Water embodies fascinating paradoxes: stillness and movement; transparency and opacity; and a full spectrum of colors, from icy grays, to tropical aqua. Learning to capture the many dimensions of water is an engaging way to both improve your technical skills and stimulate your imagination. Try these four ways of photographing water to create inspired images and change your state of mind.
A smooth water surface conveys calmness and serenity. Using a long exposure will smooth waves. In order to obtain a sharp long exposure, you need a tripod to stabilize the camera and a remote shutter release so as not to jar the camera. A neutral-density filter is necessary to block some of the light from reaching the sensor. If you don’t have a neutral-density filter, you can start experimenting at dusk or dawn with a high f-stop, a low ISO, and covering the viewfinder just before releasing the shutter to limit the amount of light entering the camera. Fall and wintertime are ideal for their late sunrises and early sunsets. There’s much to be said about long exposure and using neutral-density filters, but for this article, I just want to encourage you to start playing with this technique for capturing stillness in low-light conditions.
Water as the main focus
It’s common to photograph bodies of water as an integral part of the beauty of a specific location. Another approach is to make the water itself the main subject of the image. You can take the viewer to the water’s levels to highlight the waves, colors, textures, and remind the viewer how it feels to be close to such water.
Whether to use a slow or fast shutter speed depends on the effect you want to create. A fast shutter speed allows you to freeze a moment in time, such as when the instant spray arises during the crash of a wave. Slowing down the shutter speed lets you intentionally blur the water’s movement to convey its energy. Using the panning technique (intentional horizontal camera movement) gives your image an artistic flair, even a surrealistic impression. The intention is to create an atmosphere for the viewer that leaves room for his or her imagination and recollections.
Water droplets reflect and refract light at multiple angles due to their curved shape, thus allowing many creative options. Whether or not you should use a tripod is open for debate. While a tripod will stabilize the camera and help capture a sharper image, handholding the camera will allow you to move it with more ease and find the one angle that best showcases the droplets. Droplets are “light catchers,” and the angle at which the light hits them will affect their brightness. Tilting the camera just so (which is hard to do on a tripod) allows you to fine-tune your composition and capture an arrangement of droplets that’s aesthetically pleasing. You might also want to consider the contrast with the background at different angles. If you’re handholding your camera, make sure you increase your shutter speed to compensate. Play with your depth of field to control how much of the droplet is in focus. A deeper depth of field will bring more droplets into focus. However, using a wider aperture will create a beautiful surrounding bokeh and add a dreamy feel to the image. Consider backlighting to enhance the dramatic light catching effect.
Another option is to get in close and enter the realm of macro photography. If you don’t own a macro lens, a close-up filter (which acts like a magnifying glass mounted to the front of your camera lens) can give satisfactory results. They are affordable, and will allow you to experiment with macro before investing in a macro lens. I use a tripod and remote shutter release, as any movement is greatly emphasized in macro photography. A reflector might come in handy in order to brighten the droplets and make them really pop.
Still water acts like a mirror, giving the landscape an entirely different perspective. Using a tripod and a remote shutter release can help you achieve a sharp image and enhance the crystal-crisp mirror effect. Following the rule of thirds, you might consider allocating 2/3 of the image to the reflection and 1/3 to the above-ground landscape, or vice-versa. Another option is to allocate half the frame to the reflection and half to the actual landscape. Experiment with landscape or portrait orientations, or even a square crop (especially in a 50/50 distribution) and compare these different compositions side by side, to evaluate the effects.
Another interesting aspect of the reflective property of water is color. The same body of water can sometimes be shades of blue, green or even gray or yellow, depending on the weather, the time of day and the presence or absence of clouds. Waves and ripples produce different shades of the same color and this can become the main focus of your image. Enhancing the contrast in post-processing will emphasize the variation in hues.
Cameras: Nikon D850 & Nikon D7100
Lenses: Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8, Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 Art, Tamron 90mm f/2.8
ND Filters: B+W
Camera Bags: Think Tank Perception Pro, Think Tank Turnstyle 20
All photos by Marilaine Delisle.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Click Magazine.