How to Create an Image With Smooth Water on a Sunny Day

By Lane Erickson

“A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself.” – Laura Gilpin

As a photographer I’m always trying to create magic with my camera and lens. I want my images to pop. This is especially true when I’m creating images I know I’m going to be selling as stock photography or fine art. Unless my images look unique, I know they aren’t going to sell. 

If you’re reading this article I’m guessing it’s because you feel the same way. You don’t want to create the same images that everybody else is creating. This article will help you with at least one way that you can create interesting and new images of flowing water such as waterfalls or rivers that are different from what you normally see.

Let’s get fundamental for a moment. There really is only one way to create unique and powerful images which is to do things differently than everyone else. If we put our tripod legs in the holes left by the person before us and use the same exposure, and lens, and composition they did, our pictures are going to look pretty much like theirs. 

That’s not good enough for me. I don’t want the same pictures everyone else has already taken. I want to find a unique angle, composition, or exposure. Sometimes I want all three. 

Long exposure images of a waterfall or a cascading river are interesting because they look different than what our eyes normally see. Long exposures of moving water aren’t unique. Most images you see like this were taken on an overcast day, or when there is no direct sunlight such as early in the morning or late in the evening. But what if we want some sunlight in our photo and we still want the smooth water we can only get with a long exposure? Now we’re talking about a creative exposure that most people won’t or can’t do. 

Here is an example of what I’m talking about. 

Wild river flowing through canyon with sunlight and blue sky.

How do we do this? Let’s focus on the problem. When there is sunlight in our photo, even if we stop the lens down all the way to say f/16 or f/22, and we use the lowest ISO setting on our camera, there is still too much light striking the sensor to allow for a long, slow shutter needed to smooth out the water. So to define the problem simply, there is too much light. How do we reduce the amount of light? The only real solution is filters. 

Neutral density filters are used by photographers all the time. Usually, they are split neutral density filters which allow a photographer to get a bright sky (like a sunset) in the photo and still expose for the part of the photo with less light. This kind of filter evens out the light. 

If you use a full neutral density filter it covers the entire frame. This filter reduces the amount of light striking the sensor and allows the photographer to use a slower shutter speed. 

These next two photos I took of Upper Mesa Falls on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River a couple of days ago (September 2019) are a good example. These photos were taken at about 1:00 pm in the afternoon. I went at this time because the sunlight creates a rainbow below the waterfall from the mist in the air. 

In the first photo, I created a non-filtered image with an exposure of ISO 100, about 1/100 at f/8. To smooth the water out a little I could have stopped the lens down to f/22 which would have given me an exposure of about 1/10. For smooth water that’s better that 1/100, but it still isn’t long enough. 

The second photo was created with a variable neutral density filter, set so I could use a slower shutter speed of about 1 ½ seconds. I did change the composition to vertical because I liked it better but everything else was the same. I used a Fujifilm X-T1 camera with the excellent Fuji XF18-55mmF2.8-4 R LM OIS lens with the Vivitar Series 1 NDX filter attached. The full exposure data is: ISO 100, 1 ½ seconds at f/14. The camera was set up on my Gitzo G322 Studex Compact tripod with the Graf Studio Ball mini ball head. 

I could have used a slower shutter speed but the boardwalk I stood on was crowded and every time someone came down the wooden steps it shook my camera. Several tries at this exposure setting finally resulted in a sharp image with the blurred water and rainbow mist combo I was after. 

Here are a couple other examples of using a neutral density filter to get a slower shutter speed to smooth out water even with sunlight. 

River in mountains wilderness running swiftly cascading down rocks in riverbed

The photo above is of the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park. The sunlight was striking a canyon wall on the opposite side of the river (not the part you see at the top of the photo) which acted like a huge reflector bouncing light back at the river. I used the same camera-lens-filter-tripod combo described above. The exposure data is: ISO 100, 21 seconds at f/22. 

Lower Yellowstone Falls in the National Park from Uncle Tom’s Trail

This final photo is of Lower Yellowstone Falls. I was down in the canyon on Uncle Tom’s Trail. Again I used the Vivitar Series 1 NDX variable neutral density filter on a 16-35mm Nikkor lens attached to the D5100. The exposure was: ISO 100, 1 second at f/22.

Try using this technique. You don’t need a profession camera or even an expensive lens to create these types of images. I’m confident if you do that your photos will not look like everyone else’s. Hopefully you’ll be able to create some unique and powerful images of smooth water on a bright day. 

Always open to comments, I welcome your thoughts, suggestions and even your critiques.

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