Long exposure water photography

Roath Park waterfall photograph CardiffGetting a stunning shot of free flowing water using a long exposure shutter speed is one of those golden moments as a photographer where all of your skills come together. They’re not always easy to get right, but once you know a few key principles you should be able to snap them off pretty effectively.

It’s a technique that can work as well for waves crashing against the rocks as it does for the waterfall photograph above – taken in Roath Park, Cardiff – and if you can get it right you’ll be left with a shot that looks pretty spectacular.

1. Get the right camera filters

To get a long exposure shot of fast moving water there are a few filters you’ll need in your kit bag to give the best chance of getting a truly memorable shot. The first of these is a neutral density filter, which will reduce the amount of light going though the lens and hitting the sensor without reducing the overall colour balance. Essentially, you’re going to be opening your shutter for much longer than you would ordinarily, so you want to cut down on the light without losing a great deal of the detail. The shot above was taken with a 2 stop Hoya neutral density filter, but if you want more flexibility, you might want to either stack a number of NDs and play around with the combination, or get a variable ND filter, so that you can pick and choose on the fly.

You might also want to try a variable polerizing filter, which you’ll be able to rotate to try to discover the best blue tones and to control the amount of water reflection you want in the shot. A graduated neutral density filter can also be quite useful for long exposure water photography, especially in cases like the shot above where the top half of the image has more light than the bottom.

2. Slow things down to define fast movement

Setting your shutter speed to either 1/2 to 1 second is more than enough time to capture moving water with long exposure. To accompany this, you can either set your camera up for shutter speed priority and select the relevant time, or go to manual and control all of the variables yourself. Use the metering dial to guide you on manual, but following a few test shots you should be fine, although a lot will depend on the lighting conditions on the day. With a sow shutter speed, you’ll need to narrow your aperture to compensate for the amount of light (unless you have a high stop blocking filter like the Hama variable neutral density filter that we mention above), so dial it up to around f22 to to start with and move things around based on your metering dial.

3. A tripod’s for life, not just War Of The Worlds

It’s an integral part of any photographer’s kit bag, and with such a slow shutter speed needed for long exposure shots, it’s the only real way to guarantee that your shots look sharp and in-focus, as well as having the milky look to the moving water section of your shot. Essentially, you’re trying to cut down on camera shake, which is picked up much more with a longer exposure time on your shutter, so by giving your camera the stability of a tripod, you can keep it still enough for the half second to a second you need to get your shot.

If you’re planning on taking even longer shutter speed shots to experiment with how that changes the look of the moving water, then you might also want to get an off-camera shutter trigger. They’re not massively expensive (mine cost around £12 from Amazon), but they mean that there’s no chance of camera shake when you press and release the shutter button.

4. Post production

Once you have your shots, there are a few cool things that I can do in post production to improve the shot or to augment it to create something even more impressive or unique. The first, and perhaps most important of these is the classic dodge and burn technique. This is just to deal with any areas where I think there’s a bit too much, or not enough exposure.

However, we have a lot more fun using the various creative filters we can apply and our favourite for this type of shot has got to be the Cut Out filter, which simplifies shots and applies cel shading techniques to accentuate the layers, patterns and contrasting sections of an image. Check out the shot below of the waterfalls at the foot of Pen Y Fan, which we’ve stylised with a Cut Out filter to give it a new look and feel.

Waterfalls cut out filter Pen-Y-Fan, South Wales

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