Shutter Priority: How to Take Smooth Water Photos


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I'm sure you've seen many of these types of photos; very smooth waterfalls, rivers, waves on lakes or oceans. Almost like silk. Any ripple or upset in the water has been completely smoothed out and soothed by the time that lapses from when the shutter inside of a camera opens until the time it closes.

Just as interesting as slow shutter speed photography can be, super fast shutter speed images can be just as interesting. With our natural eyesight, it's impossible to see what each and every droplet of water looks like while it's moving, but by capturing those droplets with our cameras, we can essentially freeze time to analyze and inspect that slice of existence. It's fascinating.

So, by this point, I'm sure you're asking, how can I take smooth water photos with my own camera? Or even, how can I freeze time to see every last detail of water's tumultuous display? Don't worry, I'll answer both of these questions below. Accomplishing both of these tasks is easier than you'd think.

It all has to do with your camera's shutter speed. Think about it; if you allow the shutter to stay open for a few seconds, the camera's sensor is going to capture everything that happens in the scene across that entire span of time. That's going to create smoothness and silkiness. If you limit the shutter speed to a split-second, much less light is going to reach the sensor, resulting in a sharper, more frozen action oriented photograph. So, depending on your goals, you can create blur or frozen time.

To take these kinds of shots, you'll need to switch your camera into shutter priority mode. If you're using a Canon camera like I do, you'll turn the top dial to the Tv setting. For many of the other makes of cameras out there, you'll most likely switch it to the S setting. If you're taking slow shutter speed (silky) photos, you'll also need a tripod. If you're taking fast shutter speed photos, a tripod isn't necessary.

I'll first explain how to take slow shutter speed silky water photos. There are a few things that need to be considered for something like this. First, you'll need a tripod. I already mentioned that. If you don't use something to keep the camera steady, additional and unwanted blur will exist in your photos. Also, much of the challenge with this kind of photography stems from how much light enters through the lens and touches the sensor. Since you'll be keeping the shutter open for a longer period of time than is typical, you'll need to find ways to reduce the exposure. You can either choose to take these types of shots during the early morning or later on towards dusk, or use a neutral density filter on the end of your lens to act as sunglasses. You can even reduce your ISO value as low as it will go to make the sensor as least sensitive as possible. Basically, you want to cut the light to avoid overexposing your images.

When it comes time to take the shot, set up your gear and then change your shutter speed to one second to start. Review the photo and then change the shutter speed to two seconds. I think you'll find that three seconds is as far as you can go until things begin looking strange. Either your photos will be overexposed or you'll reach the point of diminishing returns, meaning that one image with a shutter speed of two seconds won't appear any differently than an image with a shutter speed of four seconds. Everything in your shots should be sharp, except for the things that were moving, such as the water, in this case.

To freeze action, things are going to be a bit different. You'll change your shutter speed to 1/250 of a second and either set your ISO to Auto or set it to something like 1600. Basically, because there won't be nearly as much light coming into your camera (remove the neutral density filter if it's still attached), you'll need to make your camera's sensor more sensitive to the light. You can also open up your aperture, but that will require going into full manual mode, which is beyond the scope of this post. Anyway, when everything is set up, take your shots. You can adjust the shutter speed so it's even faster than 1/250 of a second if you want and you can adjust your ISO value, depending on how light it is outside. These will be small adjustments, but at least you now know the general settings that are required to take smooth water and frozen action shots.

Do you have any other advice for this type of photography that I may have missed? If so, please share below. Thanks!