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.
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.
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).
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.
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) .
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.