“How to Make ‘Silky’ Water” (June 2009 Show-Me Nature Photography Newsletter)

If you enjoy making photos of running water scenes (mountain streams, waterfalls, etc.), then this tip should be of interest to you. I got the idea of describing these techniques during my recent photo trip to the Wichita Mountains in southwest Oklahoma, while photographing a 3-tiered waterfall there. These techniques are not difficult, but they do take a little time to get set up. But your results will be well worth the wait!

First, I recommend you set the ISO to a very low setting . ISO 50, if your camera has this speed; if not, 100 will work. The reason for this low setting is to require a slower shutter speed, to help blur the water’s movement. The next setting I recommend is to set the aperture to a very small (large number) setting; f/22 or smaller (i.e., f/29 or f/32) works well. Again, this setting is designed to require a slower shutter speed, but also helps to keep the surrounding photo elements in sharp focus. (By the way, for you point-and-shooters, these techniques can be successfully employed with your cameras as well. You only need to have a camera capable of manually setting the ISO and aperture settings, and most of today’s point-and-shoot cameras can do this. Please consult your camera manual).

Next step: Place your camera on a tripod! This is critical since you will be shooting very slow shutter speeds. I guarantee that if you try these techniques while handholding the camera, you will have lots of blur . everything in the frame!!! So secure your camera on a tripod (a beanbag may work for you, but a tripod is my recommendation).

Now, you are almost ready to shoot. But what are the current shooting conditions like? If you have a heavy overcast, you may be able to shoot a “silky water” image without any additional setup. However, if the sky is sunny or just slightly cloudy, you will likely need to use a filter or two to get the results you are looking for.

The two filters I am referring to are the polarizer and a neutral density filter. The polarizing filter is a great little filter to carry in your camera bag. Most people use this filter to darken up the sky or to reduce unwanted reflections from their photos. In the case of running water, you certainly can reduce any reflections present, but another reason to use it is that it reduces the exposure by up to 2 full f-stops . if my math is correct, that means that using a polarizing filter will slow down your shutter speed to ¼ of what it would be without the filter. That certainly will help to give a silky-looking water! By the way, when setting up the polarizing filter, most instructions tell you to “turn the filter until the darkest skies and all reflections are gone”. I prefer setting the polarizer to the darkest point, then backing off just a smidge (technical term). This will prevent the sky from going totally black, which I don’t like, and also will keep a trace (another technical term) of reflection in the water, making it obvious to the viewer that this is water. But play with the filter until you get the results you want.

Another useful filter in this situation is a neutral density filter. This is a solid, dark filter that is used to cut down the amount of light entering the camera. You can purchase the neutral density filters in 1, 2, or 3 stop light reductions. I have a 2-stop filter that I carry with me. This filter is simply placed in front of the camera lens and slows down the shutter speed by 1, 2, or 3 stops (depending on which filter you are using). Make sure this is not a “graduated” or “split” neutral density filter; these are filters that transition from clear to dark. For photographing water scenes, you want a totally dark filter (i.e., a neutral density filter).

When making these types of images, take plenty of them and always watch your histogram to determine if you are achieving a good exposure. Then, correct your exposure, as necessary, to get good exposures. Also, consider bracketing your exposures. Remember, shooting digital is cheap . shoot, shoot, shoot! If you have followed these instructions, I’m sure you will walk away with some “keepers” . happy shooting!

If you need further information on these techniques, or have any questions, or would like to share your experiences, please let me know at: showmenaturepix@hotmail.com

If, during your summer vacation, you find a mountain stream, or a wonderful waterfall, consider using these techniques to enhance your flowing water photos!!!

Posted in Photography Tips.
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