9 Tips For Photographing Water

James Maynard - March 22, 2013 | Photography Gear, Photography Tips, Technique, Tips

How to photograph on the water is one of the challenges presented to photographers at this time of year. As the weather starts to warm up, and we head outside with our cameras, we will find that we start to once again head toward water, for its natural beauty and serenity. There are several areas where you can easily improve the quality of your photos taken of water scenes, just by following these nine simple tips.

1) Pay careful attention to the position of the Sun while you are by the water. When you go out just after sunrise or just before sunset, and you have the sun at your back, trees on the opposite shoreline will reflect in the water, and boats will be best-lit for color and detail. However, facing the Sun will give you the colors in the skies, silhouetted boats and dark, foreboding trees on the distant side of the water. Handled well, this can produce an effect almost like a monochromatic photograph. At dusk or dawn, your picture may be black and blue – at sunset and sunrise, perhaps black and oranges.

2) If you go between these two extremes when the Sun is low in the sky, boats and trees will cast long shadows across the photo, lending a dramatic effect to your image. When the sun is higher in the sky may be your best time to take photos of boats coming toward the camera or going away from it. This is when the shadow of the subject will be at its shortest length, and color and motion become your primary concerns. Try a lot of shots from different angles and see what happens.

3) If you are by the ocean and want to capture the movement in crashing waves, rather than just taking a freeze-frame of the action, simply increase your shutter time to at least 1/10th of a second, while reducing the size of the aperture to compensate for the extra light. Tripods are useful here.

4) A neutral-density filter can help smooth out some of the action in moving water, if that is your goal. Although ND filters do not change the color balance of your shot, they do cause your camera to take in less light than they normally would, allowing you to use longer exposure times. Movement in the water will, therefore, blend together, causing a more serene look upon the surface.

5) Polarizing filters are nearly a necessity when shooting on the water. The purpose these serve is to reduce the glare that is coming off the water, providing two advantages for your photo. First, glare can distract people’s eyes away from the subject matter at hand, so reducing the white spots will help direct the viewer’s gaze where you want it. Second, the extra light coming into the lens can trick cameras into believing the scene is brighter than it is, and if any of the settings are automated, your on-board computer may over-compensate, leaving the rest of the scene too dark.

6) Do not use flash. Using a flash on the water can leave a hot spot on the water.

7) For people or animals, you may find that you need to speed the shutter speed up some, in order to prevent the photo from blurring. You can open your aperture to compensate here for the light loss. The amount that you will need to do so will depend on several factors, so experiment away!

8) Pay close attention to the reflections in the water. What are they doing? How is any movement in the reflections going to come across in the final photo?

9) The ultimate for action when photographing on the water is trying to catch drops of water mid-fall as they drop over rocks or down a waterfall. Here, you may want to try shots between 1/1000 and 1/100th of a second long. At these fast shutter speeds, you will also want to increase the ISO setting on your camera. Although a higher ISO is going to put more “noise” in your picture, it will also help prevent the shot from being underexposed. Also, try to use a tripod whenever possible when doing this, along with a timer or remote release. Your best time of day for these shots are going to be the magic hours, when the Sun is low on the horizon This will allow as much light as possible to brighten up the shot, and come back into the camera. The refractions and reflections of light within the drops of water can also be maximized at this time of day, creating more vivid colors in your photograph.

With these nine simple ideas, you can be taking even better-quality photographs than ever before. Tell us below how these tips worked for you.