Fun Techniques: Silky Waters

By Jack Berglund

In the third in the series of fun techniques you’ll learn how to create a beautiful silky water effect.  Its easy to do and something fun to try next time you’re out in nature.

By Severine Mary

The basic idea is simple: hold the camera steady with a long exposure and the constantly moving and splashing water is smoothed out.  You can use this approach on rivers, the sea or on lakes.

Shutter Speed

The photo to the left was taken with a 2s exposure.  Longer exposures will smooth the water more but at some point it becomes shapeless.  Short exposures will smooth the water less.  It just depends how you want the photo to look.  Start around 2 seconds and adjust from there.  You’re best off in shutter priority mode here but be aware that you may exceed the capabilities of your camera on a very sunny day (see below).

Hold Steady

Ideally you need a tripod or at the very least something to rest the camera on.  As you’ve probably hiked somewhere to find a picturesque body of water, you may not want to lug a heavy tripod.  The good news is that you can get ok results with a cheap lightweight tripod (with some fiddling) or with a mini tripod.  If you want to spend the money a Gorillapod or carbon fiber tripod are good solutions.

Cheap lightweight tripods kind of do what it says on the tin.  They are generally fiddly to adjust and can droop or move once you’ve positioned the camera.  They are not very stable with a full DSLR on top, particularly when its windy so be careful and keep one hand on for safety’s sake.  When it comes to portability for the price though, they are hard to beat.  $25 dollars gets you this offering from Sunpak and it weighs less than 2kg.

Mini tripods aren’t generally designed to support a full DSLR so you’ll need to keep hold of your camera.  They can give you enough stability for a decent shot and will take almost no space in your backpack.  Check out this Sima mini tripod for 5 bucks.  Remember: always keep hold of your camera when using a mini tripod or it’ll probably fall over.  A better solution is a Gorillapod.  They make a DSLR version and the flexible legs have the added benefit of letting you wrap them round nearby objects or easily adjusting for uneven ground.

The ultimate solution is probably a fancy lightweight carbon fiber tripod.  My dream tripod from Gitzo will hardly set you back hiking, weighing in at only 2.2 pounds but will set you back over 400 pounds of the variety with the queens head on (700 dollars US).  Read about it in my article “I got a tripod for my wife – it was a fair swap“.

Not Just Dense but Neutrally Dense

The other big consideration is the sun.  You’ve picked a nice sunny day for your hike because that’s when hiking is nice.  However, to get a correctly exposed photo with shutter open for a long time on a sunny day can be impossible.

To get as long an exposure as possible, make sure you are using the lowest iso setting your camera supports (usually ISO 100) and ‘stop your lens all the way down’ meaning make the aperture as small as possible (big f numbers).

No matter how small you make the aperture (most lenses have a limit around f/22), too much light may still be reaching the sensor.  You’ve a couple of options here: shorten the shutter speed (water will be less silky) or use a neutral density (ND) filter.  An ND filter cuts down the amount of light reaching the camera sensor without changing the colour or contrast of the image.  With less light, you can keep your long exposure without over exposing the picture. ND filters are rated depending on how much light they cut down: a 0.3 filter reduces light by one stop, 0.6 two stops and 0.9 three stops (a stop is a doubling or halving of the amount of light). For example, if the slowest shutter speed you could get without a filter was 0.5s and you add a 0.6 ND filter, you will now be able to get a 2s shutter speed and have the same overall exposure for your picture.

Flat-er to Deceive

Use the same technique on lakes and ponds to create a serene, still atmosphere even when there may be some wind kicking up the water.  The approach is exactly the same although you can get away with longer shutter speeds (this picture was 6 seconds) .

In Short

To get this effect: Start with a shutter speed of around 2 seconds, check your not over exposed, put your camera on something steady (ideally a tripod), take a photo.  Adjust shutter speed to get the effect you want.

Thanks to Severine for providing the photographs in this post.

Other posts in this series of fun techniques:

Fun Techniques:Panning

Fun Techniques: Time to Get Flashy

  1. Really cool effect! Thanks for the tip! Now I can’t wait to try it.

  2. I’m glad I found this blog! This is great information explained in terms everyone can understand. Thanks!

    • alemfronteiras
    • June 30th, 2010

    Beautiful pictures! In the past I used to wonder how were photographers able to create this effect. I thought that I would need some expensive photo-editing software, but it’s just a matter of knowing how to make the equipment work for you. Check out this shot I took a few months back! Enjoy and I look forward to seeing more photography tips! Thanks!


  3. I love photography and have deprived myself too long, blogging about advocacy and such all this time. Thank you for reminding me of my OTHER passions. 🙂

  4. That first pic is too cool. I need to invest in one of those professional cameras with the lense.

  5. Interesting to know this technique, I always wondered how they did this! Thanks a lot!

  6. Thanks for sharing this! I’ve always wondered how to achieve this effect.

  7. Wow, that makes a wonderful looking picture…thanks!

  8. scenery with golden yellow rays formed beauty source

  9. Great little write up. Nice shots. Thanks for the tips!

  10. withi compact cameras (even advanced ones such as the LX3) the limitations in aperture and base ISO can prevent these kinds of shots in bright daylight! A neutral density filter is another good piece of equipment to have with you

    • TheShyGenealogist
    • June 30th, 2010

    I love your site! I’m thinking about getting my daughter into photography and this seems like something she could do. Thanks!

    • barrymanana
    • June 30th, 2010

    Thanking you – a nice post. And I’ll certainly try this out next time I’ve got my SLR out for a walk.

    PS. Surely your header ‘Digital Photography Demystified’ should read re-mystified? 🙂

    • jacklynady
    • June 30th, 2010

    Nice pics thanks.

  11. That is a great tip! I always thought that these types of photos where worked in Photoshop; now I know!

  12. Amazingly captured! Your pictures are truly a work of art, how I loved it! How I wish I can share it in my blog post as a pictures to meditate upon. Very tranquil… very serene… very contemplative.

  13. I’m always looking for advice and easy-to-understand DSLR tips. And, good photography. All here on your blog! I’ll be back. Thanks.

  14. Thanks for explaining that so clearly. I’m new to the world of digital photography, tons to learn yet, so I’ll be back! The photos are terrific, really good.

  15. thanks for the tip and advice. nice shots. ill try them one of these days.

    • Catherine
    • June 30th, 2010

    Thanks for the tips..

  16. Wow, the photos are beautiful! I have always wanted to learn how to shoot photos in which the water looks silky. Thanks for posting, was very helpful! I will definitely try this out next time I am near a body of water.

  17. Thanks for the tips…I fly fish and will try this out next time I am on the water!!!

    PT/TB 🙂

  18. Great stuff–thanks for the tips.

    • Sharonbianco
    • July 1st, 2010

    Wow…..amazing work!!!

    • Songbird
    • July 1st, 2010

    It’s amazing what you can do with technology….

  19. nice ang view

    • elmer
    • July 1st, 2010

    Can I do that with a point-and-shoot camera?

    • You would need a point and shoot that allows you to override the automatic settings and set the shutter speed. Even then it would be tricky because in bright sunlight a point and shoot camera would strggle to have a long shutter speed and still be correctly exposed. It may be possible on a duller day. Let me know if you have any luck. You could upgrade to a DSLR…I did a few years ago and it’s been great. An entry level second hand camera and lens can be had for a few hundre dollars an will be more than adequate.

  20. Very interesting!!

  21. Oh wow! I’ve always wanted to know how to do this! Great tips! Thanks!!

  22. This was a nice way… I would love to try that,…especially when you live in a country full of rivers… 🙂


    • greysqrl
    • July 1st, 2010

    Nice tip, I’d never thought about long exposing regular photo of a body of water to get that smooth effect. Good idea. 🙂

  23. Well explained! Even starters like me can relate. Thumbs up!

  24. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    Thanks for the photo tips, and for the beautiful photos. I have also wondered how the “silky waters” photos were done.

  25. Nice photos and great effect. Thanks for explaining. Water is an amazing subject there are so many different effects you can create and I really like this one

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