Shooting Moving Water is a Challenge
January 25th, 2016 by Dave LaBelle

Capturing a multi-dimensional scene in a one-dimensional picture is not easy. Photo by David LaBelle

How often have we stood in awe of one of nature’s breathtaking scenes and tried to capture it with a camera, only to be disappointed because our pictures did not feel like what we witnessed or felt?

It is a challenge to try and make a one-dimensional picture that represents a multi-dimensional experience.

Photographing moving bodies of water—streams, rivers, ocean waves or waterfalls—is one of these challenges.

There are a few things you can do to capture images that come close to conveying what your heart felt even more than what your eyes saw.

The first question to ask yourself: Do I want to freeze the action, record a literal document that allows one to study details, or make a more poetic photograph that conveys more how I feel when I behold the scene?

If stopping the action is the goal—capturing details such as the crispness and design of water beads or a surfer bent low under a magnificent curling wave—use a fast shutter, something faster than 1/500th to 1/2000th of a second.

There is also a time to slow the shutter to capture the feeling of the experience more than a detailed study—something more interpretive.

To create a photograph that feels more like what the scene looked like to the naked eye, slow the shutter and allow the water to run through the frame. Set your shutter speed to 1 to 10 seconds.

The first challenge is to reduce the light coming into the camera and reaching the sensor so you do not overexpose or blow out all of the highlights. It’s a dance, of sorts.

Set camera on its lowest ISO, usually 50, 100 or 200.

Set aperture (f/stops) to the smallest opening, f/16, f/22. This allows the least amount of light to enter the camera.

Avoid bright, sunny days or shoot before sunrise or after sunset. Direct sunlight creates too much contrast and too many deep shadows. Flat, overcast light is excellent.

Look for scenes—creeks and rivers—where stones or vegetation offer contrast and shape, things for the water to go over or around.

Use the foreground to give depth. Use a small aperture opening (f/16 or f/22) and focus one-third into the scene. This should give your picture depth and focus throughout the scene, depending on the focal length of your lens.

If uncomfortable using manual mode settings, set your camera on A for aperture priority and set your f/stop (aperture setting) to f/16 or f/22. The camera will choose the corresponding shutter speed.

To keep the camera still, a tripod or stationary item such as a sandbag is essential.

A cable release that allows you to avoid moving the camera body is a handy tool, or use the camera’s self-timer to trigger the shutter without your shaking hand touching the camera.

If there is still too much light, try lessening it with filters. A polarizer can subtract some of the light reaching the sensor—which allows you to use a slower shutter speed—and adds richness to color. A neutral density filter is perfect for subtracting light and allows you to use longer shutter speeds, smaller apertures and gain more depth of field.

Use long exposures—several seconds or longer—to capture a milky, flowing, poetic feeling.

Experiment. Create your own photographic cookbook with tried-and-true recipes for success. With today’s cameras, you can look at the LCD panel and see the adjustments needed to get the exposure and feeling you want.


daveL_mug_2011David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He grew up on a frog farm in rural California, roaming the creeks and hills with his coon dogs. Many of the lessons he learned during those magical boyhood years have been applied to photography and teaching the essence of this art form. For more information, visit