How to Photograph Water to Get That Soft Misty Effect

Water is constantly moving, and that movement makes it tricky to photograph well. Robert D. Howell/Shutterstock

Have you ever held your camera while looking at a river and wondered how to make the water look beautiful and flowing? Or have you ever photographed a waterfall and can barely see the stream of water, and you really want it to look misty and dreamy like the fine art photos you've seen? There is no great secret to how it is done; all you really need is time and a tripod. With a little practice, you can capture these types of images like a pro.

Use Blur to Your Advantage

The main thing you need to know is this: the longer your camera's shutter is open, the more movement is recorded in the image. When an image turns out blurry, it's because the shutter was open longer than necessary to freeze the action. Often this can be a frustrating outcome to a photo, but with capturing flowing water, we use that blur to our advantage. The blur is what creates the misty, flowing, rushing movement in a photo of water. When your shutter speed is so fast that it freezes the movement of water coming off a waterfall, the falling water looks sharp, reflective, and sometimes it looks like less water than is actually flowing. Conversely, a slow shutter speed makes the waterfall look full, soft and elegant, capturing the real mood of the scene. This is the benefit of blur, and this will work for anything from the tiniest babbling brook to the waves of the ocean.

The Havasupai waterfall in the Grand Canyon
The Havasupai Falls are a gorgeous sight to behold, so you'll want to do everything to capture the moment in a photograph. psnoonan/Shutterstock

Gear You'll Need to Capture Water on Camera

  • DSLR Camera (you can accomplish this with a point-n-shoot but we'll focus on DSLRs for this tutorial)
  • Tripod
  • Shutter release cable
  • Neutral density filters (if shooting in bright daylight)

Here are the basic steps for photographing water.

Compose the Scene

Find the water source you're wanting to photograph and walk around for a bit to get just the right composition for the scene. Try different angles, whether low to the water or at an angle, or looking down from above. Think about where the light is coming from, where your shadows are, and what kind of mood and movement you want to convey. Also, a tripod is indispensable when using shutter speeds this long. If you try to hold your camera, your small muscle movements will blur the rest of the scene. So definitely place your camera on a tripod and place it in a sturdy position when you select your location for the shot.

A stream filled with moss-covered rocks and autumnal leaves
Setting up your camera and getting the shutter speed right are just the first steps in capturing water's movement. rtem/Shutterstock

Set Up Camera and Select Settings

To capture water's flow, you'll want a shutter speed of 1/2 a second or longer, depending on the light. The longer the shutter speed, the more silky the effect. You can even make the waves of the ocean look more like a low-lying mist. How long you can let your shutter stay open will depend on how much ambient light is in the scene. If it's a bright day, you might not be able to keep your shutter open very long without over-exposing your shot. You'll then need to use neutral density filters, which we'll cover in just a bit. Deeply shaded areas, or photographing at the twilight hours before sunrise or after sunset will allow you to use a longer shutter speed without filters.

Put Camera in Manual Mode

This is the M on most DSLR cameras. Set the ISO to 100. Set the aperture to f/16 or f/22. The more "stopped down" your aperture (as in the larger the f-stop number), the more of the scene will be in focus, which you generally want with landscape scenes. It also means that your camera's lens is letting in the least amount of light so you'll be able to use longer shutter speeds, which you want to take advantage of for blurred water shots.

Water flows over rocks in a fast-moving creek
Finding a focus point will help with the composition of your photo (just be sure to turn off auto-focusing settings). James Wheeler/Shutterstock

Select Focus Point

Typically for a landscape, this will be a point about one-third into the depth of the scene. However, it depends on the composition of your scene. Is there a certain rock in the stream you want to focus on, or a driftwood branch on the beach that is of particular interest? Figure out what you want the eye to focus on, and once your camera is focused on that point, make sure you've switched to manual focus. This will prevent the camera from auto-focusing on something else when you press the shutter release button. Also, make sure any image stabilization settings are turned off. This is IS on Canon lenses, or VR on Nikon lenses, for example. This will prevent any further unnecessary camera shake during a long exposure shot.

Select Shutter Speed

Use your camera's light meter to determine the best shutter speed to start with, though you may adjust that later. Remember, you want your shutter speed to be at least 1/2 a second to begin to get the blurred effect. Try a test shot, and continue to adjust your shutter speed until you have a proper exposure. Here is where you may need to use a neutral density filter if the daylight is too bright to allow a slow shutter speed without over exposing.

Neutral density filters reduce the amount of light that enters the lens. Think of them as color-accurate sunglasses for your camera. Adding a neutral density filter equates to "stopping down" your lens even further. You might decide that to get the right blur effect for the water, you need a shutter speed of 4 seconds, but this makes your mid-morning scene is completely over-exposed. A neutral density filter will further reduce the amount of light coming into the camera, so you can get that 4-second exposure without over-exposing your shot.

If you're shooting in the late afternoon while there is still plenty of sunlight you may want an 8-stop or 10-stop neutral density filter. Whereas if you're shooting around sunset or in the deep shade of a forest during the day, you may only need a 1-stop or 2-stop filter. If you're trying filters for the first time, think about renting several from a local store or an online camera gear rental website. They aren't cheap, so experimenting with a few before purchasing will be a wise move.

Invest in a shutter release cable to avoid even the tiniest shakes of the camera. James Wheeler/Shutterstock

Use a Remote Trigger Release

For your shutter release, it's easiest to use a shutter release cable or remote trigger release rather than pushing the shutter release button on the camera. Pushing the shutter button on the camera causes a little bit of shake as you let go. The tiniest shake of the camera will blur the parts of the landscape you want sharp, such as any rocks or mountains in the scene. However, if you don't have a shutter release cable, you can use your camera's timer setting so that there is a 2-second delay between when you push the shutter release button and when the shutter actually flips up. This gives the camera and tripod set-up two seconds to stop shaking before the image is recorded and can reduce any accidental blur from camera movement.

Waves pound the rocks of a shoreline
Capturing water on film is not an exact science; it may take you a bit of trial and error to get it just right. MelBrackstone/Shutterstock

Take a Test Shot and Fine-Tune Your Settings

Does the water blur enough for the effect you're trying to reach? Or perhaps it blurs too much and becomes more misty than you want? Are any other parts of your scene affected by your shutter speed that you'll need to address? For instance, are some sunny patches in the scene over-exposed? Adjust your camera's shutter speed, f-stop, focusing point or other settings, or perhaps adjust your neutral density filters, until you get the effect you want. Remember that capturing just the right mood of flowing water is not an exact science. Each scene will require different settings depending on light, the speed of the water, and other factors. So plan on spending some time experimenting until you land on just the right settings.

A man walks up a tilted tree shrouded in mist
Experiment with different places and types of water to get a better sense of how to photograph it. Rozi Kassim/Shutterstock

Keep Practicing

The more time you spend playing with your camera and experimenting, the faster you'll get at selecting the perfect settings for these kinds of shots. Try different times of day, different types of water — from fountains to tiny streams to rivers and beaches — and different weather conditions to see what results you get and why. One of the best parts about blurred water photography is that it is essentially an interactive art between you and the water, light and landscape. You can never get bored because you never know just what you'll get from the same location when you switch up the time of day, year, camera angle and other aspects of the image.

Water washes up against rocks in Denmark
Master the basics and soon you'll be showing off your own great water photography. jean schweitzer/Shutterstock