Tips For Blurring Moving Water by Todd Henson

I’ve been asked in the past how to blur moving water from rivers and waterfalls in a photograph. It all comes down to shutter speed. The slower the shutter speed the more blur in the water. Below are a number of tips to help you do this. You don’t have to follow all of these tips to blur water. Pick whichever ones you’re able to use. Just realize some of them may not get the shutter speed as slow as you’d like. That’s when you may need to try the other tips.

Stabilize Your Camera

If you want a sharp image of everything but the water you’ll first need to stabilize your camera. The best way to do this is to put it on a good tripod. If you don’t have a tripod you can try resting the camera on something stable such as a stone wall or a large rock or tree. Just be careful not to let the camera drop.

Use a Remote Shutter Release or Self-Timer

To reduce the chance of introducing shake into the camera during the exposure it’s best not to press the shutter button with your finger to start the exposure. Two options for avoiding this are a remote shutter release, or setting the camera’s self-timer such that your exposure begins some number of seconds after you press the shutter button.

Using the self-timer is the least expensive option if your camera supports it, though you will lose a little flexibility in choosing exactly when to start the exposure.

There are two options for remote shutter releases: cable releases that attach to a special connector on your camera and wireless releases. At present I use a simple cable release that just presses and optionally locks the shutter. Some higher-end cable (and wireless) releases include intervalometer features which let you take a photo every so many seconds for some period of time.

Shoot Early, Late, or on an Overcast Day

It’s best if it’s not a bright sunny day as the sunlight can blow out the white highlights in the water. Try to photograph very early or very late, before the sun is up or after it has gone down. Or pick an overcast day when clouds will hide the sun. This reduces the quantity of light in the scene, reducing the chances of blowing out highlights, and requiring a longer exposure in your camera, increasing your chances of blurring the water.

This was shot on an overcast morning. Less light meant a longer exposure. ISO 200, aperture f/36, shutter speed 15 seconds.

Adjust Your ISO

Set your ISO to the lowest setting your camera allows. The ISO controls how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. The lowest setting, for example, 100 or 200, will require more light to make an exposure. Your camera will need more time to collect more light which will help you achieve the slow shutter speed you’re after.

Stop Down Your Aperture

Stop down your aperture as far as your can. To do this use a larger f-stop number, such as f/16, f/32, etc. This closes down the aperture, making a smaller opening that light will need to travel through, requiring more time for the camera to gather enough light to make the exposure. This lets you shoot using slower shutter speeds. Be aware, though, that the very smallest apertures can cause diffraction, which may reduce the sharpness of your photo. If this happens you’ll need to open up the aperture just a bit.

A wider aperture results in a faster shutter speed allowing you to see more detail in the water. ISO 200, aperture f/4, shutter speed 1/50 second.

A narrower aperture results in a slower shutter speed allowing you to blur the water. ISO 200, aperture f/11, shutter speed 1/8 second.

A wide aperture results in a faster shutter speed, freezing action and showing more detail in the water. ISO 320, aperture f/6.3, shutter speed 1/1250 second.

A small aperture results in a slower shutter speed, helping convey action by blurring the water. ISO 320, aperture f/25, shutter speed 1/60 second.

Use a Polarizing Filter

If everything above still isn’t enough to slow the shutter speed down enough to create the blur you’re after then you may need to resort to filters that fit over your lens. The first to try is a polarizing filter if you already have one.

A polarizing filter is often used to reduce reflections and glare on surfaces such as water and leaves, to create richer colors, and to darken skies. A side effect of these filters is reducing the amount of light that reaches the sensor, usually by about 1 to 2 stops. This isn’t a lot but it might be enough to get the shutter speed slow enough to blur the water.

Using a polarizing filter and a small aperture helped slow down the shutter speed, blurring the water from the fountains. ISO 200, aperture f/25, shutter speed 1.6 seconds.

Use a Neutral Density (ND) Filter

If nothing else will get the shutter speed slow enough you’ll want to invest in a neutral density filter. Think of this as sunglasses for your camera lens. It’s a dark filter that reduces the amount of light entering the lens. Neutral density filters are available in a range of levels, some reducing 1 stop of light, some 3 stops, some 5, 10 or even 15 stops of light. You can even find variable neutral density filters that let you turn the filter like a polarizer to change the density of the filter. With neutral density filters you’ll be able to slow the shutter speed down as much as you’d like.

You can also stack filters, using multiple neutral density filters to slow things down even more. And you can stack a polarizing filter and neutral density filters. Just be aware that if you stack too many filters you may begin to see the filters at the corners of the image. If this happens you either need to remove some of the filters or crop the image when you’re finished.

A polarizing filter in the middle of the day allowed a slow exposure, but not slow enough to really blur (or still) the moving water. ISO 200, aperture f/22, shutter speed 1/8 second.

A polarizing filter and a 5-stop neutral density filter in the middle of the day allowed a slow enough exposure to blur (or mostly still) the moving water. ISO 200, aperture f/22, shutter speed 4 seconds.

It's reasonably early in the morning without a filter. ISO 200, aperture f/11, shutter speed 1/80 second.

Adding a Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue Polarizer and a 10-stop neutral density filter shifted the colors and slowed the shutter speed way down, introducing a lot of blur into the water. ISO 200, aperture f/11, shutter speed 67 seconds.

In this triptych I used a Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo filter, which combines a polarizing filter with a variable neutral density filter, to gradually slow the shutter speed down by increasing the amount of neutral density. All images are ISO 200 with an aperture of f/25. The left image has a shutter speed of 1/8 second. The center image has a shutter speed of 4/5 second. The right image has a shutter speed of 8 seconds.

I hope these tips for blurring moving water have been useful to you. It can be a lot of fun and it can really add a nice dynamic to a photograph. So head out there and try a few of them out, see what kinds of interesting photographs you can create.

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Reading the Rapids: An Example of Dodging and Burning by Todd Henson

Reading the Rapids, an example of dodging and burning.

Why should you dodge and burn when processing your photographs? What difference does it make? Is it really worth the effort? And what is dodging and burning, anyway?

The term is one from the film darkroom when using the enlarger to shine light through the negative and expose it onto the light sensitive paper or other media. Dodging is the process of covering parts of the print you want lighter in the finished product. And burning is the process of adding extra light (exposure) to areas of the print you want darker in the finished product. Bruce Barnbaum, in The Art of Photography, says “dodging and burning are essential techniques in making most prints.”

Barnbaum speaks of dodging or burning when working with film in the darkroom. But the technique is just as important in the digital darkroom. We just use different tools, namely software, to accomplish it. In Adobe Lightroom I often use the adjustment brush to dodge (lighten) and burn (darken) portions of an image. In fact, the image above was dodged and burned using this technique.

Guy Tal, in The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Photoshop, describes a technique he uses in Adobe Photoshop where he creates a new image layer using the Soft Light blending mode to allow him to selectively dodge and burn any part of the image. Because he uses a separate layer he can easily make adjustments anytime and the changes are non-destructive (meaning they don’t kill pixels in the original image).

The goal is to bring out all the desired detail and mold the light in a way that strengthens the composition wherever possible. Burning or dodging can also be used to add snap to selected areas. There are, of course, any number of reasons for burning or dodging. Use them, but use them sensibly for your goals.
— Bruce Barnbaum, The Art of Photography, page 191
Among other things, dodging can be very effective in recovering shadow details or lightening the main subject so it stands out from its surroundings; burning can be used to tone down highlights or to darken the area around a subject we wish to stand out more.
— Guy Tal, The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Photoshop, page 104

The image at the top of this post is the finished photograph after dodging and burning. Below is a slideshow to step you through how dodging and burning changed the look of the photo. The effects are often subtle as you apply them, and can be difficult to see in the slideshow. Look closely as you step through. I slowly darkened and lightened different portions of the water, rocks, and kayaker. Further below is a slideshow of the original and final versions where you can more easily see the differences. I hope this helps convince you of the power of dodging and burning to shape our photographs and help lead the viewer’s eye through the frame.

Click on the photograph, or the arrows on either side, to step through the slideshow.

Below is a slideshow of the before and after images. It's much easier to see what changed in these.

I see no magic to a straight print (i.e., one with no darkroom manipulation, such as dodging or burning) unless the tonal values of the scene miraculously fall into the perfect array of tonalities everywhere. Such perfect alignment rarely occurs, so darkroom manipulation is almost always necessary. Ansel Adams knew this, for nearly all of his prints were burned or dodged, some quite heavily. I know this to be true because I had spoken to him about the printing of several of his images, and he explained the extensive manipulations required for most of his images. Most of my prints are manipulated as well, some quite extensively. I recommend that all photographers recognize this and use the tools available in the darkroom for their creative and artistic needs.
— Bruce Barnbaum, The Art of Photography, page 193

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Storytelling Example Using Kayakers on Jordan Pond by Todd Henson

Photography is a form of storytelling. A single photograph can tell a story. It can make you think, make you wonder about what’s happening, what you are seeing, where the people are looking, or what the animal is doing. And a series of photographs can be used to tell a longer story, one told in vignettes, each frame telling its own story while also contributing to the larger story as a whole.

National Geographic Magazine is full of great examples of stories told through series of images. Most articles in their magazine include a series of photographs that help tell the story, that enhance the words and help draw in the reader. These photographs are typically created intentionally with storytelling in mind, with that specific article in mind.

I recently thought about storytelling when going back through my photographs of Acadia National Park in Maine. I had not thought much about storytelling during the trip. It was a vacation to get away from work, to clear my mind and spend some time with my father. We just wanted to see some sights and eat some great food.

But recently, going back through the images, I began to see the potential for a story. The images were of Jordan Pond in the fog. Initially I was attempting to create landscape images, showing the pond and the fog along with parts of the shore, some rocks, trees, etc. But then I saw kayakers on the pond and began focusing in on them, integrating them into the photographs. They made great subjects.

Looking back at the images I wondered if there might be a combination of images that could tell a story. I tried to imagine my vacation had been an assignment, that I needed a series of photographs to go along with a story. So I edited them down to the selection you see in this post.

I don’t have a written story for these images. This was just an exercise to see how I might pull together images if there were one. But this also was an exercise to help get me thinking more intentionally on future trips or future photo shoots, to think about telling a story with the images I create. Instead of just creating a large number of individual images I can attempt to intentionally create a series to tell a story.

Have you ever attempted to tell a story using a series of images? If not then I encourage you to give it a try. If you have then leave a comment below and let me know about your experiences.

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