Nikon D800, 50mm f/1.4 lens, f/11, 1/3s, ISO 100, 7 frame panorama.

I recently read an article claiming that photographs including smooth running water are clich, over-done, boring, and not worth making again. For those who believe, as I do, that every photograph you desire to make is worth making, here’s how it’s done in three parts.

  1. Stabilize it. That smooth water is made by recording the image of water moving by over time, and that means you’ve got to leave the shutter open for a comparatively long time. If you don’t steady the camera, you’ll probably move it during the picture and make everything else blurry, too. Use a tripod, and also use the timer on your camera set for at least 2 seconds so that after you press the button the whole setup has time to stop shaking. No tripod? Use your sweatshirt on your camera bag, or on a log to set your camera on.
  2. Time it. How do you make your camera do a long exposure? It’s simplest to switch the camera to Shutter Priority (it’s usually labeled as “S” for shutter or “Tv” for “time value”). In this setting, you choose the shutter speed, and the camera chooses the appropriate aperture to make a good exposure at that speed. Surprisingly, you’ll find that water blurs at about 1/30s or longer, depending on the lens. Focus on the water (or a rock in the water) fire off a frame. Check the water and brightness and make adjustments to the shutter speed for more blur, and adjust brightness with the exposure compensation button (-/+).
  3. Darken it. Long shutter speeds mean lots of light coming in, and even a very small aperture, like f/16, may leave your water over exposed on a sunny day. These are some ways to help you get a long enough shutter speed for silky water without over exposing.
      • Shoot at morning and evening twilight or when the water is in shade
      • Set the lowest ISO your camera is capable of
      • Use a polarizer; it’ll darken your exposure by as much as two stops
      • Bracket exposures and use HDR software, like Photomatix
      • Use a Neutral Density filter; this is exactly like sunglasses for you lens, and can darken your exposure by as much as 10 stops

Making silky smooth water is just a technique, and using a technique does not make you cliche. In fact, use enough of them often enough and you will become an artist.