Landscape Photography Tutorial

Long Exposure Water Photography

The smooth water effect is blur. The secret is out. But blur is bad, right? Well… generally yes. But in the case of long exposure water photography, such as a river, ocean or waterfall, it can create an appealing, smoothing effect.

Photographing Moving Water

So, how do we do that?  As always, your first priority should be evaluating the light and composing the scene. You’ll also want to spend some time thinking about what you want to accomplish within the image. Do you want to remove all of the texture in the water? Or only some of it?

Manipulating the length of time your shutter is open will require a basic understanding of how aperture and shutter speed length affect the overall exposure of a scene. A smaller aperture (larger f/number) allows you to leave the shutter open for longer to collect enough light for proper exposure.  

The downside, however, is that adjusting your aperture will affect the depth of field within the image. Like anything else, the effects of both settings on the finished image must be considered. I recommend shooting in manual mode, however, aperture mode and/or time value/shutter modes will also work.

Long exposure water photography of a waterfall by Matthew Reid.

For long exposures, the quality of light is very important. If it is an overcast day, you may have some flexibility, with it being dark enough that you can open your aperture up a bit for a shallower depth of field, and still keep your shutter open long enough to capture movement.  

If, however, it is a sunny day your options become limited without filters to help cut the intensity of the light entering the camera.  On sunny days, you’ll likely be up around f/22 in order to capture any water motion without the aid of filters, and even then, it is questionable.

Once you’ve found settings that allow you to capture blur, your next task is to determine exactly how much texture you want to leave in the water. For waterfalls, you can easily go too far and lose all of the details in the flowing water.

Ocean surfaces vary depending on the speed and intensity of the waves, so adjustments will need to be made to determine exactly how much texture you want to leave. In all cases, I recommend trying different settings for each composition, until your image most closely matches your goal for the water in front of you.

Long exposure water photography of a creek by Shannon Kalahan.

Long Exposure Water Photography Equipment, Settings & Composition

Circular polarizers are a waterfall’s best friend. Circular polarizers cut reflections on the surface of the water while also decreasing the amount of light hitting your sensor, allowing for longer exposures.

If you find yourself shooting any water on a sunny day, you may also want to consider a neutral density filter, which will also decrease the amount of light entering the camera. You can stack these filters to use in conjunction with one another, however, with screw-on filters, you will have to watch for vignetting at the edge of your wide-angle images.

Because long exposures usually require a steady base (so that the only motion within the frame belongs to the moving water), I also highly recommend a tripod. It doesn’t need to be fancy, it just needs to be solid.

Finally, a remote or timer will help minimize vibrations, so that once again, the camera is rock solid during the actual image capture.  If you don’t want to purchase a remote, most cameras have a self-timer that accomplishes the same thing.

Recommended Equipment

  • Camera with adjustable shutter speed
  • Tripod
  • Timer / remote / intervalometer
  • A circular polarizer (if you have one) to help cut the glare
  • A neutral density filter if there is high flow
  • A wide angle lens if you intend to get close to the waterfall’s base, a zoom or long lens if you do not
  • A microfiber cleaning cloth if you get close enough for waterfall spray to hit your lens

Recommended Camera Settings

  • If possible, put your aperture somewhere between f/8-f/16. The available light (and/or neutral density filters) will dictate how small your aperture is. The closer you get to f/22, the more diffraction you’ll need to deal with, so I recommend keeping your f-stop closer to the lens’s sweet spot, between f/8-f/11 on most lenses.
  • ISO 100 when possible – again, this will be dictated by available light. As long as you’re not shooting at dusk or dawn, you should be able to keep the ISO low.
  • Turn off image stabilization
  • Shutter speed needs to be slow, but “slow” varies depending on how much waterflow and light you have. For massive falls on a bright day, you might need 13 seconds and a 10-stop ND filter. For small cascades on an overcast day, you might be talking 1 – 2 seconds. Consult your camera’s light meter and image histograms to ensure you’re protecting the shadows and highlights.

Recommended Compositions

  • Leading lines, especially those that make the viewer feel like they’re standing in the flow with you
  • Something to anchor the image or serve as a foreground element. Sometimes, that is a leading line.

Final Tip

Photographing moving water can be downright dangerous at times. Be cautious of your footing, rogue waves and the spray from larger waterfalls.

Long Exposure Water Photography – Assignment

Create two images, to the best of your ability, both involving blurring moving water. First and foremost, spend some time finding the right location and composition for your subject matter. Put some thought into what sort of water you would like to photograph – lake, waterfall, ocean, etc – and what type of image you want to create with your long exposure.

Are you creating a minimalist seascape? If so, you will want longer exposures and a clean, uncluttered composition. Are you looking to capture a magical waterfall in the forest scene? Look for the strongest composition, taking into account the way the light falls on the scene, perhaps using the line of the river or moving water as leading lines? Once you have decided on your scene, you have two photos to take.

The first image should be your best final composition of the scene, with the amount of water blur you want.  You will have to find the appropriate shutter speed to accomplish this.

The second image should be a “water study”.  Find a closer crop of the water itself to really study how it moves through your frame. There can be other elements within the image, but the frame as a whole should really showcase the movement of the water.

Long Exposure Water Photography – Video Tutorial

This article was written and submitted by Shannon Kalahan, a professional photographer, author, blogger, teacher and owner of Seeing Spots Photography. She is a longtime Light & Landscape contributor, well known and respected for her engaging, well-researched articles and blog posts, not to mention her outstanding landscape photography. Be sure to check out all her content throughout the website.