Photographing Moving Water, Part I

I’ve always admired those photos that capture the soft, beautiful movement of water. Whether it’s a creek or small stream in a forest, a river carving through a pastoral landscape, or ocean waves breaking onto a shore, there is something magical, even mystical, about these photos. However, as photographers, there’s likely something intimidating, too. In this and next month’s newsletter, I hope to demystify such images by offering concrete tips on how to capture the inherently dynamic and aesthetically appealing qualities of water in landscape photography.

First, know that well-done water shots largely result from a photographer understanding and implementing proper shutter speed. New photographers are often unaware of the importance of a good tripod — so when shooting for the beautiful, soft look of running water, they may try to get away with hand holding their camera by using the slowest shutter speed possible without a tripod, which is usually 1/30 or 1/60 second. Unfortunately, that’s usually not a good choice.  A very slow shutter speed  (1/15 second or slower such as 1/8, ½, ¼, 1 second, 2 seconds, or even longer) to blur the motion or a fast shutter speed (1/250 or faster) to freeze the motion will yield better results than a shutter speed in the middle range (1/30 to 1/60).  For this reason, if you want to shoot running water without a tripod you should consider going to a much faster shutter speed to freeze the water or find some other way to support the camera such as a rock or something similar.

When working with slower shutter speeds, first think about your ISO; the lower the ISO (100), the slower the shutter speed. Regarding aperture, the smaller it is—remembering that large numbers equal small openings such as F 22, and F 16—the slower the shutter speed must be to make up for the diminished light coming through the aperture. Keep in mind the following when using small apertures: 1) A small aperture will create a great depth of field, which is typically what we want in landscape photography; 2) The very smallest apertures may diminish quality even though they are increasing our depth of field. A good rule of thumb is to choose a F stop that is one or two stops larger than your smallest aperture.

To view the series of moving water shots taken at different shutter speeds click on one of the images below to enter the gallery and use the arrow keys to view each image. The f-stop and shutter speed used for each shot is displayed below the enlarged image.

Of course, the easiest way to slow down your shutter speed besides lowering your ISO, is to shoot in low light, such as early in the day, late in the day or when it’s heavily overcast. In these darker conditions we need more light and therefore can use a slower shutter speed for the correct exposure. If we are shooting in bright light and cannot wait until conditions darken, we can use a filter to force a slower speed. Below are three good choices:

  1. Polarizing Filter: These filters usually eliminate two stops of light whether or not it’s polarizing the light. For example, if when metering without the filter the slowest shutter speed is 1/30 second and the F stop is F 16, the filter forces us to open up two stops and therefore puts us at 1/8 second at F 16.
  2. Neutral Density Filter: This is a neutral gray filter.  Because gray is not a color, all this filter does is remove equal amounts of all colors of light, thus forcing us to let in more light. The most common neutral density filter is a three stop. Using the previous example, if I was at 1/30 of a second at F 16, then screwed my neutral density filter onto my lens, it would force me to open up three stops to ¼ second at F 16. Remember, a stop is a stop, so opening up three stops to compensate for this filter could result in any of a number of combinations.  Again, if original exposure is 1/30 at F16 and we want to open up 3 stops, any of these four choices represent the same amount of light:

    1/4  F16
    1/8  F11
    1/15  F8
    1/30  F5.6

    Because we are trying to blur the water, I would choose 1/4 at F16. Also, keep in mind that a neutral density filter can be used for other purposes, including decreasing depth of field.

  3. Singh Ray Variable Neutral Density Filter: Considerably more expensive, this third choice allows a wide range of exposures from forcing us to open up 2 stops to a possible 8 stops. Price aside ($390 for the “standard” or $440 for the “thin”), this is a superb filter for landscape photography.

The above filters are made by many different companies, all of which vary in quality tremendously. More than once I’ve seen students with a $1,500 lens equipped with a $25 filter. In this case, I’d likely advise him or her to upgrade their filter. If the goal is high quality images—which it nearly always is—the filter should be as good as the lens.  My filters are usually Singh Ray brand.

Now that we’re working with slower shutter speeds, we need a way to steady our camera. Here, a high quality tripod is helpful, if not essential. The two brands of tripod legs I recommend to my students are Gitzo and Manfrotto.  These vary in price from a fairly inexpensive professional tripod such as the Manfrotto 190, to a more expensive Gitzo carbon fiber tripod. Even more important than the legs, however, is the tripod head: I love a solid ballhead because it is user-friendly and the quick-release plates are made individually for every camera body. I have been using the Kirk BH3 for years.

In addition to a quality tripod, I use my self timer and mirror lock.  Once I press the shutter, I will have between 2 and 10 seconds where nothing touches the camera, which produces an extremely sharp image. Keep in mind, however, that because the mirror goes up and down with the shutter, some camera shake is inevitable, even with a good tripod. This can be reduced if the mirror lock works with a self timer, in which case the mirror goes up just as the shutter is depressed to yield a steadier photo.

8 thoughts on “Photographing Moving Water, Part I

Camille Fegyveresi

Thank you, Love this article and hope to get to the R.M.S.P. within the year.

Cindy Brown

I love the Calf Creek waterfall shot. Such wonderful texture, color and light.
Long time no see.
I’m glad you were my first photography teacher. AIA … seems like such a long time ago. Give me a shout some time.

Sandy Bachman

What is the difference in the Standard and Thin Singh Ray neutral density filter?

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Bob McGowan

Hi Sandy,

The only real difference is in the filter mounts. The Standard filter has two threaded mounts; one on the back that mounts onto your lens and one on the front of it where you may add on an additional filter. The Thin version has just one thread for mounting onto your lens.


Jennier Marshall

Thanks so much- great way to explain this process- easy to understand!

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Dick Dailey

Thanks for the article, Neil, which is very helpful. I’m going to do some shooting on Rattlesnake Creek this afternoon.

Please tell me how to get to Calf Creek.



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Bob McGowan

Hello Dick,

Glad that you enjoyed Neil’s article! Calf Creek is located in southern Utah as part of the the Escalante Wilderness Area. Here is a brief description of the vicinity:



i agree that expensive filters make a world of difference in the final image. water is fun to shoot. the variety of composition is ideal.

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