What could be more simple than photographing perfectly still, perfectly tranquil water? It’s gorgeous, it doesn’t move, and it doesn’t get impatient. Still water should be right up there with well-behaved adults and two-dimensional works of art as amongst the easiest things to photograph.
Except of course that nothing is really as simple as it seems, especially when it comes to photography. So what makes photographing still water such a challenge? Keep reading to find out.
Perfectly still water is like a mirror. In fact, I’d say a good 75 to 80% of its appeal is in whatever it happens to be reflecting. So all bodies of water are not created equal—their photo-worthiness is dictated by the things around them, as well as by your vantage point, and, of course, by how still the water actually is.
A very slight breeze can mean the difference between a perfect reflection and a not so perfect reflection. Now depending on what your goals are for your photograph, a little bit of movement in the water might actually add an impressionistic quality to your photograph. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing—but for the purposes of this article we are going to be focusing on how to find still water that is, in fact, perfectly still.
The time of the year and, yes, that time of day can all have a strong impact on whether or not you will be able to photograph perfectly still water or water that has some movement in it. Your first course of action should be to check the weather report—most weather apps will give you estimated wind speeds, so look for a day when no wind is expected or when the maximum wind speed is very low. Even on days when there’s going to be a gentle breeze, there are going to be times of the day when there’s no breeze at all and times when the breeze may pick up a little.
Misty Morning Bear Lake Reflection by Flickr user smithat
The best time of day to pursue still water tends to be early in the morning. You’re more likely to find windless conditions around sunrise than you are in the late morning or throughout the day. So my apologies if you’d really rather be in bed as the sun comes up—I would too, but if I let my more tired self call the shots I’d get a lot fewer photos. So it’s really going to be worth setting your alarm for dark-o’clock and getting out there before the wind wakes up.
Another benefit to going early in the day is that the “golden hour” light makes for better reflections than you might get if you wait until the sun is higher. Once the sun is over your head, it’s going to produce a lot of glare—but it will also dull colors and just make for much less-impressive reflections overall. So if the wind-free nature of those early mornings didn’t convince you, hopefully you’re more inspired now.
Second, you need to know where to go. Some places are just windier than others, and you may never hit on a completely wind-free day no matter how patient you are. Other places are shielded from the wind, so there are going to be more opportunities for still-water photography. So it helps to know something about where you’re going and what you can expect when you get there. If you’re not going to be shooting in your local area, try the tourism office for help finding your destination. Tell them what you’re looking for and ask them to recommend a location. Alternately, you could visit Flickr and look for images by other photographers who have visited the area. If you find multiple shots of a certain body of still water, that might be a good clue where to go.
Now that you’re there …
OK, you’ve gotten up early and you’re standing there shivering as the sun comes up. I hope you visited the location during the day to scope out where you’re going to set up—that’s especially important whenever you arrive during the pre-dawn hours. If you don’t know what the perfect spot looks like in the daytime, how can you spot it when it’s still dark outside? Make sure you find the perfect location ahead of time. One thing to watch out for is not just the best composition for the scene but also those elements that are reflected in the water. If it’s just a couple of basic trees, you might want to change your vantage point until you’ve got a whole line of them reflected in the water, and maybe a mountain range or an old cabin, too. Remember that the reflection is your subject too—so it’s more important to find compelling reflections than it is to find the perfect placement of all those above-reflection elements.
I know it’s tempting to put the sun in your photo, especially if the sunrise is particularly stunning—but that’s not what we’re here for. Put the sun at your back instead. The reason why this is important is because the presence of the sun in the frame messes with your meter—you’ll end up with a silhouetted landscape and a nice, pretty sky when what you’re really going for is that stunning reflection. You could add exposure compensation to help, but then you’ll end up with an overexposed sky and a nice exposure on the water—better, but still not ideal. Instead, put the sun behind you. You’re still going to get a beautiful and vibrant sky but the difference is that you’ll get a much better exposure overall.
Lake Moraine Reflection by Flickr user edwademd
Settings and equipment
A small aperture (large f-number) is always the best choice for a landscape image—by using a small aperture you get much broader depth of field, which means that objects in the foreground will be just as sharp as objects in the background. You should also use a low ISO—this is always good practice with photos of scenery because higher ISOs tend to introduce noise and other unwanted problems like muddy colors and decreased definition between tones. So keep your ISO low, around 100 if you can.
To accomplish both of these things, you may need to slow down your shutter speed. And as you probably are already aware, when you slow down your shutter speed you often need to have a way to stabilize your camera. For most of us, this means “tripod.”
Along with a tripod you need some way of remotely releasing your camera’s shutter—usually with a remote release but if you don’t have one then your camera’s self-timer function will do in a pinch. Set it for around five seconds, which should be enough for any vibration to stop between the time you press the shutter button and the time that the camera actually makes the exposure.
You can use a polarizing filter to help bring out those reflections, but here’s the trick—a polarizing filter is often used for opposite purposes—to reduce reflections—so you need to make sure that you look through your viewfinder and twist the filter until the reflections are as clear and bright as you can make them. Hint: place the sun at about a 90 degree angle to your camera (either on your right or left) to get the best effect from a polarizer.
'The Other Way' | New Bern, NC by Flickr user Zach Frailey (Uprooted Photographer)
Don’t lock focus on those trees or the mountain range itself—instead, lock on to the reflection. Since your aperture will be small this doesn’t make a huge difference (everything in your photo is going to be in focus) but as a general rule you want maximum sharpness on the reflection itself.
I’ve already mentioned composing for the reflection itself rather than for the other objects in the environment, but you also need to keep in mind a few other compositional guidelines. First, take note of where the horizon is. It should fall in one of three places: either on the top 1/3rd horizontal line, right in the middle of the frame or at or above the top of the frame. Now, you need to have a good reason for making this decision: if you go with the top 1/3rd horizontal, it should be because you want the reflection to be the primary focus point of the scene, but because you also want some of the scenery to have a place of importance. If you choose the middle of the frame, it’s because you want to capture that strong sense of symmetry that the scene has (when you have a perfect mirrored image on top and in the water). Choose to put the horizon above the edge of the frame if you want only the reflection in the scene—this tends to be the best option for images that have some other elements in the water, such as rocks, waterfowl, boats or other interesting features. On its own, a reflection in perfectly still water might as well be a landscape turned upside down, so only choose this route if you have a very good reason to.
Floating by Flickr user Anders Adermark
Don’t forget that you can also break up that beautiful still water by tossing a pebble into it—you’ll get some wonderful circular ripples that can add some great interest to an otherwise perfect reflection. And anything else swimming on or crossing the surface of the water will also do a beautiful job at breaking up that reflection and making for a really interesting scene.
Yes, you may have to make some sacrifices for your art—namely, your warm, cozy bed, but trust me when I say that it will be worth it. Still water is stunning in person and can be equally stunning in a photograph, as long as you know where to find it and the best way to capture it.
- Look for reflections
- Avoid windy or breezy days
- Go in the morning
- Ripples or floating objects
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