Photographing fast moving water

Barriere, photography

With a changing subject like moving water

With a changing subject like moving water

Last week my wife and I drove into Chase and decided to check out Chase Creek Falls.   However, when we got there I decided to forego standing alongside several other photographers that were quickly snapping pictures of the water cascading over the rocks.

Instead I climbed down along the bank looking for angles that would show the stream as it rushed by.

What I like about those tumultuous locations isn’t so much the waterfall as it is the fast moving water crashing and twisting it’s way through canyons, deflecting off rocks, splashing into the air and creating colourful tones both on the wet rocks and in the water itself.

Waterfalls and the accompanying river or streams are exciting and challenging subjects for photographers.

However, photographers are sometimes so overwhelmed by the beauty that without thought to practical photographic techniques, they just set their cameras to program modes aim and quickly take the picture. Later when opening image files on their computer displays they either accept uninspiring documentaries of the water-filled location,  or are disappointed that the photographs made don’t relay the same emotional impact felt when the pictures were taken.

There is the technical aspect to photographing moving water, but along with their digital camera photographers should bring a good tripod and a polarizing filter.

The tripod is to reduce shake, and the polarizer is to reduce glare. A cable release is also very good to have, but not essential. I forget mine sometimes and end up using my camera’s self-timer instead to minimize camera shake.

Moving water, like any scenic, can be photographed from many angles and in many different ways;  from wide angle shots that put the scene into a wider context, or tightly cropped shots that focus upon just one small element.

Photographers should also look at the different ways the water flows. In some locations there will be multiple streams, in others it will gush explosively everywhere, and sometimes it will flow gently, so try various locations and angles.

With a changing subject like moving water, photographers can either freeze the motion of the water by using a fast shutter speed or exaggerate it by using a longer shutter speed that blurs it.

A special consideration to be made is the time of day.  Oftentimes waterfalls occur in shady little canyons and ambient light may not create an exciting composition at the time one is there.  So, sometimes it is necessary to wait for the sun to light the waterfalls in a way that is desired, often during midday when the sun is directly overhead.

If stopping and suspending the splashing water is one’s goal, then use a high shutterspeed (250th or higher). Sometimes that is how I want to photograph a scene, but this time I wanted silky, smooth moving water and selected a slow shutterspeed (1/15 of a second or less).

There is always a trade-off between shutterspeed, aperture, and the resulting depth of field, and for scenics I always want as much sharpness (foreground to background) as I can get, so after deciding on     a location and composition I choose an aperture of f8 or higher, then metering on some mid-toned feature like a large grey rock, or bleached out deadfall, I try for as slow a shutterspeed as I can get; 1/15th of a second produces fine images, but one or even two seconds make for even better effects.    Selecting a lower ISO will mean that a camera’s sensor is less sensitive to light and the shutter can stay open longer.

However, in spite of trying hard, my photos from that day weren’t that successful as clouds moved in and the light became overcast and flat. I wanted light to create some shadows for contrast and to separate the trees, rocks, and water.

Oh well, there will be another day with better light and other streams to photograph.

As the summer days become warmer, and water becomes slower and clear, the rivers, streams and waterfalls will become more picturesque with more rocks showing. Now is a great time to visit the many waterfalls, rivers, and creeks we have here in the Interior of British Columbia with a camera; and the more you photograph, the better you’ll get. Have fun.

These are my thoughts this week. Contact me at or       Stop by Enman’s Camera at 423 Tranquille Road in Kamloops. And if you want an experienced professional wedding or event photographer please call me. I also sell an interesting selection of used photographic equipment.