Most of you nature photographers will have seen long-exposed waterscapes resulting in the peculiar soft aspect of water. If you haven't, or if you're not a nature photographer, here are a few examples:
In this article I will be sharing some ideas and tips which hopefully will get you interested in this kind of photography first of all; and if that marvellous personal paradigm shift takes place within you, give you the basics in achieving the sought-after results.
Who am I to dare do this ?
Well this is quite important: I'm nothing fancy, just a nature photography-loving guy with a cheap entry-level DSLR and tripod, with a couple of filters. But taking photos out there and gleaning knowledge from artists I admire has taught me lots. This I simply wish to share with as many people as possible.
Rivers are my favourite area of operation, meaning that that environment will be the main reference for the article as it is the one I have the most experience of, however, this guide is fully transposable to any kinetic energy-endowed water body.
So, first of all, why ?
Good question. “It makes the water pretty and fluffy”, while certainly valid, is quite restrictive.
- Smoothing out water in a photo opens a world of possibilities ! For example, a calm water body (no foam) will allow you, when using long-exposure techniques, to showcase the underwater scape if you play your reflections right. This can come in very useful if you are lacking a prominent foreground, as whatever is underwater makes a very good alternative.
- You can play around with reflections much more (I will cover the polariser below in the technical part). With a high shutter speed, you will certainly get reflections, but unless the water is so calm it's absolutely flat, your reflections will be distorted and all over the place. If there is some movement in the water, how long you leave the sensor exposed will decide whether the water ends up completely flat, or retains some movement, and that will affect what the reflected -sunset/sunrise/anything you fancy- looks like.
The main point however, from my point of view anyway, points towards composition (do I get points for that ?).
- Dynamics and texture. With quick flowing bodies, such as river rapids or agitated seasides, the foam if placed in a good direction within the frame will add a lot of movement and dynamics the image, giving more interest to the whole scape.
- I also mentioned texture. Now this is going a bit further into theoretical image composition. Balance is an important part of composition. Balance of colours, balance of light, balance of textures, balance of spaces,... This balance can be played around with to give a peaceful feel if it is pretty even, or more dynamic if it is uneven. A long exposure will smooth out the water, and again, you can decide how smooth, which will provide you with opportunity to decide what kind of feel you give to your image by balancing the water's texture against harder ones like rocks, plants and any other objects you include within the frame.
So what was the purpose of this first part? Was it just to convert those of you who did not see the point or did it also have the second purpose of giving more ideas to those of you who are already in love with long-exposure? Okay you got me, I'm really too obvious.
So now that after reading the first part the main purpose of your life has become to shoot long-exposed waterscapes, we can move on from the why to the how. I'll let this be more interactive now, feel free to put your most complex questions to me, go ahead.
Okay, fine. Yes how, good question again, albeit less existential than your first one.
- So what equipment do I need for this most noble exercise?
Well the most basic really; any additions will make your life easier and give you more options, but the only absolute necessity is a camera that lets you select a shutter speed/exposure time. Simple cameras like phones will aim for a high speed so that your duck lip selfies look nice and sharp, which hinders our here task at hand. A DSLR is ideal of course.
- Will I have to spend money on a tripod?
A tripod will make your life easier, but again, if you don't want to/can't buy one, you can always find a well placed rock to lay your camera on. It will limit the angles available to you but that is how I got started myself.
If you fancy a tripod, I would suggest a heavy one rather than a light one as this will offer much needed stability when you stick it in a quick river or a stormy sea.
- I've seen filters with weird names in some photo descriptions, what's that about?
A polarizing filter is next on my list, it has 3 useful effect for you. It enhances colours and contrasts, it can eliminate reflections (depending on the angle) and it will increase the exposure time required, thus allowing longer exposures even in bright light conditions. The effect on reflections is the most useful, for balancing purposes again. Do you want to see almost no reflection but moslty the rocks underwater ? Or a bit of both ? The polarizing filter will allow that, simply spin it to adjust the water reflection.
I shoot rivers which are generally under quite thick tree growth, and seascapes do look awesome during sunsets or rises, meaning in those cases, bright light is not an issue. But if it is, or if you want to modulate your exposure time more, the neutral density filter is a great tool. It is basically a darkening filter, called neutral density because it reduces the intensity of all wavelengths, so you get no colour side-effects.
- Anything else I might need?
Well a wide-angle lens is always a good addition to your equipment, if you can afford it. Waterproofs for walking around in rivers in cold seas are definitely useful as they will give you more options. And make sure you always carry around a microfibre cloth as your lens is likely to be on the receiving end of water drops if you're placing your camera low over rapids or close to a waterfall.
- So how to I get my fluffy water with all this fancy equipment now?
As is standard for any landscape photography, look for of beautiful place, a good foreground (rocks in rivers are the most obvious) and if you're patient enough, be ready to wait a number of hours for the best light. For landscape, you'll want quite a high aperture value to get good depth of field, which has the added bonus of reducing the amount of light available to the sensor, thus increasing the exposure time. Lens review websites will have detailed analyses of sharpness to aperture values. If you're not hard pressed by light, I would suggest aiming for that optimum.
For a long exposure, with rapid water flow, even a single second will achieve good results.
Here are two of my long-exposed rivers, one at 30 seconds exposure, the other at 2 seconds.
Long exposure really does not need to be that long.
This is unless you have a sky in your image and are trying to obtain streaky clouds. Now this is quite a different domain, and one that I am not very familiar with, but you will need much longer than a couple of seconds in that case, and neutral density filters really come in useful in those photo sessions.
All in all, a long exposure waterscape is not difficult to achieve. Prop your camera on a rock and let the sensor stuff its face with light for a couple of seconds and that will get you started, hopefully one of many attempts and great results to come!
It's not all about the image, it's also about the adventure. I've had some of my best hikes walking up mountains, wading down rivers to find a good spot to stick my tripod in, jumping from rock to rock, or sitting on a lovely river bank waiting for nature's great lightbulb to do its stuff. While I love hiking with mates, photography is sometimes best as a solo venture. Not everyone will be ready to wait an hour in the same spot doing nothing, especially if they are not photographers themselves. Go alone or choose your co-hiker wisely.