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How to Photograph Moving Water – To Get Silky Smooth Water Shots

How to Photograph Moving Water – To Get  Silky Smooth Water Shots

Have you ever seen photographs of a waterfall, stream or ocean waves?  Where the movement of the water has a wispy,  silky smooth,  cloud or fog like quality?  You can learn to do this too, the key is slowing your camera’s shutter speed down considerably.  I have gotten decent shots at 1/10th and 1/5th of a second, but generally we want to slow the shutter speed down to anywhere from 1/2 second, to over 20 seconds.

F16, 15 Seconds, ISO 100 & 4 stop ND Filter


How Do We Get These Long Exposures

How do you get the shutter speed so low?  Well, if you look back to the basics page, we learned about the three main controls we have over exposure.  They are Aperture (how much light we get), Shutter Speed (how long the light hits the sensor) and ISO (how much energy is the sensor set to).

P.S.  You will need a tripod to hold your camera steady for these long exposures.



The easiest way to lower our shutter speed is to decrease the ISO to its lowest level, maybe  50 or 100 (whatever your camera goes down to).  Also, we need to decrease the aperture to F18, F20, F22 or F32 and set the camera to aperture priority or manual control.  If this does not get your shutter speed down, you may need to also use a filter.  A Circular Polarizer will cut 1, 1 1/2 up to maybe 2 stops (they are also great to have for cutting water reflections, getting beautiful blue skies and enhancing colors).  Another option is a Neutral Density filter, these can be purchased based on how many stops they give you 1, 2, 4… and up.


F14, 10 Seconds, ISO 100 and Circular Polarizer Filter



Lighting Conditions

It is best to shoot in the early morning, late afternoon (golden hours)  or when the water feature is in shade  or on cloudy days.  You can shoot in bright sunlight, but it is harder to get the slow shutter we desire.  However, don’t discount bright days, as a neutral density filter can improve some of these less than ideal lighting conditions.





Remember when taking photos around water be it a stream, river, ocean or lake just be aware of your surroundings.  There may be sand, slippery rocks and strong currents that can cause you or your equipment harm.


F18, 8 Seconds, ISO 100 & Circular Polarizer Filter








Other Thoughts

Use a remote shutter release or your cameras timer to reduce camera shake.

Shoot from different angles, it changes to whole look of the subject.

A very fast moving waterfall will not require as slow of a shutter speed as a slower moving creek.

Bring an extra battery with you.  Long exposures eat batteries alive.  On a recent trip my battery, which normally has 1/2 to 3/4 charge after a full day of shooting, was almost dead at day’s end.


F22, 1/10 Second, ISO 400 (Left from earlier - should have changed) & 4 Stop ND Filter





Shooting waterfalls, rivers, streams and other moving water is one of the most peaceful experiences I have had in photography.  I just lose all track of time when I am composing, setting up and looking  for a new shot.  You know what, I don’t care, in fact I have quit wearing a watch when I am on these trips.  Why worry about time.

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