Tips For Water Photography

By Chris Walker


Waves groaned as they collapsed against the rocky hull of Lake Superior's southern shore; their slow, ceaseless cadence sounded out a pattern as regular as breath from this, the greatest of American lakes. A stone's throw inland, the tea-colored Tahquamenon River flowed past so gently, its surface had to be studied to confirm that it was, indeed, moving.

As the sun's golden rays glanced across those dark waters, daisies glowed for a final moment before flickering out as evening spread from the crevices of the quieting marshland. And the river, bathed in the gentle, blue light from above, flowed on as it disappeared into the lake, its breaking waves bringing rhythm to the twilight.

While impressions from evenings past may burn themselves into memory without a second thought, burning the appropriate impression onto film or sensor can be another matter.

Water pervades our lives like nothing else we can see and feel. It cools us on summer days at the beach and supports us as we canoe our favorite haunts under falling, colored leaves. Yet as often as we plan weekends and vacations around our favorite lakes, bays, and rivers, it's water that so frequently eludes us as we try to capture its essence on film.


One of the most frequent problems lies simply in exposure. Bodies of water often reflect so much light from the sky that they mislead camera meters into believing the framed scene is brighter than it is, leaving slides and files too dark for viewing and prints gray and lifeless. An easy way to correct this problem is to determine the exposure for such scenes manually.

First, change your camera's exposure setting from automatic to manual. Then, in the same light as your subject, fill the frame with the palm of your hand and take an exposure reading. Finally, "open up" one f -stop to arrive at the correct exposure for your scene (i.e., if your camera's meter reads your palm at f -8 @ 1/125th, either set your lens at F-5.6 or slow your shutter speed down to 1/60th, but not both). This setting can be arrived at, directly, by reading a common photographic gray card, though using the palm of your hand - as opposed to having one more thing to carry on a trip - has its advantages.

As always, when photographing a scene you feel strongly about, it's a good idea to "bracket" a few frames to ensure your set contains a good exposure. Even with digital imaging, our perception of LCDs can vary depending upon the light under which we are working.

Another frequent problem in photographing water is attaining the saturation, or color intensity, that your mind's eye sees on location. A big step toward success here can be made through a polarizing filter. Polarizers reduce the amount of light reflected from any given surface, whether it's a lake, the sky, or a pane of glass. They work best when the light source illuminating the reflective subject is at a 90-degree angle from your camera's field of view, but they'll work proportionately well if that angle is off somewhat.


There are two things to be aware of, though. First, polarizers reduce the overall light entering your camera by 1½ to 2 F-stops, so exposure settings should be determined with the filter already on the lens. The second point to remember is that sometimes polarizers can saturate the surface of a body of water so greatly that it will appear unnaturally dark in your final image.

A polarizer consists of two pieces of filtered glass; the front piece rotates around the base, which in turn is screwed onto the lens. Because of this, the filter's strength is variable and, with any common SLR or D-SLR, the changing affect can be viewed through the lens before making the exposure.

As always, experimenting with new techniques is best done in your own back yard; mistakes happening there are not likely to be so haunting as the same mistakes occurring on a much-anticipated trip.

With a few of the technical tweaks out of the way, you can start thinking about the more creative aspects of water photography.

Depicting water in motion can be one of the most rewarding yet frustrating endeavors of travel photography. Because images of moving water change dramatically with the shutter speed used, what we remember seeing and the resulting images are often two different things. Our eyes perceive motion at approximately 1/30th of a second, so, for an objective look, that's the shutter speed at which you might begin making pictures. Remember, though, that moving water in a still photograph can be quite enchanting.

Still water

I generally work very early or late in the day, often making exposures that last several minutes. Because film records light wherever it is reflected, moving water in my images - due to the water's changing position during the long exposure - is transformed from what my eye observed as continuous motion into a cottony mist that follows the contour of a stream or shore. The most dramatic results with long exposures come when landscape elements such as trees or rocks are included in the photo, standing still in contrast to the blur of moving water. A minimum exposure time of two to eight seconds is best to achieve this effect.

For the courageous at heart, water is a fantastic medium for photographic experimentation. Some of my favorite images are from evening shoots when I "panned" slowly breaking waves while releasing the shutter. Panning is a simple technique accomplished by shooting at a slow shutter speed, such as 1/8th or 1/15th, while following a moving object. Simply release the shutter when both the subject and the camera are in motion together - when panning, "follow-through" is essential! The results will reveal a somewhat solid subject, because of the camera's motion with it, and a blurred background, because of the camera's panning across it.

So before venturing out again to visit your favorite shoreline, remember to pack a polarizer for daytime shots and a tripod for those lengthy twilight exposures. And remember your palm - and your imagination, too - for best results.