Photographing Water Flows

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By nakamichi/Nathaniel (1,491) Send mail to this user on September 16, 2008 7:42:21 PM CDT

A Brief and Basic Guide to Photographing Water Flows
Water in Motion
Soft and Silky
Shutter Speed, Metering, Exposure
White Balance
Composition and Vision
General Suggestions
How to Critique
Quotes about Waterfalls and Water

A Brief and Basic Guide to Photographing Water Flows

Note: Here's a .PDF version of this post with images

All things merge into one, and a river runs through it. -- Norman MacLean

Plenty of opinion and good advice abounds about photographing waterfalls, streams, and other moving or flowing water. What follows is a set of suggestions based on my own experience and on good advice suggested by photographers in various forums. I am not an expert at this type of photography, but I do enjoy engaging in its practice. I figured that putting together this guide would be a good exercise for me, and could come in handy for others. I don't consider my water flows shots to be even close to wonderful, but all of them have provided great learning and have been gateways to further photographic exploration and fun.

Notwithstanding all the good advice, excellent photography remains an individual and creative practice. Go out and experiment, be creative, play. You will soon find out that no matter the expert advice, each moment of this type of photography is an opportunity for you to create something unique and beautiful. So, in Zen-like fashion, listen deeply and read voraciously grasshopper, but ultimately get out there and get your hand's wet.

Water in Motion

What's all the fuss about? Water in motion can be quite magical. As a fluid it has all sorts of interesting physics (see fluid mechanics) that I know nothing about, but that are responsible for much of its allure and appeal. Culturally, water has all sorts of associations with origins, the womb, the flow of being, cleansing, purity, and fertility. Another source of the appeal of water motion is that it constantly changes. Did you ever place a rock, or create a dam of sticks along a small stream, or in the street gutter after a rain storm? I certainly did, and I was taken by the seeming endless effects that could be created by simple changes in the path of the water. A well placed obstruction would make the water flow around the objects, form an eddy, and find ways around the blockage, accelerating the flow, or slowing it down. No doubt you were also awed by the power of water, a lesson that recent floods, hurricanes, and storms has seared in our national psyche.

For the purposes of this guide, I will only cover basic water in motion, what I call water flows, such as streams, rivers, and waterfalls. Nevertheless, the same technique described here can be used for photos of the ocean, water sprinklers, or other water in motion.

In any case, remember that it is not just about the water flow, but about all the elements that, along with the water motion, make for a wonderful composition and photograph. Water is like an actor playing a lead role. We love to watch it masterfully capture our attention with its performance, but we should not forget that the lead actor can't deliver that Oscar-winning performance without the help of a great script and various other actors playing supporting roles. So, it is important to consider the geology of the locale, the flora, the type of water flow, wind, animals, and the relevant artistic elements (angles, pattern, texture, color, shape, etc.).

What follows are a set of categories that photographers interested in photographing water flows ought to keep in mind. The rest of the guide consists of some suggestions for refining your practice, some quotes to inspire you, and finally, some resources.

Soft and Silky

Transforming moving water into a soft and silky dense flow is what most photographers interested in this type of photography are after. There is one answer to getting that effect: slow down the shutter speed...plenty. That simple? Well, yes and no. You'll have to manage aperture, and consider ambient light carefully. The basic move is to slow down the shutter speed, stop down the aperture to control the amount of light coming in, and keep that camera steady. Slowing down the shutter speed causes the camera sensor to be exposed to more light, thus we must stop down the aperture to control the light coming in through the lens. Slow shutter speeds will render everything pretty blurry unless you provide good support for the camera, so bring along a tripod. Voila! There you have the basic formula for the smooth and silky water in motion shot. Of course, if it were just that easy we "wouldn't need no stinkin' guide" to shooting water flows now would we?

Some photographers don't care for that soft smooth and silky look. If that is the case, shoot at the shutter speed you think best for the effect you desire. To be sure, heavy and turbulent water flows might be best captured in a sort of in-between stage, somewhere between blurry and still showing texture and rapid motion.


Use your camera's native or base ISO (the lowest setting). Using the lowest ISO will result in a slower shutter speed (in order to gather more light to meet the sensitivity of the film, or in this case, the sensor).


These shots are better taken when there is no direct sunlight on the water, on overcast days, and in locations that are shaded. Remember, since you want a long exposure to create that smooth and silky effect, too much light will not allow you to "dial-in" a long exposure. Too much light and your exposure would be off, areas would be blown out or too bright.

You don't need a flash for this kind of photography, and unless you know what you are doing with it, I would not recommend using one.


Keep in mind that aperture refers to the control of how much light comes through the camera lens and hits the sensor. A good exposure is always a balancing act between how much you open the lens to gather light (aperture), how long you keep the shutter open for that light to hit the sensor (shutter speed), and the sensitivity (ISO) of the recording medium to light (in this case let us call it the sensor). Since you will be taking a long exposure shot, hence collecting as much light as possible and even a bit more, you will want an aperture in the upper ranges, say f/22, f/20, or f/16. Many folks recommend f/22 for maximum DOF and because that stops down the lens plenty for a long enough exposure of moving water. However, don't forget that f/22 is usually beyond the most optimal aperture for most lenses. At that aperture the effects of diffraction might be visible.

Take f/stop recommendations with a grain of salt. Aperture is probably not the first thing to consider when shooting water flows. First decide what effect you want, select the appropriate shutter speed, and then worry about what aperture works best to create your image. You should explore with other f/stops, especially if ambient light is quite low, or you have a Neutral Density filter that cuts light by more than three stops. In conditions where ambient light is plenty low there is no need to go as small as f/22. Under those circumstances the exposure would be too long, opening up the chance for wind to shake leaves, or other things (critters) to cross through the frame. See also the section on diffraction below.

Shutter Speed, Metering, Exposure

As noted above, shutter speed should be slow so that the long exposure gives time to the water to appear dense and silky smooth. How slow? That depends entirely on the available light, and the effect you want to create. To start, set the camera to f/22 and try the range between 1 or 2 seconds. Look at your light meter. Does it tell you that the shot is well exposed at 2 secs? Fine. Take a shot at that setting, but also bracket and take a shot below and one above that setting. With time and practice you'll come to read light better, and figure out precisely what effect you want. Two critical considerations here:

  1. A good exposure does not necessarily have to be the exposure your camera meter tells you. If photography were solely about pushing a button it would not be an artistic endeavor. You need to make creative exposure decisions.
  2. the shutter speed decision will depend in part on what you meter. If you meter the water (usually white and foamy and very reflective) your meter will think the whole scene is too bright and will suggest an exposure that will render the other areas of the shot dark. If you meter off a dark portion of the scene, the meter will think the whole scene is too dark and will suggest an exposure that will make the shot too bright. So, what do you meter? Well, remember that not all water you might photograph is fast moving and foamy. You might be photographing a stream with low volume of water. But if indeed the water flow is dense, fast, and white, I suggest you set your camera for center-weighted metering, meter the water, and get creative about exposure compensation, perhaps trying a one-stop underexposed, and another one-stop over-exposed.

Your exposure decision will also depend on what kind of water flow you are photographing, and the volume and speed of the water. Heavy volume of water should suggest a shorter shutter speed so as to not lose too much detail and turn the water into a super dense white mass. For instance, if you are shooting a heavy volume "Horsetail" type waterfall (see below), you should consider underexposing a bit so that the heavy water flow does not come out too white and with little texture. Those big, bright patches of white do not always make for great waterfall shots.

Speed of the water flow, and its contact with rock or other obstacles should also help guide your selection of shutter speed. "Plunge" type waterfalls (see below) have the fastest flow of water because the water falls straight down without contact with other surfaces. Of course, distance from the water will make a difference also as generally, the closer you are to your subject (either by moving closer or by zooming in), in this case the water, the easier it is to make it appear blurry and smooth. The farther away you are, the longer an exposure you will need to get the same effect.

Finally, direction of water flow, or angle of approach will also have an effect on shutter speed necessary to achieve the desired effect. It does not take as long an exposure to get the smooth and silky water effect when shooting a waterfall that is perpendicular to the lens axis. Don't ask me why. Ok, ask me, but don't expect a smart answer.

White Balance

I’m assuming you will be using a digital camera, so your camera should have a setting for white balance. Most likely you will find Daylight, Incandescent (Tungsten), Cloudy, Shade, Fluorescent, Flash, and so on. Quite possibly you’ll also have a setting for manually entering your own white balance calculation. In situations where color accuracy is critical the best bet is to figure out the white balance and enter it into the custom space in your camera. Ok, so you can do that in the field, and merrily go on shooting. In practice I recommend shooting in RAW mode and setting the white balance as accurately as possible for the general situation, perhaps leaving it in Daylight and later fixing it to meet your artistic vision. If you were shooting film it would be a totally different ball game, and I would recommend precision.

As you’ll see, when you spend enough time taking shots of the water flows under the canopy of trees, lighting conditions will vary, perhaps becoming brighter and warmer, or cooler (bluer), or more green. In those instances you’d have to adjust white balance again. Same thing applies if you move from one location to another in order to change the point of view or angle. Not a problem if you have the time, but for this application I’d rather set the camera to Daylight and work any changes into the post-processing workflow.

Overcast days, or heavy shade, will likely produce a blueish color cast. Light filtering through trees can produce a greenish cast. Autumn colors can produce a yellowish or reddish color cast. Be savvy about white balance. Learn to read the light.


At the slow shutter speeds needed for the smooth and silky effect you cannot hand-hold your camera effectively. You will shake too much, and the shot will be super-blurry. Get a good tripod, or other good camera support, and make sure it holds your equipment well. You probably should not even consider taking this type of shot without a tripod. You don't just want to capture the effect. you want a wonderful shot with the best possible quality. A tripod will help you get there.

See below, under suggestions, for use of a heavy bag to steady the tripod even further.


Depending on available light you might not need a filter at all. Consider however two types of filter when aiming for the smooth and silky effect:

  • Circular Polarizer (CP): cuts down light by one or two stops and has the added benefit of polarizing light, hence cutting down on glare on the rocks and on leaves. Cutting down glare in turn helps generate more saturated colors. If you are so lucky as to see a rainbow created by the light and water mist, a circular polarizer, if set to the right angle, might enhance the rainbow.
  • Neutral Density (ND): this filter cuts down light coming through the lens by a set number of stops. The most common NDs are often referred to as one-stop (0.3), two-stop (0.6), and three-stop (0.9). There are others beyond those settings. Cutting the amount of light getting through the lens allows you to keep the shutter open longer, hence providing ample opportunity for that long exposure needed.

Anything you put in front of your lens might detract from the image quality. After all, light has to be filtered through yet another layer of... whatever the filter material happens to be constructed. So, if you truly want the best results, and expect to have images that will sell, or that will wow family, friends, neighbors, and other pro photographers, go for good quality accessories. If you are not a professional photographer (and even if you are) you certainly don't need to spend hundreds of dollars just for a filter. Do try to get the best equipment you can.


In general diffraction refers to how light behaves when projected or squeezed through a small opening. Imagine a very thin tube with two ends. If you shine light down one end, when the light comes out the other end, it will not go in a straight line. Instead it opens wider, in an arc, it bends. Now, f/22 is a very small hole. The light gathered by the lens enters and when it exits it does not go in a straight line to the sensor, it opens a bit wider -- and that degrades sharpness. Some lenses will let you go all the way up to f/45. In dSLRs, whether full frame or not, such apertures are not recommended.

A way to think about it, although not a scientific one, is the following: what happens when you press your thumb against the end of the garden hose when water is flowing? Pressure increases, and the water in trying to get out through the small hole, sprays wider (an arc can be described). That is similar to what happens with light when squeezed out of a small hole.

Now, that is not very scientific, and it is very general. But then again, it is good to keep in mind. Some folks think going to the smallest (highest f-stop number) aperture will increase depth of field (hey, if f/16 gets more DOF than f/8 then maybe f/32 will be double the DOF!), but that is not the case. Diffraction at very stopped down apertures will likely be noticeable, especially if you want to print an image at a decent size (say 8 x 10 or larger). It pays to figure out (sometimes reviews include this info) what are the diffraction limits of your lenses.

F/22 is fine for water flows, but it also pays to have as many elements nicely planned as possible to get the pixels right. Try using a remote release, mirror lock-up, a good sturdy tripod, shooting 14-bit RAW, waiting out the wind... and so on. Still f/22 in most lenses, for regular photography, is beyond what is recommended if one wants to avoid diffraction.

Composition and Vision

This is a rather large area, but a few simple suggestions should help photographers get started:

There is more to a great water flow shot than the water. In order to capture the ethos of the scene and moment, its character, look widely at all that surrounds you. Landscape notions of foreground, midground, and background can be quite helpful in composing a water flow shot, and help the viewer enter the moment you experienced. Think about how the rocks, trees, leaves, branches, and other scene features help create a path for the water, or a placid space. How might they speed up or slow down the flow of water, and the flow of time in that moment? Does the tree canopy, and boulders create a sense of a cove, or hideaway? Does the water feature give the location a sense of a gateway to a dark and mysterious world?

Does the water flow toward you? Does it flow away from you? Given such concerns, what is the best angle to take for the capture? Are there curves created by obstacles in the water and by the water flow around those obstacles? Does the river, or stream bend?

What about color, texture, pattern, leading lines, tonality, dynamic tension created by flows and/or other visual elements, contrast, warm and cool temperatures, complementary shapes, rhythm (water flows might have variable rhythm), repetition, perspective, balance, proportionality, depth? Compositional elements do not just stand by themselves, each contributes to the creation of a particular mood.

Another set of questions emerges out of the experience of the moment. What is the secret of the place, of the time, of the season, of our presence and connection with nature? Take your time and be present. Rushing this kind of experience does not lead to either great photography or enjoyment of the moment.


Post-processing is the finishing school for your images. Take a moment to correct white balance (or get creative with it), contrast, cropping, etc. Look deeply at your image and see what revisions can be made to enhance it. If you have too much dense white, consider enhancing tonal contrast, creating a mask and fixing curves for the water, or using the burn tool to darken the heavy flows. You might also use the burn tool to darken those portions of the water that are most textured and dark, hence enhancing contrast. What about adding warmth, or dialing up saturation or brilliance of greens and yellows?

Perform sharpening when you have reduced the image to its final output size. It might be best to do selective sharpening. Water is highly reflective, watch for strong reflections on wet rocks.

General Suggestions

  • Control camera shake as much as possible. Use a good tripod, and shoot with a remote shutter release (wired or wireless). If your camera allows you, use mirror lock-up mode. Cover the viewfinder so that no light will enter through it.
  • Shoot in RAW mode, preferably in the highest quality setting (perhaps 14 Bit lossless compressed, or uncompressed). You want all the latitude you can get for later post-processing.
  • Remember to bracket exposures.
  • Watch out for the effect of wind on leaves, branches, etc. On a long-exposure shot wind will render leaves and other moving elements blurry.
  • Be creative but be careful with shots with very slow shutter speed. With long shutter speeds anything that enters the frame will appear blurry. In such occasions you are leaving yourself open to the effect of the wind, leaves that fall, and/or critters that might decide to walk on by, or birds that suddenly swoop down.
  • Overcast, shaded, early morning, or late evening or sunset light is best for capturing smooth and silky water flows. I know it is repeated ad nauseam but follow the dictum: be there when the light is right.
  • Go manual. Be creative, dial in your exposure. It is a great way to learn and you will be fully in control. No need to focus manually however since you might not have good eyesight, or the mist from the waterfalls might fool you.
  • Misty droplets from waterfalls will land on your lens and will show up on your shot, keep that in mind when shooting spaces with water mist or spray.
  • Consider the water flow shot as a landscape shot. As such, there is foreground, midground, and background to take into consideration, as well as a variety of other elements such as rocks, branches, flora, patterns, shapes, water path, and more. Don't assume that you can get away without thinking about composition just because the scene almost looks like a postcard.
  • Water flow shots can get pretty cliche. Consider changing angles, or including other elements to create unique and compelling compositions.
  • You don't have to get the whole waterfall, or water flow, in the shot. Compose for the image you think is most compelling.
  • Learn about water flows and waterfalls. Depending on season the flow and volume of water might vary. Water can be fast, slow, or medium. The water feature might be rocky, or have chutes, swirls, or sprays. The waterfall might be a cascading type, and so forth. Obstacles and/or obstructions can dictate how water in motion is best photographed.
  • If shooting waterfalls think about the type of waterfall you will be photographing. Distinct kinds of waterfalls might require a different photographic approach. According to Wikipedia, there are ten classifications for waterfalls (

    Block: Water descends from a relatively wide stream or river.
    Cascade: Water descends a series of rock steps.
    Cataract: A large, powerful waterfall.
    Fan: Water spreads horizontally as it descends while remaining in contact with bedrock.
    Horsetail: Descending water maintains some contact with bedrock.
    Plunge: Water descends vertically, losing contact with the bedrock surface.
    Punchbowl: Water descends in a constricted form, then spreads out in a wider pool.
    Segmented: Distinctly separate flows of water form as it descends.
    Tiered: Water drops in a series of distinct steps or falls.
    Multi-step: A series of waterfalls one after another of roughly the same size each with its own sunken plunge pool.

  • Watch carefully for spots that will blow out on long exposures. Read the scene carefully for shadows cast by trees or other scene features.
  • Wet rocks are natural reflectors, watch for bright spots. They are also quite slippery. Be careful.
  • Watch for overly bright sky in your shot.
  • Cover your lens until the moment when you are ready to set up, compose, and shoot. Waterfalls with heavy volume of water can generate plenty of mist that can quickly coat your lens or filter.
  • For increased steadiness consider weighing down your tripod. Most good tripods have a hook or other device at the bottom of the center post from which to hang objects to weigh down the tripod. A net bag with a heavy item (rocks) will help steady the tripod, just make sure the bag does not swing.
  • Is your equipment insured? Are you? You will likely be photographing (even getting in the water), in mossy, wet, slippery, isolated, rocky conditions, inhabited by wildlife. Do yourself a favor and check out the area before you take any serious risks, and take all precautions to keep your equipment and yourself safe. I recently saw a young man almost fall down a precipice in a blind attempt to get a shot.

How to Critique

For members... Given the above, you can craft a cogent and coherent critique of this type of shot. Water flow shots can convey a variety of moods, depending on how the photographer crafts them. Smooth and silky shots can convey a sense of peace, placidity, calm, interconnection, flow of time, of being, and so forth. How does the composition, and artistic choices help to convey any of these, or the photographer's expressed purpose?

These shots can also convey a "surreal" encounter with nature, origins, the ultimate. At their most abstract they can aim to convey a transcendence of the real. There is a wide latitude for capturing water flows, and there is great creative room for how to render the water flow, and interpret the scene.

Having said that however, basic technical, compositional, contextual concerns apply, and should be considered an integral part of creating the image and trying to convey the mood of the moment. These shots take time and patience. The better ones reveal a mindful person at work, connecting deeply with the surroundings.


Wikipedia's entry about Waterfalls (

Northwest Waterfall Survey (

Guide to American Waterfalls (

Michelle's Bibliography of Waterfalls (

The Art of Photographing Water (

Robert Body's wonderful shots of Havasu Falls (

Quotes about Waterfalls and Water

Leisure is a form of silence, not noiselessness. It is the silence of contemplation such as occurs when we let our minds rest on a rosebud, a child at play, a Divine mystery, or a waterfall. -- Fulton J. Sheen

Talk not of wasted affection, affection never was wasted, If it enrich not the heart of another, its waters returning Back to their springs, like the rain shall fill them full of refreshment; That which the fountain sends forth returns again to the fountain. -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 - 1882)

You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you. -- Heraclitus (540 BC - 480 BC)

A man of wisdom delights in water. -- Confucius

Night and day the river flows. If time is the mind of space, the River is the soul of the desert. Brave boatmen come, they go, they die, the voyage flows on forever. We are all canyoneers. We are all passengers on this little mossy ship, this delicate dory sailing round the sun that humans call the earth. Joy, shipmates, joy. -- Edward Abbey, The Hidden Canyon -- A River Journey

[Charles] Sumner's mind had reached the calm of water which receives and reflects images without absorbing them; it contains nothing but itself. -- Henry Brooks Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1907

Wild rivers are earth's renegades, defying gravity, dancing to their own tunes, resisting the ?authority of humans, always chipping away, and eventually always winning. -- Richard Bangs, River Gods

Any river is really the summation of the whole valley. To think of it as nothing but water is to ignore the greater part. -- Hal Borland, This Hill, This Valley

The flow of the river is ceaseless and its water is never the same. The bubbles that float in the pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not of long duration; so in the world are man and his dwellings. (People) die in the morning, they are born in the evening, like foam on the water. -- Kamo Chomei (1153-1216), Hojo-ki (An account of my hut), 1212

We're all downstream. -- Jim and Margaret Drescher

The underlying attraction of the movement of water and sand is biological. If we look more deeply we can see it as the basis of an abstract idea linking ourselves with the limitless mechanics of the universe. -- Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe

When time comes for us to again rejoin the infinite stream of water flowing to and from the great timeless ocean, our little droplet of soulful water will once again flow with the endless stream. -- William E. Marks, The Holy Order Of Water

Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries--stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded forever. -- Herman Melville, Moby Dick

A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself. -- Laura Gilpin

I came where the river
Ran over stones;
My ears knew
An early joy.
And all the waters
Of all the streams
Sang in my veins
That summer day.

-- Theodore Roethke, The Waking, 1948


Much more remains to be said, but as I noted at the outset, it is all in the practice. Get out there and go with the flow.

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From aitorsunn/Aitor (1,348) Send mail to this user on September 2, 2009 4:16:07 AM CDT

Great article, full of utility. Thank you very much.


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