A dramatic sunset paints the sky in the Lac du Bois grasslands, just north of Kamloops, BC.
Settings: 12-24mm f/4 lens at 14mm, ƒ16@13 sec., ISO 100
While holding my annual Magic of Water workshop this spring, I asked participants to tell me their main objective. The majority stated they want to produce images that give water that soft, silky flow. “No problem,” I said. People love water, and all the nuances it can produce while photographing. There are, however, a number of factors that go into what the viewer’s perception of the final image is, and thus the reason for this issue’s advice column.
First, let me talk about water flow and shutter speeds. A shutter speed of 1/60 or so will render flowing water close to the equivalent of how our eyes see water in real life. Faster will freeze water and slower, of course, will produce a softer look. It’s amazing what an affect different shutter speeds can have on the same image. Note the two images below from Candace, a talented young participant from Kamloops, BC. In the first image, 1/16th of a shutter speed was utilized to create an image with enough softness for interest while maintaining close to what the eye sees as far as flow. In the second image a 1/2 second speed was used that totally changes the dynamic of the image. Let me say first that neither is wrong; it depends on the photographer’s vision. Personally, for this particular image, I prefer the faster shutter speed as I like the character and integrity it maintains.
This shot demonstrates a shutter speed that’s closer to what your eye sees.
Settings: EF 70-210mm f/4 lens at 70mm, ƒ14@1/15 sec., ISO 100
This shot demonstrates a softer visual effect with a longer shutter speed.
Settings: EF 70-210mm f/4 lens at 70mm, ƒ14@0.5 sec., ISO 100
In some instances though I prefer a much softer look, which brings us to the issue of executing slow shutter speeds. On bright days with the ISO reduced to its lowest number, let’s say 100, and a large aperture number like ƒ16, we are still left with a shutter speed that will be too fast to create a flow we may want. Solutions? Easy, really. You can start with a polarizer if you wish, which will help for about one stop of light. For example, a shutter speed of 1/15 can now be slowed to 1/8 with a one-stop polarizer. Another option is a solid neutral density filter that’s available in both square formats (using a filter holder) or a screw-in filter, which also comes in what’s called a “variable neutral density” and rotates to produce a stronger or weaker effect. Some brands have up to eight stops in both solid and “variable” varieties. Obviously these filters can be used for other effects as well where motion is needed, like flattening out rippled, still water, as is the case of the sunset image here.
From a quality of light perspective I will say that cloudy days and even, flat light produce better water images, especially when trying to create the silky effect. Sunlight tends to blow out the highlights in the water, creating a harsh effect that just doesn’t seem to lend itself all that well to the impact of the image. Of course, it also creates faster shutter speeds, which takes us back to our first issue. Without filters it can be a challenging day on the water!
People are drawn to water for obvious reasons and it can create truly amazing images, whether moving or still. Try experimenting with different shutter speeds using polarizers or solid neutral density filters if you feel the desire and I think you’ll find that water holds magic on many levels. Don’t forget your tripods — you’ll need them!
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