Water Photography: Flowing & Reflecting


St. Augustine, FL (24mm, 1/200 sec., f/8, ISO 500)


While waterfalls seem to grab all the attention in landscape photography, other water (in motion and still) provides some great image opportunities. This can be represented by flowing streams and rivers, ocean tide actions, still reflection from bodies of water of all types and even saturated beaches that produce reflective surfaces. They can be present in any type of landscape photography and the one thing they all have in common is that they will attract the attention of the viewer of your photo. Learning how to first notice them, and then incorporate them properly into your scene can provide a new level of beauty and mystery to your photo because all water moves, and when properly caught by your camera, can produce something that the human eye does not notice or cannot see.




  • Individual wave photography is a special category and due to my geographical location, I seldom have the opportunity to shoot them and is not covered in this write-up
  • Oceans normally have a surf that is large enough that a long exposure tends to look very strange and unnatural
  • Ultra-long exposures produce fog-like or mirror-like water, depending on the actual activity happening with a restless sea produces fog and calmer water creating a mirror.
  • The faster shutter speed allows the water to look natural and often makes it a secondary subject of the scene rather that the primary subject
  • The fast shutter speed seems to show the power of such a large body of water
  • The fast shutter speed captures the motion of the water
  • The faster shutter speed freezes different angles in the water to produce different reflections of light


Ocean Surf


  • .3 seconds – Very dynamic, full of texture, yet retaining its fluidity
  • 4 seconds – Smooth, dynamic shot with some texture
  • 25 seconds – Fog or ghosting effect



Reynisdranger, Iceland (24mm, 5 sec., f/13, ISO 100)


Moving Surf – Diagonal


Moving surf can provide some very interesting effects depending on the beach. On flat beaches, the wave action can be seen almost like a carpet with a long exposure shot. Spend some time checking the angle of the waves hitting the beach and an estimate of how long the wave takes to come in and go out.


  • Catch the surf just before its highest point and photograph it as it recedes
  • Look for beaches with low or minimal waves to avoid the incoming waves clashing with the receding surf
  • Look for flat beaches that produce a long “carpet”
  • Shoot at an angle with the wave’s top line of the surf producing a leading line into the images versus out of the image
  • Times will vary, but 1-4 second exposures will usually require a ND filter
  • A tripod and cable release are required for the long exposure and timing the surf at its peak



St Augustine, FL – (16mm, 2.6 sec., f/14, ISO 50)


Moving Surf – From Behind


  • Shooting moving surf from behind can provide dramatic leading lines
  • Getting lower with an ultra-wide angle will exaggerate the length and power of the surf
  • Like diagonals, you want to catch the surf as it goes back out to highlight the streaks of the receding water
  • Incoming surf can also be dramatic as it can create circles and small waterfalls over rocks or other objects
  • Incoming surf is twice as fast as receding surf
  • Match your shutter speed with the length of the incoming or receding surf to avoid the different surf patterns from “clashing”



Jokulsarlon, Iceland – (29mm, 2.2 sec., f/16, ISO 50)


Moving Surf – Around Objects


  • Flowing water around objects on the beach can create interesting leading lines and patterns
  • Even small surf can produce nice reflections and staggered surf lines
  • Getting low will make smaller objects appear more dominant in the scene
  • Not a lot of rules here as it is more about composition and experimentation


Jekyll Island, GA (16mm, 1/40 sec., f/8, ISO 320)

St. Augustine, FL (75mm, 1/80 sec., f/8, ISO 125)

Brewster, MA (24mm, 1.6 sec., f/18, ISO 400)


Water – Leading Lines


  • Use the surf and reflections to produce leading lines
  • Make sure the lines are not taking you away from the focal point
  • Orient the water to direct your viewer toward the key point-of-interest
  • Using diagonal surf is a great way to produce a leading line in a landscape portrait
  • Tide pools and sand ridges can provide great leading lines
  • Orient the sand/water to point toward the key point-of-interest
  • Looks for reflections as well to create more interest in the image



Bear Den Falls, Massachusetts (16mm, 15 sec., f/16, ISO 100)


Unseen Moving Water


  • Cameras can catch movement of water or items in the water in a long exposure that your eye does not even see
  • Movement can provide drama and emotion to an otherwise average image
  • Recognize ponds, tide pools, streams and rivers as potential sources for unusual scenes where the water movement can provide interest
  • Use neutral density filters to slow things down and if the surface is smooth, try shutter speeds up to 30 seconds to capture the flow of anything moving in the scene
  • Experiment, experiment, experiment


West Boylston, MA (125mm, 1/80 sec., f/8, ISO 200)

Eaton, NH (140mm, 1/80 sec., f/11, ISO 200)

Rockport, ME (91mm, 1/80 sec., f/11, ISO 320)


Water – Still


Conditions must be windless for a perfect reflection. When the water is still, try running the horizon through the middle as the eye looks for:


  • Symmetry
  • Mirror image
  • Reversal
  • Distortion


Still conditions will retain morning mist/fog. In slightly windy conditions, an ND filter can be used to smooth out the water providing there is nothing moving in the scene.


A slight wind can still produce some stunning reflections with a little bit of interesting distortion. With anything floating, make sure the shutter speed is high enough to insure they stay sharp – 1/80 of a second is a good starting point.


St. Augustine, FL – (16mm, .8 sec., f/16, ISO 100)

Falmouth, MA – (16mm, .8 sec., f/16, ISO 100)


Water – Still


  • For seacoast locations, still water can produce a “floating” effect on high overcast days for boats or other objects
  • With fog or mist, the horizon line can become invisible
  • Conditions must be windless to allow fast shutter speeds to keep boats sharp



Lost Lake, OR- (14mm, 30 sec., f/2.8, ISO 6400)


Water – Still at Night


  • Don’t forget still water in the evening
  • Astro photography is an excellent opportunity for reflecting stars and the Milky Way
  • Even with perfectly still water, there will be some distortion due to the long shutter speeds



Old Orchard Beach, ME (44mm, .5 sec., f/8, ISO 50)


Water -Flat Beaches


  • Look for flat beaches like Old Orchard
  • Shoot just before low tide as the surf recedes and the beach is still saturated
  • Shoot before sunrise to even out the tones between the beach and the sky



Polarizing Filter – Objects that are wet tend to produce glare. This is particularly an issue with all water shots because the rocks and vegetation near the water will be wet and, along with the water, will almost certainly have a good amount of glare. A polarizer will remove the glare. In addition, a polarizer has a secondary effect; by removing the glare, the color saturation of the scene will improve.


Neutral Density (ND) Filters – Since shutter speed can be critical to achieving the desired look of moving and still water, it is important to have a set of 3-stop and 6-stop ND filters that allow you to cut the amount of light entering the lens. This allows you to achieve slower shutter speeds even during the brightest part of the day.


Graduated ND filter – One of the major challenges in photographing landscapes, especially during the golden hour, is the large dynamic range of the scene. Sunrise and sunset landscapes can have as many as 20 levels of dynamic range from darkest darks to brightest whites. Normal cameras have 13-15 levels of dynamic range so the 3-stop ND filter can narrow the dynamic range of the images, allowing you to better capture the entire spectrum of light from the scene.


Magnetic Filters – A revolutionary faster way to use filters


  • Zero light leak
  • Instantly attaches in a 1/4 second
  • Two filters can be attached with no vignetting down to 16mm
  • Smooth rotation of adapter wheel to adjust CPL
  • Can be used with Graduated ND filter holder




Waders – An unusual topic for this set of “best practices,” but I photographed around water for years from the edge of the water. Sometimes this was great, but on other occasions I could not get the angle I wanted or there was brush or trees in the way. I finally bought a pair of waders and immediately felt liberated. There is nothing better than walking in the surf or into a shallow pond and getting exactly the perspective I am looking for. I like waders better than waterproof boots and/or socks as I can hike comfortably with water up to waist versus calf level. You will find these invaluable in many other water landscape venues as well.


Waterproof Clothing – If you are going to shoot around water on a regular basis, invest in a good waterproof jacket as well as quick drying shirts, pants, socks and waterproof boots.


Protecting Your Gear


  • While shooting, I always keep my strap on the camera and around my neck once I have established my position in case the tripod tips
  • While I do not usually use a camera cover, I do carry a substantial amount of microfiber wipes for keeping the camera and the lens free from water and wiping down my equipment, especially around salt water
  • I do carry a small portable umbrella to shield the camera from spray or if it is raining