Just over 70% of the earth's surface is covered by water. It's no wonder then that water holds a strong fascination as a photographic subject. However, successfully capturing the essence of water can be tricky. It has three forms: liquid, steam and ice. It also looks different when it's moving compared to when it's still. How do you deal with these variables successfully in a photograph? Here are five tips that may well provide an answer...
Be prepared to be up and ready to shoot at dawn for the best chance of still water.
Set your alarm clock
Water is reflective. This means that lakes and ponds are good places to go if you want to shoot symmetrical compositions. However, it doesn't take much of a breeze for the surface of the water to be disturbed, spoiling the symmetry. The least breezy time of day tends to be at daybreak. Getting up early is therefore your best bet for calm reflections. And - by a happy coincidence - a good sunrise will add colour to the reflection too.
The use of a polariser for this image allowed me to cut out an distracting reflections and make the water look deeper and more mysterious.
Be careful with ND graduate filters
Water isn't a perfect mirror and so doesn't reflect all of the light that falls onto it. This means that a reflection should always be darker than the subject of the reflection. It's tempting to use an ND graduate filter to balance the exposure between the subject and the reflection. However, this always looks unnatural (doubly so if the reflection is lighter than the subject!). As a general rule I aim to have the reflection one-stop darker than the subject.
The left half of this shot looks natural. The right half (in which I've lightened the water so that it's brighter than the landscape) just looks wrong.
Think about your shutter speed
If water has movement (such as waves breaking on a beach) the shutter speed you choose will have a bearing on how that movement is captured. A fast shutter speed (higher than 1/500) is good for 'freezing' the movement of the water (so that individual droplets can be seen). A slower shutter speed (lower than ½ second) is necessary if you want to blur the movement slightly (or smooth the movement out entirely if you use shutter speeds longer than 15 seconds). There's no right or wrong answer to this and is purely down to personal preference.
A shutter speed of 20 seconds in this image has smoothed out the waves washing over the foreground rocks.
Use a polariser
Water is essentially transparent (though the transparency will vary depending on how churned up with silt and other particles it is). Why doesn't it always look clear in a photo therefore? As mentioned above water is reflective. Light that bounces off the surface of the water will give it a slightly milky glare. This reflected light can be lessened or removed entirely through the use of a polariser. You need to be roughly at 30-40° to the surface of the water for the polariser to cut out the reflections and make the water look clearer. A lower or higher angle than that won't be as effective.
Falling snow lit by the use of an on-camera flash
Experiment with flash
Rain and snow lit by flash make effective images. Before you rush off to try it you'll need to figure out a way to keep your flash, camera and lens dry. Umbrellas are good, though a waterproof 'jacket' for your equipment is better. Using a short telephoto lens, switch to manual focus and focus approximately three to four feet / one metre away. Experiment using your flash at different power setting as you make an exposure to see which is more effective. The power setting you use determines the duration of the flash . A higher power setting emits light for a longer period of time than a lower setting. This means that the higher the power setting, the more streaked the rain will be in the shot and the lower the power setting, the more round the raindrops will be.
Your weekend challenge this week is to try one of the tips I've just described. Or, if you're feeling particular experimental, a combination of two or three. I'll be very impressed if you manage a combination of all five... Upload your best shots to our Free Monthly Photo Competition to win a free photography course of your choice.