CREATING MYTHICAL, SMOOTH FLOWING WATER
F1.8, F8, 8sec, ISO100
You have probably seen the many waterfalls rivers and stream photos floating around the internet that seemingly look like they are from some computer generated Lord of the Rings movie – somehow defying our everyday reality. Fortunately for you that is not the case. In fact this effect can be created in camera rather easily, no Photoshopping required.
The Tripod is the cornerstone to this effect, What makes this effect so visually stimulating is the fact that it is a combination of two aspects: perfect stillness and illusion of movement. In order to create and fuse those components the tripod becomes crucial. It allows you to lock off the camera perfectly still so you can preserve every little nook and cranny in the rocks while simultaneously allowing the rushing of the water to flow freely through your composition.
The longer your camera's shutter is open, the more movement is recorded in your photo. In most situations when we want to capture something moving quickly we need to use a higher shutter speed to freeze the action. When shooting flowing water, high shutter speeds can make the water look harsh, sharp and reflective, almost unnatural. Conversely, a slow shutter speed will make the waterfall look smooth, soft and mystical, capturing the true essence of the scene, and that’s what we're shooting for.
When composing for these shots, it helps to find a perspective that has a good vantage point to view your water feature but also has some still elements that will create that dynamic contrast. Or isolate one aspect, like a rock on a longer lens. Be wary of getting to close to larger falls as the droplets will likely get on your lens affecting your image. Once you find a spot to shoot from, set up your tripod making sure it has stable footing. Try to avoid objects that will be moving in your shot, since those objects will potentially make a blurry muffled image.
Some photographers like using this same effect on aspects other than water. For instance clouds look very interesting when shot at slower shutter speeds. Or if you have a very dark ND filter you can make a crowded street look like it has been abandoned.
This is manual mode which will give us the most control over the camera. Set your ISO down to its lowest setting which is usually around 100-200. Now set your aperture between f/8 - f16 if you have to f/22. The Higher the f-stop number, the more of your scene is able to be in focus. It also means less light is able to get to your image sensor allowing you to use longer shutter speeds, which in turn is how we create the smooth ghosting effect of the water.
Generally in landscape shots your focus is around ⅓ of the way up from the bottom of your frame. For the most part this allows for the most of the background to be in focus generally speaking. Although you might have a component in your frame such as a rock or protruding branch that you want to be the focus of your photo. So whatever you want the eye to draw to, find that spot and let the camera focus to that and then switch to manual focus so that when you press the shutter button the camera will not automatically re-focus for you.
When choosing your shutter speed it helps to use your camera's light meter to give you a reference where to start. Remember you want to have a shutter speed of at least 1/2 sec to get the blur effect. Try a shot or two and see what it is looking like and adjust accordingly. Is the water still stiff and reflective? Then lower your shutter some more but you may need to adjust your aperture to keep that exposure equal. If you are going below ½ sec and have your aperture up to f22 and ISO at 100, there may be too much light for you to use slower shutter speeds. in this case you may need to use an ND filter in order to cut out that extra light and allow you to then open up and use a longer shutter without over exposing. I like to use variable ND filters so I can adjust on the fly without changing out filters all the time.
It's generally preferred to use a shutter release cable or remote trigger when possible. Pushing the shutter button on the camera can cause some camera shake as you let go. This in turn will blur your entire image losing that fine detail in the rocks and trees that we want to keep. If you don’t have a shutter release cable you can either use a Wi-Fi control from your smart phone like using Olympus OI share App. or the quick & easy self timer built into the camera. I usually set mine to 2 sec mode and that is usually enough time to hit the shutter button on the camera while allowing time for it to settle before the shutter opens.
Now you just need to shoot. Try it a few times and see what you get. Maybe the water is not blurry enough for your taste or way to foggy and misty looking. Just adjust your aperture shutter and perhaps ND filter until you reach the effect that tickles your fancy. You can use this technique on really any moving water whether it be waves on the beach, little brook in your back yard or Niagara Falls. There is really no end to where you can apply this effect and there is no “right” way your image should look. So mess around with it and see what mystical landscapes you can create.