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

Q & A with Landscape Photographer Hans Kruse

We found the work of Hans Kruse to be quite amazing and were lucky enough to have him answer some questions about his creative process. Hopefully you find something worth noting to help you in your continual endeavor to perfect your craft.  

Tell us a little bit about how you got started in photography.

I was shooting film and especially black and white back in the 1970’s, which was great as long as I had access to a dark room. I even setup my own for a while. I liked to have control over the process from taking the pictures to creating a print. I never got to that point with color photography with a professional career in IT and a family with children. Eventually there was less and less time for photography.

Later on with the advent of digital photography and finding more free time, my interest came back. I could now control the process from shooting to final display in print or on screen. My first real camera in the digital era was the Canon 10D in 2003. I got interested in photographing nature, wild life, landscapes and people during my travels and near my home.

When I retired from the IT industry, I decided to organize photo workshops. My first one was in October 2008 and since then I have led 25 workshops with 7 still to come in 2014.


What is it that draws you to landscape photography? 

Landscape photography is special to me because taking great landscape photos requires not only making a picture of a great scene with a good composition and post processing, but also finding the right interesting location, weather and light

I like the search for the right locations and I go back many times to locations that I feel have the best potential. Without going back to the same locations it is much more random what shots one can get even in great landscapes. Going back to the same scenes is interesting and rewarding as they can transform completely depending on the season, weather, light etc. From year to year I have learned that the light and colors can be very different in the same locations.

I like shooting iconic locations, but I especially enjoy finding unknown spots in the areas surrounding those iconic locations. Even iconic locations can be captured in a different way that has not been seen before. Some locations can be seen as clichés, but there is often a different way to photograph these locations.

The excitement you get when you finish processing an image and the happiness you feel when it turns out makes it worth all the effort.  


You mention on your website the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in a given field. Explain your process in becoming a better photographer and share an insight or two that might help others do the same.

 The 10,000 hours rule is maybe a kind of cliché but it is worth considering for someone starting out in photography that thinks they can quickly learn the technical aspects and take great photos. Certainly the technical side of photography can be learned much quicker today due to the advances in technology and a faster turn around cycle. However, it seems for most photographers that going from stage to stage in the personal development process just takes a lot of effort and there are no shortcuts. An important part of becoming better is to show your work to others and try to get feedback. Also critiquing your own work and going back to the same locations and looking at previous work can help in becoming better and seeing the locations in a new light.

For me taking many different compositions with different lenses at a location and evaluating the work back at the computer is important in seeing what works and what does not work so well. Having done this many times has helped me in considering new scenes. The important part is to really spend the time evaluating the pictures and being critical towards your own work.


Tell us the story behind one of your favorite photos.

This picture and the story behind it shows what it sometimes takes to get the shot. It happened during my first photo workshop in the Dolomites in October 2010. This well known location, which is iconic in the Dolomites, was covered with clouds when we drove up to the location. We literally could only see a few meters in front of us. We parked and I looked at the clouds, which we were in the middle of, and I was not very optimistic at that point for us to get any shots. But I knew from experience that the clouds, in the mountains especially, drift and big changes can happen in only an hour and especially the hour before sunset. The group I had brought up to this location was quite skeptical to my story about clouds that suddenly open up. However, after waiting for about an hour, the clouds did open up for a few minutes and let in the sunlight on the mountains behind this little lake and the hut where you can be served cappuccino sometimes.

I have many other examples of shots which I would not have gotten if I had not been determined to stay out in rain or overcast weather where amazing situations suddenly were presented. 

What upcoming workshops do you have?

The programme for the 2014 photo workshops can be found here: which contains links to the description of the individual workshops. The programme for 2015 is under development and will be added to this when available. So far the locations are only in Italy, but I’m working on adding locations elsewhere.


You can find more of Hans' work on these websites:

Hans' website

Hans' Facebook

Hans' 500px

David duChemin on Composition and Questions

This post was originally published on

We often talk about composition as though it's something that can be done right or done wrong. When you look at it in those terms photography is not about expression, but about following the rules. The best thing I ever learned on the photographic journey was this: there are no rules. None. Nope, not even the rule of thirds. No such thing.

We make compositional decisions for all kinds of reasons, but if “following the rules” or “doing it right” are among those reasons, the resulting images will be just like all the others. They can be sharp, free from chromatic aberration, and made with the best glass in the world, but totally lifeless. Forget right or wrong. Forget perfection. Thinking in terms of what you can do to make the image stronger, or more aligned with what feels good are more helpful guides, even if they feel a little vague.

So how do we learn to compose? That’s a good question. In fact, I think that’s the answer, right there: questions.

If what you long to do with your photography is more than mere technical proficiency, if you want to find your voice and express yourself, then questions will be more helpful to you than any list of tips, rules, or the parlour tricks we use in post to make up for weaknesses made in the camera.

Here are some of the questions I find rattling around in my own head while composing my photographs:

What do I think and feel about this scene? If you don’t have ideas about this, composing a photograph that speaks about these thoughts and feelings is going to be tough!

What must I include and how much can I exclude?

What devices can I use to exclude the unnecessary without diminishing the necessary? For example, should I use a longer lens to isolate my subject or keep the wide angle but move closer, perhaps shifting my position and changing the image’s perspective? There’s more than one way to skin a cat (but try not to let the neighbors see you doing it).

What are the relationships between the elements, and can a shift in my position (and change in perspective) make that relationship stronger?

Where are the lines in this photograph and would a change in framing (vertical or horizontal), aspect ratio (square frame, 16:9, etc), or lens make that stronger or weaker?

What is the light doing? Light contributes to composition, creating shadows, depth, and mood. Ignoring that shadow means missing a chance to allow it to make the image stronger.

What kind of moment is present? Timing is everything. Imagine there’s a kid running across the yard – some moments will be stronger than others  – some showing his stride more clearly, others when there is nothing in the background behind him. The decisive moment is not just about which moment you choose, but about how that moment contributes to the geometry of the composition.

What is the relationship between the foreground and the background?

Is there depth in my image? Could there be more? Would it benefit from less? Changing lenses and perspective can deepen or flatten the scene.

Are there repeated elements in the scene that provide a visual echo or rhythm to the photograph? Could I pull out a little and include more of them, or tighten up a little and include fewer?

Do my lines lead the eye into the frame or out of the frame and could I change that to better direct the eye?

Are my chosen settings (aperture, shutter speed) going to change the look of certain elements, and do so in a way that helps me tell my story? For example, what elements will be less focused because of depth of field, or blurred because of a slower shutter. That blur or lack of focus will change the shape of things and change the way we compose the image.

It would be great if there were rules. So much easier just to not think about this stuff. But it’s the fact that we ask the questions, wrestle with them, and come up with different responses one day than we do another, that keeps us making photographs that are reflections of who we are, photographs that keep us interested and curious, and experiencing something more than just visual formulas and homogeny. It’s the questions that keep our photographs human.

A couple years ago I wrote PHOTOGRAPHICALLY SPEAKING as a way to to have this conversation with more people. If you’re looking to learn more about what we say with photographs and how we say it (isn’t that what composition is, afterall?), you can find that book on Amazon here. You should also read Michael Freeman’s excellent book, The Photographers Eye. You’ll never lean on the rules again.