6 Basic Tips for Photographing Water

There are different ways to look at water. As a fascinating backdrop from Hollywood movies, a dreamy forest brook… or maybe as an element full of motion. Discover the ways to photograph water and how to work with them. Let our six tips for photographing water help you on your way.

Water photography has the advantage that there are watery scenes all around us. And practically every form of water looks good in pictures. Meanwhile, you can even find great spots right by your home. And if those are missing “something,” then you can head out further for water.

Photographing “Big” Water

Large water surfaces like ponds, lakes, and seas can look very impressive. Join them with a sunset, and they can work wonders.

A reservoir near the Palava hills in the Czech Republic.

A reservoir near the Palava hills in the Czech Republic, photographed with a relatively short exposure. Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 III, 1/13 s, f/18, ISO 100, focal length 16 mm

It depends a lot on what exposure length you use. The first example here had a length of 1/3 s, but the scene changes dramatically with a longer exposure. In this case I like the first, sharper variant, but in another case the opposite might be true. So if you have a tripod available and you set a high f-stop or use an ND filter, you can shoot with an exposure of e.g. 2.5 seconds like I did below, where the motions of the water are lost and the picture takes on a dreamy feeling:

A reservoir near the Palava hills in the Czech Republic shot with a longer exposure.

The same reservoir, this time shot with a longer exposure. Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 III, 2.5 s, f/22, ISO 100, focal length 24 mm

Water photography isn’t just for sunsets. You can shoot just as well during the day. And use the sea instead of a reservoir. But to keep your picture from being boring, you’ll want to also include the nearby shoreline in the scene.

Rocks on the shore in the north of Spain.

Rocks on the shore in the north of Spain. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 II, 1/80 s, f/7,1, ISO 100, focal length 16 mm

How to Photograph Surface Reflections

Reflections of the surroundings on a water surface are also welcome, like for example in this view of the Matterhorn.

The Matterhorn reflected in a mountain lake.

The Matterhorn reflected in a mountain lake. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 II, 1/60 s, f/11, ISO 100, focal length 35 mm

However, you can only get pictures like these on very calm water. In this specific case only early in the morning, because after that the wind starts blowing and for the rest of the day the Matterhorn is only visible once.

So it’s simpler to photograph reflections on closer objects and on small water surfaces where there’s no risk of large waves. So the best candidates for this kind of water photography are little garden pools at palaces.

The Rájec nad Svitavou palace.

The Rájec nad Svitavou palace. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 II, 1/320 s, f/5,6, ISO 100, focal length 20 mm

While for landscape photographs in general it’s good to place the horizon quite high or low, for reflection photos, a horizon placed in the middle is best. That way the whole photo’s majesty and symmetry really shine. But you don’t have to stick to this recommendation at all costs; with a calm enough water surface, you can even take various playful shots like the one below.

A second look.

A second look. Canon 350D, Macro-Revuenon 24/4, 1/40 s, probably f/8, ISO 100, focal length 24 mm

If you found this set of pictures interesting, read our article that’s all about reflections.

How to Shoot Water Against the Light

Pictures shot facing the sun require special handling. If you’re lucky, the light won’t be too intense, and your camera will be able to capture the scene in its full dynamic range. But in the extreme case, the sun will be very “fiery” in the picture. And because it is also being reflected off a frolicking surface, large parts of the picture will be too bright.

If this problem stands out too much, there are two basic solutions. One is to take a very dark photo and brighten everything but the sun and its reflection on your computer. That way you avoid overexposure.

The other is to take several shots with different exposure settings, that is, with different brightnesses. Cameras tend to have a function for this, found under the name Exposure bracketing (or similar), and when you activate it, pressing your camera’s trigger will automatically take a series of differently exposed shots. Join the result into a single photo on your computer.

The final picture was manually assembled from the three source photos below it.

The final picture was manually assembled from the three source photos below it. Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 III, 1/160 through 1/1250 s, f/11, ISO 100, focal length 23 mm

Photographing Water with a Polarizing Filter

You can also use another trick for reflections—you can use a polarizing filter. Twist it to the right angle, and the reflections will disappear, letting you look below the surface. To get an idea of the difference a polarizing filter makes here, look at the pair of pictures below.

Taken without a polarizing filter.

Taken without a polarizing filter. Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 24-70/2.8 II, 1/80 s, f/8, ISO 400, focal length 25 mm

Taken with a polarizing filter.

Taken with a polarizing filter. Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 24-70/2.8 II, 1/80 s, f/8, ISO 400, focal length 25 mm

Unfortunately the reduced reflections only come at certain angles (around 45 degrees below the horizon). In the picture above, reflections are almost absent from the bottom half, while they come back towards the horizon.

Meanwhile, there’s no need to always get rid of reflections completely. After all, they make water… water. So you can also rotate the filter to an angle that leaves a part of them showing.

How to Photograph Water in Fountains

Water in the city is quite photogenic too. Since fountains are small, you can also easily walk around them and photograph them from different angles. You can take a lot of different pictures in just a few seconds this way.

A fountain photographed facing away from the sun.

A fountain photographed facing away from the sun. Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22/3.5-4.5, 1/30 s, f/8, ISO 100, focal length 10 mm

A fountain photographed facing towards the sun.

A fountain photographed facing towards the sun. Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22/3.5-4.5, 1/160 s, f/8, ISO 100, focal length 10 mm

If a fountain is decorated with sculptures and you can find an angle where you can catch their reflections, that gives you some more composition options.

A fountain along with its reflection in the water.

A fountain along with its reflection in the water. Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22/3.5-4.5, 1/80 s, f/8, ISO 100, focal length 10 mm

Various close-ups on a water jet are another option. But as you can see, even with a speed of 1/640 seconds, the spraying drops are still blurred by motion. So if you really want to stop the flow, you need to use an even shorter time.

A close-up on the water jet.

A close-up on the water jet. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 24-105/4, 1/640 s, f/4, ISO 200, ohnisko 105 mm

Fountains photographed at night are a special case all their own. With a tripod and a long exposure, you can blur the water’s motion and capture its essence instead of its motion. This is also a good way to get a picture without tourists. The long exposure will blur them all away.

The Magic Fountain in Barcelona.

The Magic Fountain in Barcelona, bathed in light. Canon 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55/3.5-5.6, 10.0 s, f/22, ISO 100, focal length18 mm

Photographing Water in Streams and Rivers

Naturally flowing water is another common theme. When photographing small streams, it’s mainly their surroundings that are important, because they occupy a large part of the picture.

The shape of the watercourse is also important for an interesting photo. When it’s just a straight line, you may get a good picture, but it won’t really be eye-catching. It’s better to seek out striking changes in direction and capture these. Forest streams that form an S-curve are one common example.

A forest stream.

A forest stream with several bends forming an S-curve. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 II, 2.0 s, f/22, ISO 100, focal length 16 mm

Vertical shifts in direction are even more interesting. You’ll find these whenever you’re in the hills or mountains. And when you do, you can take unusual pictures. Here we have an artificial cascade on a small river in the German Alps.

A water cascade in the German Alps.

A man-made cascade in the German Alps. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 70-200/2.8 IS II, 1.0 s, f/16, ISO 100, focal length 200 mm

Give It a Try

Take the pictures in this article as a dash of inspiration. The range of water pictures you can take is truly enormous, and there’s plenty to enjoy no matter whether you love grand landscapes or close-ups. You just have to head out to the closest body of water and get started taking pictures.

You can photograph water as majestic scenery, an unbridled element, or a source of romantic reflections. Take a look at what it has to offer and how to work with it.

Last updated 17. October 2017

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Author: Vit Kovalcik

I’ve been a freelancer since early 2012; photography is my living. I acquired my photography experience, both inside and outside the studio, during the previous years—when I was working all day and taking pictures every evening and weekend. I don’t have just one clearly defined topic; I like photographing people, but also cityscapes and landscapes.

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