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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
In Nature: It's about the Water
by Gary W. Stanley

Okay, the word is out, I'm fascinated by water. I believe that about three quarters of my images contain water in one form or another. Hey, look at it this way; I could have a fascination with fire! 

At first I thought it might be just me, but after leading a tour for GAPW (Great American Photography Weekend) this past week in Vermont, I realized this fascination for water exists with other photographers as well.

I'm really not sure why this is the case. I suppose it could be because of water's life sustaining qualities. Or maybe it's because of its earth-shaping power. Then again, it could be that there is a lot of it, so you're bound to have it in some of your photographs.

 Whatever the real reason, I love it! I love its calming effect, its mystique, its great strength, and perhaps most of all its shear beauty and place in nature. So, this month I thought I would share with you a few of the photographic techniques I use to capture water in its liquid and frozen forms.

People will often look at one of my water images and remark; how do you get that cotton candy look in the water? Usually the first thing that I tell them is that I'm trying to get maximum depth of field so I use a small lens opening, say f/16 or f/22. Because of that, the shutter curtain is open for a long time allowing a lot of water to pass through the composition during the exposure resulting in that cotton-candy look to the water.

Given the basic understanding that fast shutter speeds will freeze the movement of the water, and slow shutter speeds will give you that soft cotton candy look, really only scratches the surface of a successful image. I believe the basic design elements of line, shape, texture and form are far more important. Add to that an understanding of how lighting affects the final image, and you have the potential for outstanding water photography.

Like any good photograph, many elements go into its makeup. How you compose the image to create the drama, or the focal length you choose will all play an important part in the final image. You also need to understand what is important to you in the photograph you are trying to create. In some images it's totally about the water, in others it may be how the water compliments the scene. This is where choosing the right lens or focal length comes into play. 

To give you an example, I was photographing a mountain stream in Vermont several years ago. I had a group of tour participants with me, and I was trying to show them how to work their subject. I first used a 20mm wide-angle lens to compose my shot. I had a small white rock in the foreground and some nice reflections on the opposite side of the river.

 While the shot was okay, it was the reflection in the water that was demanding my attention. I switched to a 300mm lens, carefully focused and composed for the reflection only. I think the resulting photograph is outrageous. 

A tip for photographing reflections in water: For most of my reflection photography where there is movement in the water, I will use a focal length in the 100mm to 300mm range and open up my lens to around f/8 to increase the shutter speed. The reason I do this is to keep the reflection and color from blending together. The faster shutter speed freezes that reflection for me. Remember that depth of field will be shallower, so focus carefully. 

On a recent trip to the Smoky Mountains, I stopped to photograph a waterfall I had done last year. The recent spring rains and better light allowed me to work this subject more thoroughly. The first shot was a typical full-framed shot of the falls. Then I began to crop for different effects. In the second image I zoomed in for a tighter cropping of just a portion of the falls.

In the third image I got adventurous and climbed down a very steep embankment (kids, don't try this at home) in order to frame part of a large tree branch against the obvious power of the falls itself. In each photograph it was about the water, but I composed in such way as to give each image a very different look and feel.

A few years ago those of us, along the Atlantic coast were treated to a series of offshore hurricanes. I say treated because they were far enough out to sea so as not to be a threat to land, but close enough to create some great tide and wave action. Because I was shooting landscapes, my lens was stopped down to f/22. I had to time the shot to catch the peak action of the waves as they hit the rocks along the coast. My shutter speed was close to a 1/30th of a second, which was just fast enough to stop the action of the wave at its peak.

A tip for photographing waves: Bring lots and lots of film. Timing your shot for the peak action of these waves can consume large quantities of film. It takes practice, some luck and patience to get all of the essentials working for you. Is your horizon straight? Did you set your exposure manually so when the wave comes, all that white water won't have an effect on your meter? Did you allow enough room for the large wave in your composition? Did you allow enough room for you and your equipment so you won't be swept out to sea?

As I'm sure you are aware, ice and snow as the frozen form of water, can be just as interesting and exciting to photograph. One of my favorite winter shooting locations is the Peabody River in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Photographing this form of frozen water can be very rewarding indeed (see "Get Ready For Winter" in the November 2001 Vivid Light).

A tip for photographing water in winter: Dress warmly, use snowshoes if possible, and a zoom lens that will allow you to stay back away from thin ice. I want the viewer to feel that he or she is right "there" experiencing what I am experiencing at that moment. However, I prefer to do it in a way that doesn't result in hypothermia. I will often look for a bend in the river or a position on a point of land where I can compose the shot to look as though it was taken from the river. 

Final compositional tips for photographing water: When photographing waterfalls, allow a place for the water to fall. In other words; don't cut off the bottom area of the falls unless you are cropping a particular portion of the falls. Aesthetically, the water needs a place to fall, or it will look chopped off, much like taking a picture of your friend and cutting them of at the ankles. Look for s-curves that will help give you a nice visual transition from the foreground to the background. Try using foreground subjects to add interest and depth to your shot, like a large boulder or overhanging branch. 

What about exposure? Try to find a medium toned object in the same light as your water, such as a gray or brown rock and take a meter reading from that. Orůspot-meter the white area of the water itself and open up at least 1-2/3 stops from your camera's suggested reading. 

Well, there you go, a fairly simple approach to photographing a magnificent subject. Unless you live in Death Valley or the Sahara Desert, chances are you have water nearby to photograph. Why not spend a little time photographing a nearby waterfall, pond, lake, stream or ocean if you can, and I think that you will have to agree with me that,  In Nature: it's about the Water!

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