Use water to take dramatic shots

New Zealand

At the last count there were roughly 326 million trillion gallons of water on Earth. That’s a lot. From a landscape photography point of view it also means that you don’t have to travel too far to find some to include in your pictures. But while finding it is relatively easy, photographing it well can be a challenge and how you approach it depends on what, where and when you’re taking pictures. Here, I’ll explain how I approach a variety of watery scenes to get the best results, starting with a trip to the seaside.

There is a wealth of beautiful coastline around Britain to entice the landscape photographer, and the summer months can be a good time to explore it, away from the rather drab summer greens of inland landscapes. Last summer I was returning from visiting friends in Suffolk, so took a detour to Hunstanton in Norfolk to have a look at the colourful cliffs. It was a lovely sunny summer afternoon when I arrived so I went straight to the beach.

The cliffs looked glorious in the afternoon sunshine, but the light was still a little harsh, so I wandered back into the town to get something to eat. I returned to the beach to catch the setting sun on the cliffs. The colours in the layered rocks were wonderful, but the cliffs alone can be a bit linear as a subject, so I shot vertically making use of glistening pools of water in the foreground, or simply the ripples left in the wet sand to add interest to my images, with the best light coming from the last rays well after 9pm.

More recently, at Saltwick Bay on the Yorkshire Coast, it was the fading twilight after the sun had set that produced the best results, with cool blue light on the water left by the receding tide and a slight tinge of pink in the sky. Although sunrise and sunset may give the best light for the big vista images of rocky shorelines and cliffs, there are things that can be done during the day.

In overcast light, or in the open shade at the top of a beach on a sunny day, rock pools or simply wet rocks can provide great subjects for little detail images. It’s easy to get engrossed in these close-up shots and lose track of time, so I always take a local tide table or check the tide times online before I set off so I’m sure I won’t get cut off by the tide if I go wandering down the beach.

Should you turn up during the day and at high tide, options for coastal photography may be limited. It was on one such occasion at Ravenscar in Yorkshire that I opted to make some seascape images just looking out toward the horizon. It was a blustery day with interesting clouds and constantly changing light, so I made some very simple compositions just using sea, sky and clouds, and maybe the odd rock jutting out of the water.

These worked out surprisingly well, and reminded me a little of contemporary seascape painting, where very simple images just made up of layers of blue are nonetheless very evocative of the sea. I wondered if I could do something similar photographically, so on my next trip to the coast at Whitby, having done enough of the traditional sunset shots from the West Pier, I experimented using my Canon EOS 5D handheld with a variety of shutter speeds from one to four seconds, moving the camera gently from side to side along the horizon, combining the movement of the sea with the movement of the camera to produce an abstract effect.

Moving water has to be one of my favourite landscape subjects, and the greatest thing about shooting landscapes that include it is that it works best under diffused or flat lighting. If I find myself out in the hills and the clouds roll in turning the sky to a featureless mid-tone grey, then I know exactly what to do. Head for water!

On one such occasion recently I went to Cotter Force in Wensleydale – a location I had not visited before. When I got there I wondered how it had passed me by, being just a short walk on a well-maintained path from the main road to the west of Hawes. Cotterdale Beck tumbles over two main cascades, made up of numerous smaller steps, providing lots of interest, but below the waterfall the beck is a bit flat and featureless, so rather than looking for nice rocks in the foreground for a lead-in to the falls I selected a telezoom lens to concentrate on the falls themselves.

I felt that the overall view of both parts of the falls looked lop-sided, so I zoomed in closer and picked out a letterbox crop of the lower cascade and also a vertical composition using the upper cascade and just part of the lower which had a bit more impact. I experimented with a variety of shutter speeds to get the blurring effect in the water that I was looking for. I prefer a slow speed to give smoother lines in the falls, whilst still preserving some detail in the water, as I find the effect of using a fast shutter speed rather jagged and unnatural looking.

Obviously, the best shutter speed for this effect will depend on the velocity of the water being photographed, but as a rule of thumb I normally go for somewhere between 1/8sec and eight seconds, making a sturdy tripod essential. Aysgarth Falls, also in Wensleydale, provides even more opportunities for getting in close to the water, where the River Ure descends a multitude of cascades amongst large flat rocks (if the river level is low enough), which make an excellent base for the tripod legs.

When producing this kind of image it’s a good idea to make sure that your DSLR’s sensor is as clean as possible – dust spots show up very nicely against a bright waterfall and can be a pain to remove in Photoshop. The soft vertical lines of the moving water can confuse the Healing Brush so it’s necessary to resort to carefully cloning out each one!

I always shoot Raw files and so tend not to worry too much about white-balance out in the field, leaving the camera set to auto white-balance, as I know I can adjust it at the Raw processing stage later if it’s a problem. However, white-balance is worth thinking about when shooting in these conditions, especially if you’re shooting JPEGs only. All modern DSLRs offer white-balance presets so try taking pictures using each one to find out which works best.

At Cotter Force, the daylight setting produced an acceptable result – a little too cool, perhaps, but near enough. The cloudy setting, however, produced a result that was far too warm, with the water looking rather muddy – not what I was expecting at all! Clearly the overcast conditions were nearer to daylight balance than I had thought – so it’s best to take extra care with this, or stick to Raw files if you can.

Of course, fast flowing rivers and tumbling waterfalls are not the only inland water features that can make a decent landscape photograph. Slow moving shallow streams, canals, lakes and reservoirs all provide great subjects, particularly on still days when reflections come into play.

The best reflections occur when the sun is low in the sky, so we’re back to sunrise and sunset shooting in most cases. A mirror-like reflection can be appealing, but I don’t worry if a little wind picks up and ruffles the surface of the water, as the softened reflection often works better than the more chocolate-box approach. A long exposure can also be effective in smoothing out the reflection a little, and I find this is generally the case as I’ll be stopping the lens right down to around f/22 to achieve maximum depth-of-field.

However, reflections can also work well in the diffused light on an overcast day, which is just as well, as this tends to be in plentiful supply during the British summer! This was certainly the case when I found myself on a narrowboat, drifting through the Shropshire countryside one summer, through what seemed like endless drizzle.

Photographing canal bridges became a little tedious after a dozen, so I was pleased when we moored up not far from Ellesmere, in the Shropshire Lake District to find the delightful Colemere a short walk from the towpath. The drizzle had stopped, and the surface of the water was perfectly still making great reflections, but mainly of summer green trees which weren’t too exciting. Then I spotted a dead tree on the opposite bank; this added a little interest to the reflection and some water lilies near the shore made a decent foreground for a vertical composition, which I was pleased with given the circumstances.

Metering can be tricky with reflections, and even here, in flat lighting and with the sky excluded from the shot, I had to take care with my exposure to avoid any burnt-out hot spots in the reflection. I let the multi-zone metering in the camera do its job, but checked the histogram carefully to make sure that the highlights weren’t clipped, and used a bit of exposure compensation where necessary.

I think what I like about the Colemere image, the most is the fact that the foreground lilies start to interact with and break up the reflection. This hints towards another approach to photographing reflections – just photograph the reflection itself, without the reflected object. This can work well with sunlit buildings in cities reflected in rippling river water, but in the landscape I like to try to combine the reflection with something else, to produce a more abstract image.

When photographing Hebden Water at Hardcastle Crags a while ago I liked the rocks jutting out near the bank, and the fact that I could see the riverbed through the shallow water, so wanted to make an image of those. At first the reflected trees seemed like a distraction, but I changed viewpoint to work them into the composition. The result is a far cry from the formula mountain reflected in a mirror-like lake shot, but I still like it.


Beautiful though the coastline is, expensive camera equipment doesn’t take too kindly to sand and salt, so it’s worth taking extra care over your gear when shooting by the sea. A waterproof groundsheet or something similar can be handy to place your bag on when setting up, but sand still seems to get everywhere, so I prefer to zip up my rucksack and put it back on after I’ve got the camera on the tripod. This sounds boring, I know, but at least I know I won’t turn round to find my bag floating away on the incoming tide.

As for your lenses, I’d suggest you use a clear filter (UV or Skylight) to protect the front elements and – if there’s a lot of sea spray – some kind of waterproof cover is handy. This could be a purpose made cover – such as this E-690 rain cover from Kata, available from Speedgraphic.co.uk. A cheap alternative is the Op/Tech Rainsleeve. Or use a shopping bag.


Polarizing filters are generally used to reduce reflections, but it may be worth giving one a try as they also cut down glare and darken a blue sky.

A graduated neutral density (ND) filter is probably the most useful to consider when shooting a reflection, particularly where the sky is involved in the image and the main subject is very bright. They come in a variety of strengths and if you position the graduated part over the sky and main subject will allow the reflection to be well-exposed without overexposing the sky.


Very often the best view of a waterfall can be had from in the middle of the stream or river below it, particularly where there is a rocky riverbed with lots of interesting features to use as foreground. If you’re lucky, you may be able to hop from rock to rock and get a good central viewpoint without going for a paddle, but it can be useful to have a pair of wellies in the car But take care not to slip over and fall in.

Regular exposure to water can also play havoc with the joints on your tripod legs. If you’re going to be a regular water photographer, it’s worth considering a model featuring sealed bottom legs. Only a few models are available like this, but includes the Manfrotto Neotec and the Benbo range, which offers excellent versatility.


It’s always advisable to keep your camera level when taking pictures, but it’s particularly important when shooting landscapes. Some tripods feature integral spirit levels, but they can be small and tough to read, so a hotshoe level is a good choice.

Conventional bubble levels have been serving photographers well for many years, but – believe it or not – the digital age has even touched the humble spirit level. There is the Seculine Digital Action Level from Intro 2020, which slides on to your hotshoe and features three lights – red, amber and green – that tell you whether your camera is level.

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