequisites and adjustment possibilities so that rapid rivers and waves on the beach can be photographed as softly as possible. With a compact or digital camera, traces of water flow can also be recorded. When choosing a camera, you should make sure that it has a manual mode and that the exposure time, focal length, and ISO value can be changed manually. Some cameras already have an integrated selection of presets, such as the long exposure mode, which are suitable for taking pictures of running water. However, the best results can be achieved by manually adjusting the camera settings.

A weir is flooded by water - soft water makes the photo look picturesque - Source: René Gropp

A weir is flooded by water – soft water makes the photo look picturesque – Source: René Gropp

To avoid unwanted blurring or shaky images during long exposures, it is also a good idea to use a tripod. This way you get sharp images with great soft water effects even at long shutter speeds.

If you have found a special water subject, but very bright light falls on it, you often reach the limits with the manual settings on the camera to shoot sharp, high-contrast photos. A photographer usually enjoys good lighting conditions, but less light is more to get particularly soft water. Due to the long exposure times, contrasts in very intense light are low and the subject may hardly be visible. In such cases you should use a polarisation filter or a grey filter. These “swallow” additional light, prevent water reflections, and ensure sharp photos and soft water.

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