Using Slow Shutter Speeds for Adding Interest in your Water Shots

Gibbon Falls
A 70-300mm lens at f40, and a ½ sec exposure, gave depth and helped to isolate the pine tree from the waterfall.

This insightful post comes to us from Gura Gear pro, Joe McDonald.

One of the easiest ways to make your water shots more interesting is simply by using slow shutter speeds, which blends flowing water, ripples, bubbles, and even floating objects into a soft blur. Admittedly, some photographers hate the look, considering it overdone and something of a cliché, which might be the origin for one of the names used to describe the effect – ‘cotton candy.’ Another name for the effect is ‘angel hair,’ but don’t ask me how that name originated. Regardless, sometimes using a slow shutter speed gives a familiar scene a completely new look, and it is certainly worth exploring when you’re shooting.

When I’m photographing water I usually avoid two shutter speeds, 1/60th and 1/125th, finding that these speeds neither freeze the motion of the water sufficiently (on the fast end) or blur it enough (on the slow end). At 1/250th or faster, water, usually, appears ‘frozen,’ and depending upon the shot that might work well. Conversely, ‘freezing’ the water may add unwanted or unnecessary detail which may compete or conflict with other elements of the image.

Back in the ol’ film days photographers either used a particular shutter speed by default, or bracketed shutter speeds to insure that one or more of the images would have a pleasing look. Of course, digital photography has taken the guess work out of this, allowing you to review the LCD monitor to discern what shutter speed works best. As a general rule, the slower the better, so I’d start with 1/8th of a second or slower to achieve the effect.

Iguazu Falls
Iguazu Falls, Brazil at 1/4th at f20 with a 70-200mm lens, giving some telephoto compression to incorporate the distant waterfalls.

Depending upon the ambient light level, getting a slow shutter speed may require taking one or several routes. The easiest is simply lowering the ISO to the lowest setting possible, but if that is not enough then try using a polarizing filter to reduce the light by one or two stops, or a tele-converter, as a 1.4X cuts out one stop, and a 2X cuts out two stops. Or use a neutral density filter, especially one of the variable ND filters that reduce the light traveling through the lens by one to nine f-stops. I prefer to use one of the variable ND filters for the flexibility it offers. At 9 stops, a ND filter so reduces the light that the lens essentially goes black, but a 7 or 8 stop reduction provides enough light, usually, to compose. I’d recommend focusing first, then rotating the filter, reducing the amount of light only as much as is needed. That might be just a reduction of 2 or 3 stops, or it might be more.

Big Horn Sheep
We normally use fast shutter speeds for photographing wildlife, freezing water motion in doing so. Using a slow speed gave an entirely different look, although I had to shoot several .8 second exposures before the big horn stood still long enough for one to work.

Depending upon the season, time of day, or the environment, reflected color can really jazz up your images when combined with this slow shutter speed technique. In spring, as new leaves burst from their buds, calm, relatively motionless water may reflect an interesting Gator Aid lime green, while in the fall that same waterway may be colored red or yellow or orange from the reflections of fall foliage. In some canyons, late afternoon light reflecting off of cliffs may turn the still water gold, but finding these colors will depend upon your angle. You may need to walk up or down a stream, keeping your eyes open not only for the white water rapids but also the color reflected in the still areas, and on our photo tours I find that many photographers do not automatically watch for this.

Although I’m most often frustrated in my attempts, I love to try to incorporate wildlife in these slow shutter speed water shots. Most don’t work because the animal moves during the exposure, but heck, with digital, who cares? Provided the subject stays in the frame, I’d suggest shooting as many times as you can for you might get lucky and get a crisp image. I love those shots when I am successful.

Gardiner River
I walked up and down the road paralleling the river to find a spot where the late evening light striking the cliffs was reflected as gold water, and the 13 second exposure softened the rapids and ripples to a pleasing blur.

Also consider using longer zoom lenses, rather than lenses in the wide-angle range, to capture vignettes of the scene. While wide-angle images can be very effective, especially when you have a powerful foreground to anchor the scene, longer focal lengths will simplify the scene to its essential elements. A point we always stress in our workshops regarding composition is this: If you were a painter, you would add elements to your blank canvas until you achieved the effect you desired. As photographers, the reverse holds true, as most scenes are busy and complicated, and your goal is to simplify and eliminate the busyness to achieve the same result. Using a medium focal length zoom lens and slow shutter speeds may help you to do exactly that.

Joe McDonald