One of the very first tricks that aspiring landscape photographers want to learn is how to make flowing water smooth using long exposure photography. The idea of capturing smooth water seems quite simple. Just use a long exposure setting on your mirrorless or DSLR camera and you will be set. However it is not always easy to capture smooth flowing water the way you envision it.
Getting the camera exposure correct for flowing water requires some planning. The good news is that you don’t need expensive photography equipment to capture smooth flowing water. All you need are some photography filters and the knowledge. Here are some tips to get you started with long exposure photography to capture flowing water:
Photography Equipment for Long Exposure Photography
The equipment needed for long exposure photography is nothing special. You definitely need a DSLR or Mirrorless camera that allows you to control the shutter speed. You can even do this with your smartphone camera. There are quite a few apps that allow you to control your phone camera’s shutter speed even if there’s no physical shutter like in a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Halide, ProShot, and Slow Shutter Cam are just a few that allow you to do amazing things with your smartphone camera.
For DSLR, mirrorless, or other interchangeable lens cameras, you must be able to shoot in either shutter priority or manual mode. I almost always shoot in manual mode because I do not want the camera picking an aperture and ISO setting for me. This gives me ultimate creative control over my photo. Call me a control freak, but I want to make all those decisions myself.
Besides the DSLR or mirrorless camera, you also need a tripod or other steady surface for your camera. In regards to the type of tripod, any tripod is better than none but you need the sturdiest tripod possible for the shooting conditions. If you are trying to capture flow water from solid ground with a lightweight camera, you can use a small, lightweight tripod.
If you’re standing in a moving water with splashing waves, you’ll want a very sturdy tripod. You will also need a sturdy camera tripod if you attempt to use long exposure in a stiff wind with a hefty camera. This is because the slightest amount of camera motion will blur the areas in your frame that are not moving. So, if you want to blur the flowing water while maintaining sharp focus on the other subjects and surroundings with long exposure photography, you must keep the camera rock solid still during the long exposure.
Another photography item you may want to consider is a remote release. If you do not own one, but wish to give this technique a try, use the 2 to 5 second self-timer on your DSLR or mirrorless camera. This reduces the chance of camera shake from pressing the shutter release button during long exposure photography. There are definitely some advantages to owning a remote. If you’re photographing a waterfall where the movement is fairly consistent, a two-second timer suffices. However, if you’re photographing waves on a beach where timing your shutter release is critical, a remote release will prove very helpful.
I captured this photo of a wave using long exposure at Boneyard Beach, Big Talbot Island, Florida. I took a lot of photos of approaching waves connecting with the log. If I was using the 2s timer, judging when to press the shutter button at exactly the right moment would have been quite difficult. I probably would have left unsatisfied with the results using a 2s timer on my DSLR or mirrorless camera. Instead, I used my remote release to trigger the camera exposure at the exact moment I wanted. A bit of observation showed that the water swirled around the log on an approaching wave rather than a receding one, so I pressed the shutter release accordingly.
Shutter Speed to capture Flowing Water
As an instructor, the most common question I get is, “What shutter speed should I use to create smooth flowing water?” The easy answer is… anywhere from 1/4 second to 1/2 second will give you smooth water. While this may be a good starting point, this answer alone is a disservice, because it only works in certain situations (such as waterfall photography). The not-so-easy answer is… it depends on the direction the water is moving in relation to your camera, how fast the water is moving, and what type of effect you’re going for with your long exposure photography. Water blurs more if it is moving across the frame rather than toward it at a given speed. If you zoom in on a tight segment, water blurs at 1/20 or 1/15 of a second. For waterfall photography, my starting shutter speed is a half second and I’m usually pretty happy with the results.
In the Folly Beach Pier image below, I wanted to smooth and level out the ocean waves. Because I shot it at midday, this required a 45-second camera exposure. The longer you leave the shutter open, the smoother the ocean water gets. Using a super long exposure to smooth out the water you can even introduce reflections that would otherwise be obscured by the motion of the waves. Specialty filters are necessary for this type of photography in the middle of the day.
- Super long exposure with 45s Shutter Speed at Folly Beach Pier
- Flowing water of rushing waves captured using a sturdy tripod at Amelia Island, Florida
In the Amelia Island landscape photo above, I wished to convey a dramatic feeling with the approaching waves. A wide angle lens, low perspective, and a one-second shutter speed helped achieve this look. I used my sturdy Gitzo tripod to avoid camera movement due to the motion of the waves. When attempting this technique while in the water, push the tripod legs deep into the sand to help stabilize them against the wave action. Otherwise, you’ll not only have water movement, but you will end up blurring pier or other stationary subject in your landscape photo. Be sure to capture flowing water with both incoming and outgoing waves because the results are quite different. If you leave the shutter open for several seconds, those little bubbles and foam leave white trails on an outgoing wave.
For this landscape image shot in the Virgin River Narrows of Zion National Park, the amount of available light dictated my shutter speed. This landscape was taken with a five-second camera exposure due to the low light situation and my choice of a low ISO. A five second shutter speed is not necessary to achieve flowing water in an image. My point is that you do not need a lot of neutral density filters to get ten-second exposures if you are at the right location.
You can capture flowing water at nearly any shutter speed, but how the results will look, will vary depending on the length of the exposure. As your shutter speed increases it will result in removing all motion in the water as seen in the 45-second landscape photo from Folley Beach above.
Photography Filters to capture Flowing Water
The one photography filter you do need to effectively capture flowing water, however, is a circular polarizer. A circular polarizer serves more than one purpose when photographing flowing water. Not only does it darken the image giving you a longer shutter speed, it can also reduce the glare from the objects within your frame.
The following is a simple example of the same scene shot with the polarizer off and then on and turned to full strength. Notice how the colors of the wet rocks and the details under water really stand out when you use the polarizer. I never leave home without one.
- Flowing water captured with a circular polarizer filter at Cedar Falls, Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio
- Flowing water captured WITHOUT a circular polarizer filter at Cedar Falls, Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio
If you are attempting to capture smooth flowing water in the middle of the day using long exposures you will need Neutral density filters (ND Filters). ND filter will effectively reduce the light entering your camera and will allow you to use a longer shutter speed. You can also change your shutter speed by using a smaller aperture setting on your DSLR or mirrorless camera when the conditions permit.
Successfully capturing flowing water using long exposure photography requires precise control over your shutter speed. Even the most seasoned landscape photographer has to experiment with different shutter speeds to get the right amount of details in the flowing water. If you are a beginner landscape photographer, I would suggest you go out with your equipment and start practicing. You will find that with a bit of practice you can capture stunning landscape photos of flowing water.
About Author Kate Silvia
Kate is a professional landscape photographer and educator based in Charleston, SC. Her intense passion for the natural world is matched only with her desire to share that passion with her students. “Being a great photographer is not about what kind of camera you own. It’s about studying the light, crafting a great composition, and expressing your vision through practice and education”