How to Compelling Images of Water

Water. It is the most precious and life giving of elements. At times peaceful and serene while at other times bringing great devastation and destruction. It has long been a favourite subject matter for photographers simple because it possesses so much potential for creating an interesting image.

Waterfalls, rivers, streams, the ocean. They all long for an artistic soul to come along make a photograph.

However, the fact that water is so common means that it has been photographed to the point of exhaustion. Sometimes it seems to be somewhat “overdone“. It’s easy to get discouraged and think you simply can’t take a photo of water that doesn’t feel tired and artistically redundant.

Well I have good news. Take heart my weary and down trodden camera jockey. Water is still an outstanding subject for you to shoot and is also an excellent way to expand your photographic creativity.

Try a Long Focal Length Lens

Let’s jump right in and talk about the two main choices you will face when photographing a waterscape. Should I shoot wide or should I shoot close? Of course by shooting “wide” it means that you are using a short focal length (wide-angle) lens and shooting “close” means you are using a long focal length (telephoto) lens.

Generally speaking, I consider anything under 50mm to be wide-angle and anything over 50mm to be tele. That’s not something I read in a book somewhere but rather just a personal assertion and guideline. I only mention it to give you, the avid and appreciated reader, some frame of reference as to what I consider to be wide-angle.

If you’re just getting your feet wet with shooting water scenes you might assume that the wider your lens, the more likely you are to include more elements into your composition. You are not wrong in this assumption but neither is it always true.

I have found that more and more I go with a longer focal length for almost all of my water photography. This is especially true when I’m shooting my waterfall images. The reason being that wide-angle lenses tend to remove a lot of presence from your main subject unless you can position yourself extremely close to the action. In an effort to give a sense of magnitude and scale you can unfortunately accomplish the exact opposite.

This image above was shot relatively tight; at 112mm and at long distance. It really brought out the contrasts of the light and the detail of the stones. All of which would have been unnoticed at a wider angle.

Another reason to give longer focal lengths a try is because it often forces you to look beyond the initial appearance of the scene and search for unique beauty. Look for small areas and try to approach the scene with a more abstract mindset. It’s easy to simply take straightforward picture of an entire waterfall or just make a wide exposure of a pretty spot in the bend of river. That’s all well and good but it lends itself to making less impactful images and that’s not the business we’re in, right?

Utilize Colour

In my opinion, this is one of the most overlooked aspects of photographing any type of waterscape. Color is all around us. Before you say “well yeah” and skip over this section, it is my earnest hope that you will take a moment to hear what I have to say. It all comes down to using color more effectively.

It’s not always apparent exactly how much color is present within a given scene. Water is especially notorious for its ability to hide color from the naked eye. Thankfully there are ways for us photographers to look beneath the surface and liberate these elusive chromatic nuances through the magic that is post processing.

Here is a before and after comparison of an image where bringing out the color really made the photograph.

The first and biggest step you can take towards bringing out the colour within your waterscapes is to always and I do mean always shoot in RAW format if your camera is capable. Shooting RAW allows as much information as possible be recorded by your camera’s sensor. It will give you a much greater range for performing colour modifications and other adjustments over JPEG.

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