Have you ever seen those tranquil images of a waterfall or ocean waves where the water looks
like silk? The whole image is in perfect focus, but the water is perfectly smooth. Done well, the
effect is stunning and can create tranquil, ethereal images.
How is it done? It’s easier than you think!
Check out this guide to long-exposure water photography to learn everything you need to know to create your own silky water images.
Setting the Scene
Location is important for long exposure water photography. As always, a strong composition will help create an impactful photo — you can’t use this technique just anywhere and expect
To create the effect with the water, you need movement in the water. A still lake or pond won’t
work. You need a waterfall or rolling ocean waves. A river will work too though you will usually
need rocks or something breaking the surface of the water so you can see the movement.
Once you’ve chosen your location, here’s what you need to do with your camera.
Effects like this are impossible to capture in a camera’s automatic modes. To create this effect, you are purposefully blurring part of the photo, which is not what the automatic mode seeks to do.
If you haven’t ventured into manual mode yet, this is the perfect time. You’ll need full control
over your camera settings to create this effect.
For this tutorial, let’s look at the basic settings you should use.
The actual speed you use will depend on the brightness of the day and the look you’re going for. A longer shutter speed will create a smoother image.
It also depends on how fast the water is moving. Your shutter speed doesn’t have to be as slow to smoothly capture faster-moving water. But if the water is barely moving, a longer shutter speed is needed.
Typically you’ll need a shutter speed of at least a ½ second or longer. However, if you’re
shooting in bright sunlight the image can easily get blown out.
Your camera is sitting on a tripod and the slow shutter speed you’ll use generally lets in plenty of light. There is no reason to turn up your ISO and it can make it more difficult to get the lighting right in bright conditions.
Keep your ISO at 100 to help darken the photo and reduce grain.
For a landscape image, you typically want the whole scene in focus. To do this, you need to
close down your aperture. Remember, the aperture is represented by a fraction (f/5.6, f/8, f/16,
etc). Thus, a bigger number on the bottom means a smaller aperture. So, f/16 is smaller than
The smaller your aperture, the bigger your plane of focus. In other words, more of your scene
will be in perfect focus.
Closing down the aperture also lets less light into the camera, which can help to compensate for the brightness due to a slow shutter speed.
You can try choosing your smallest aperture but remember lenses usually aren’t their sharpest when pushed to their extremes. Try a more conservative aperture and compensate with an ND filter, which we’ll talk more about in a minute
Aside from a camera that is capable of manual mode, there are a few pieces of gear that are either necessary or helpful for long exposure water photography.
If your camera’s lens is interchangeable, you’ll want an appropriate lens for your composition. Since most long exposure water photography is also landscape photography, a wide-angle lens will usually work best.
Aside from that, you may also need the following equipment.
A tripod is essential when creating this type of image. You will be leaving the shutter open for an extended period of time to capture the movement of the water. The camera must stay completely still to get the rest of the scene in perfect focus.
If you are holding the camera in your hands, you will always end up with some motion blur. If
you have a steady hand, it might be slight, but it will still be blurry. You can’t physically hold a
camera still enough to avoid blurring other parts of the image.
Thus, set your camera firmly on a tripod to keep it completely stationary while taking the photo.
Camera shake with a slow shutter speed is a big enough deal that even the tiny vibration from
pressing the shutter button can blur the image. To avoid this, you need to find a way to fire the
camera without pressing the button.
There are a few ways to do this.
You can buy a shutter release cable that you can plug into your camera. This will allow you to
fire the camera without touching it. You can also get a wireless remote that works the same
Another option is to use the 2-second timer on your camera. You’ll still press the shutter button
but a couple of seconds before the camera fires so there won’t be any camera shake while the
shutter is open.
Most of the major camera manufacturers have an app that you can download onto your phone. Pair the camera with your phone to turn it into a remote. What the camera sees shows up on your phone and you can even adjust the camera settings. This is handy if you need to put your camera in a hard-to-reach position
Neutral Density Filter
When using a slow shutter speed during the day, it’s easy to end up with blown-out photos. The longer the shutter stays open, the more light the camera will gather. That’s why a slower shutter speed helps in low light photography.
To compensate for the brightness of your environment, you can use a neutral density filter or
ND filters are kind of like sunglasses for your camera. They don’t change any colors,
magnification, or anything else, they simply darken down the whole scene.
You can buy individual ND filters, or get a set with different amounts of darkening. For example, you might pick up a set with an ND2, ND4, ND 8, and ND 16 filter.
How much do these darken the image?
Every time the ND number is multiplied by 2, the amount of light entering the camera is cut in
half. Thus, an ND 2 filter brings the light down 1 stop, ND4 brings it down 2 stops, ND 8 brings it
down 3 stops, and so on.
ND filters give you a lot of flexibility when photographing long exposures. You don’t have to
bring your aperture all the way down if you don’t want to. Plus, you can go as slow as you like
with your shutter speed to get the perfect capture.
Taking The Shot
focus but you should still rest your focus point over the subject or most important element of the image.
tripod so this feature isn’t necessary. Instead, it can interfere with the long exposure effect
because it may try to compensate for the movement.
Remember to use a remote, phone app, or the timer to click the shutter to avoid blur caused by camera shake.
Successful Long Exposure Water Photography
Once you understand how to create the long exposure water photography effect, it’s easy to
recreate in different locations. You might be surprised how simple great photography can be.
At the same time, it can also be difficult.
It’s easy to follow the steps but the effect won’t be as magnificent if you don’t properly compose your scene. Obviously, in landscape photography, you can’t move your subject or other elements, but you can move.
Walk around, experiment with different angles, and don’t forget you can put your camera high or low — it doesn’t have to stay at eye height. Look for something unusual to create your own
Let us know how it goes in the comments! We would love to hear how YOU got the shot!