Master Class: Photographing Water

One of the most potentially pleasing, yet most misunderstood and mishandled, subjects for the average photographer is water. For every beautiful, artistic image of a shoreline, a cresting fish, or a rushing stream, the average photographer will probably churn out dozens of images that ignore the attractive attributes of water in favor of other elements. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with that if those elements are family members, celebrities, wildlife or other subjects that take precedence over the water in a scene. But water can be one of the most aesthetically rewarding subjects in photography, and with a little practice and understanding, you can improve the way you address water in your camera work.

Because of its mercurial nature, successfully photographing water takes patience and planning above all else. When you first arrive at the water scene you want to photograph, take at least ten minutes to wander around the area, exploring to find the best and worst situations before even taking the camera out of its case. Ask yourself these questions:

-What visual features define this area?
-What draws me to this scene?
-What do I want to communicate by photographing this?

One of the best rules of water photography, and one of the most easily overlooked, is this: for the greatest visual appeal, try composing your photographs so that the camera is at any height other than eye level. Anyone can visualize a scene photographed at their own height; the element of surprise comes when the camera is held well above water level, or right down close to the shoreline.

An even more important rule is to come prepared with a way to clean your camera lens, because droplets of water may land on the lens and distort your images. Even more heinously, salt water at the seaside can badly corrode cameras and lenses, so extra measures need to be taken to protect your equipment at saltwater sources. This could include anything from changing your film and lenses inside a changing bag to buying a protective, transparent case for your camera. It’s up to you, depending on what you want to pursue.

Here are a few ideas for getting better photographs of different water settings.

1. Rushing water: creeks, streams, and waterfalls

To achieve a silky, milky, or misty appearance of rushing water, use a long shutter speed and, of course, use a tripod to keep the camera still for the longer exposure. Without a tripod, it’s very easy to move the camera during a long exposure and ruin a good shot. A shutter cable release will also help keep the camera still. Use the smallest aperture setting you can use for the situation (for cameras with f stops, the higher the number, the smaller the aperture). Try for f8 at the very least; f11, f16, and f20 may be even better.

Watch out for the effect of wind on leaves and branches if you are using a long exposure. These, too, can blur and detract from the quality of the image. If it’s a bright day, the longer shutter speed might not work as well, so use a neutral density filter. This is a grey-tinted filter that reduces the intensity of light and color along all wavelengths, making it easier for the photographer to adjust aperture size and exposure time. In the case of rushing water, a neutral density filter will block out the brightness of reflected light so that the smooth rush of the water is clearly shown.

For film photography instead of digital, try choosing a low ISO (film speed rated by the International Standardization Organization) if your camera allows it. The ISO rating indicates how quickly and clearly the film will capture an image; the lower the ISO, the more light the camera will need to capture the image. ISO 100 film has great color and almost no graininess but can easily result in blurred or dark images unless a wide aperture and good light source are used. It is best used for indoor photography with a good flash. ISO 800, on the other hand, is better suited for outdoor activities, but the images will be grainier so some detail is lost. Try an ISO of 100, 50, or even as low as 25 if your camera is equipped to handle that. You might also play around with the white balance settings. Most digital cameras categorize white balance in modes such as daylight, incandescent, cloudy, shade, etc. (those little symbols on the thumb-wheel of the camera). Experiment with them to see how they affect the quality of your images. One plus of digital cameras, of course, is the ability to instantly preview a shot as soon as you’ve taken it. This will make it easier to try these different settings in real time.

Consider framing the river or stream vertically, with a “portrait” composition rather than horizontally. Why? Running water is usually long and narrow, and the vertical angle will highlight that detail better. If you are using a tripod – and you should – think about putting the tripod in the water if it’s not rushing too quickly. Dig the legs into the sandy or muddy bottom, and secure it with rocks. Keep your hand on the camera strap in case the tripod gets knocked over. Shooting from a position in the water will often give you a more interesting composition than a shoreline shot. Be careful, though, because wet rocks and mossy creek bottoms can be slippery.

Place the horizon line high up in the composition so the water is more prominent in the photo. Remember that the shot isn’t just about the stream or river, it’s about how the rocks and logs in the landscape affect the flow of the water. All of these can be elements of interest in a well-composed photograph.

Above all, remember that all rushing water is not created equal. For instance, the water may cascade down a series of steps in the landscape, or it may be a fan shape that seems to spread horizontally from a smaller stream. If it’s a waterfall, does it descend into a punchbowl type of shape in the rock? Take the time to really think about the area you are photographing and how to best capture its essence. Try these techniques out at some of the beautiful spots around the Inland Empire, perhaps Forest Falls or Lytle Creek.

2. Large bodies of water and reflections

Large bodies of water – oceans, lakes, wide rivers – can deliver stunningly dramatic images if handled properly. Besides the sheer majesty of the water’s span, sometimes these images are augmented by interesting reflections that add brightness or perhaps a “mirror” effect. You have probably seen this type of effect walking along the shore of Lake Arrowhead or the boardwalk at Big Bear, when it looks like the village has been turned upside down in the water.

Shoot in early morning or twilight hours for the best “light on the mirror” look. The light level at these times is ideal for proper brightness and color, not to mention that the water’s surface is often the calmest at these hours. Shoot without a flash whenever possible so that the most natural-looking image is obtained, and choose a reasonably tight shutter speed so the subject is not blurred.

Note that if the water takes up a large portion of the picture frame, the reflection may cause your camera’s light meter to underexpose the picture, resulting in a dark photo. Compensate for this with the shutter and light settings on your camera. Wildlife, plants, trees, and people near the water in the shot will probably be shadowy and undefined. In this case, overexpose the picture by one stop or more, and turn off your camera’s light meter so you can force the camera to compensate. Your autofocus might also get confused when photographing large swaths of water, as there are too many potential levels and distances for it to try and focus upon. Try to turn off autofocus as well, and trust your own senses in forming the image.

The eye is key in this type of photography. Wait for an interesting reflection, look for an interesting angle, move up and down the shore and take note of the most promising spots and positions. Consider the line that the shore makes in the photo and think about how the eye will follow that line. What is interesting in the composition that the shoreline will lead the eye to?

Consider the “rule of thirds” when photographing large bodies of water, or capturing images where water takes up most of the frame. This is a simple guideline for arranging points of interest in your photos. As you look through your viewfinder, imagine that the image you see is divided by an invisible grid into three rows across and three columns down. The result would be an image divided into nine squares (think of the intro of “The Brady Bunch”). The main points of interest in your photo should, if possible, be lined up so that they fall along those lines, or especially at the intersections of the lines. This will help break the habit of always centering your subjects in the viewfinder, and will result in more interesting pictures.

In the photo below, you can see that the approaching small wave falls neatly along the top horizontal line of the grid of thirds. The smaller ripples lie in the lower third of the image. Also, the bird is alongside the right vertical line of the grid, and very close to one of the intersecting points. For some reason, psychologically, the human brain interprets images that are laid out in this manner as more aesthetically appealing than others. A related concept is the Golden Mean, which breaks the image into sections that are proportioned 2/3 to 1/3. For more information about these visualization tools, you can do an internet search for “Golden Mean photography” and “Rule of Thirds photography”.

Photograph areas that you are familiar with or that you can return to in different types of weather and different times of the day. If the light isn’t right the first time you visit a spot, or if the weather isn’t cooperating, come back at a different time and see how much the situation has changed. Many of the most classic, timeless photographs have come from this kind of patience and waiting for the most opportune time.

Try to put something identifiable in the foreground of the picture: a tree, a duck, a clump of grass, a boat, a tree branch. Otherwise, the large swath of water might be disorienting to the viewer and the scale will be difficult to perceive. The larger the image, the more this distortion is amplified. It’s easy to get caught up in wave patterns or the interesting ripples of the water, but without something identifiable to anchor the shot, the result will be less than stellar. Give the viewer a good reference point by which to judge the whole content of the image.

3. Water wildlife

Wildlife photography is always a big gamble because of the skittishness and speed of the animals. This is amplified tenfold when dealing with water animals; fish are quick to dive or dart out of sight, ducks can choose to fly off on a moment’s notice, or dip down into the water and show their backsides to the camera. Again, patience is key, along with slow, smooth, quiet motions. Try to be as unobtrusive as possible if you want to shoot photos of wildlife. Remember that you are trespassing on their territory and they are not very likely to sit idly by while you shoot a couple of rolls at different heights, angles and apertures. Practice makes perfect, and weak shots will always outnumber the good ones.

Try to get down to the water level, such as in a canoe or low on the beach or shore. This will give better perspectives and angles than the usual head-high shots that tower over the water and creatures. Be careful of getting your camera wet, but don’t be so intimidated that you compromise on the shot.

To shoot fish under the surface of the water, a polarizing filter will remove some or all of the reflection on the water’s surface. If your camera is of the point-and-shoot variety and you can’t attach a filter onto it, you can simply carefully hold the filter up over the lens (be sure your fingers aren’t in the picture). Polarizing filters are relatively inexpensive and are one of the most essential tools of the water photographer. The two images below show how the polarizer can eliminate a lot of surface glare. Note the bright glare at the left of the unpolarized top image, and see how much it is reduced by the polarizer used in the bottom image.

The polarizer will have the greatest effect on the scene when your camera’s line of sight is at a 90 degree angle (perpendicular) to the sun. However, to see rocks and wildlife under the water, try for smaller angles, such as 35 degrees. Not only does this permit a better quality of light, but it is less obvious to the fish and wildlife that you are trying to do something. That uppity trout at Lake Skinner is more likely to notice a shiny, boxy object held up in the air than one that is very close to the water’s horizon.

Experiment with these ideas for water photography, and most of all, have fun! You will be happily surprised at the creative, perhaps fascinating images you come up with.

Look here for our prior Master Classes:

Writing Good Poetry, July 2009

The Five C's of Songwriting, June 2009

Experimenting with Abstract Landscapes, May 2009

Preparing for Excellence, April 2009

It Builds Character, March 2009

Labanotation, February 2009

Singability, January 2009

Avoiding Cliches, December 2008

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