Got a DSLR camera that allows you to manually adjust your ISO, aperture, and shutter speed? Want to create epic shots of rivers, waterfalls, or even sprinklers with that dreamy, flowy water effect? In this post, I’ll show you how to create that smooth flowing water effect.
Here’s the TL;DR:
- Difficulty Level: Intermediate
- Manual Mode Required: Yes
- First, prevent camera movement
- Next, dial in these settings to start with, then adjust later as needed:
- ISO: 100
- Aperture: f/22
- Shutter: 1/4 second
- Finally, take a test shot, check the results, then make camera adjustments as needed and try again
Here’s the long version:
In order to create that smooth, flowing water effect, you’ll need to understand how to make adjustments to your camera’s ISO, aperture, and shutter speed in manual mode. Specifically, you’ll need to switch your camera into “M” mode (manual), and then adjust the following settings:
- Shutter Speed
Before you start, take a moment, check your camera’s manual, and get familiar with which buttons and knobs let you make those adjustments.
Grab a 3×5 card, and jot down some quick notes about which buttons and knobs to turn to make your adjustments. Toss the note card in your camera bag, and refer back to it when needed at your river/waterfall location. Don’t have a camera bag? Check out my review of Peak Design’s “Everyday Messenger” when you get a minute.
Don’t Stress About Manual Mode
The reason we have to be in Manual Mode and adjust all these things ourselves is because Auto modes were programmed to “freeze” the action–which is the opposite of the effect we want. In order for us to achieve the “flowy water” effect, we need complete control of our cameras.
Once you’re comfortable adjusting your camera’s settings, go to your water location. Follow these steps, and create some awesome “flowy water” shots!
Prevent Camera Movement
We have to keep our cameras stable while we do this, and handheld shots just won’t cut it. Let’s look at a few ways to do that.
Tripod or Other Solid Surface
Plant your camera on a stable surface of some sort. The objective here is to prevent your camera from moving. Got a tripod? Use it. If not–find a big log, rock, or other immovable surface on which to place your camera.
Timed Shutter Release Function
With your camera firmly planted on something (a rock, tripod, or other surface), set your camera for a time delay shutter release. That’s the feature where it counts down before it takes a shot. Using that feature, you can press the shutter button (and jiggle the camera), but the shutter won’t actually fire until the countdown timer elapses. My Canon 80D has two countdown timers: A 2-second delay, and a 10-second delay. For me, the 2-second delay works fine.
Remote Shutter Release
Alternatively, you can use a remote shutter release (if you have one).
Amazon sells bazillions of various remote shutter button control thingys. Some are cheap–some aren’t. I don’t own one, so I can’t recommend one. If you want to browse what Amazon has to offer, then click here to take a look at what’s available. My camera lets me use my smartphone as a remote to press the shutter button via Wi-Fi.
Some cameras have a flippy-outty screen with a “touch shutter” feature in live view. You can flip the screen out and gently touch it to activate the shutter–which significantly reduces the amount of “jiggle” that comes from pressing the traditional shutter button.
The whole objective here is to prevent camera movement when we snap the photo. Whether you use a time-delay, a touch screen, a remote, or your smartphone–it’s up to you. We just want to prevent jiggling the camera when we take our shot.
Dial In Your Initial Settings
Let’s lock in some settings just to get things started. Will these work perfectly? Probably not. These settings are just a starting point. We’ll fine tune these settings in a little bit.
Shutter: 1/4 Second
First, set your shutter speed to 1/4 second. On my camera, 1/4 second looks like 0”4 in the little LCD window. 1/3 second looks like 0”3, and 1/2 second 0”5. A full second looks like 1” . We might need to speed it up or slow it down–but we’ll fine tune it later.
Normally, when we take photos, we want to “freeze” the action, and capture a point in time of exactly what we see. We can “stop time” when the shutter only stays open for a very small fraction of a second. This is especially true when photographing sports, racing, wildlife, pets, and children–where our subjects are all zooming around at high speed. If we keep the shutter open too long, zippy subjects end up looking blurry and distorted. Not cool. But in this case, a slow shutter is how to create that smooth flowing water effect.
Next, set your aperture to f/22. With your shutter being open so long, if you snap a photo at a normal aperture, all you’ll see is “white”. The whole image will be “blown out”. So we need to restrict how much light makes it to our sensor. There are a couple of ways to do this. One way is to use a special filter called a “Neutral Density” filter (or ND filter for short). An ND filter is like sunglasses for your lens. Don’t have one? Neither do I. Don’t worry.
We’ll restrict how much light gets in by stopping down our aperture.
Finally, lower your camera’s ISO to its lowest setting (typically 100). ISO controls how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. By reducing your sensor’s light sensitivity, you’ll make sure you don’t “blow out” your image from leaving your shutter open for so long.
Now that you’ve got your camera mounted on a stable platform, and adjusted the initial settings, you’re ready to start experimenting.
You see, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” magic setting to achieve this effect. If there were, then our cameras would simply have a “flowy water” button. Even if you go back to the same spot, and dial in the same settings you were successful with last time, it might not turn out the same, because of variations in lighting conditions. Maybe it’s cloudy today–where it was sunny last time. Maybe it’s later in the afternoon, and last time you shot the waterfall in the morning. You get my point.
Generally speaking–keep these things in mind:
- The length of time the shutter stays open is how we control how “flowy” the water looks.
- Our aperture controls how bright or dark our photo turns out.
To begin, frame your waterfall, then fire off your first shot, and finally look at the back screen to see if you achieved the effect you were after.
- Water not “flowy” enough?
- Adjust your shutter to stay open 1/3 of a second instead of 1/4
- Keep in mind that the longer the shutter stays open, the more light pours in–you might need to compensate by closing down your aperture a little
- Photo turn out too dark?
- Open your aperture a bit, and let in some more light
- Alternatively, you can increase the amount of time your shutter stays open–that’ll brighten things up
- Which way should you go? It’s up to you–we’re experimenting here–there’s no wrong answer
- (Just remember to only adjust one thing at a time, snap another photo, then check the result before adjusting a second or third thing)
- Photo too bright?
- Close the aperture to reduce the amount of light making it to your sensor
- But what if you’re already at f/22 and you can’t close the aperture any further?
- If your aperture is closed as far as it will go, then simply reduce the amount of time your shutter stays open
- (Just remember–one thing at a time, then re-check by firing off another shot)
- Close the aperture to reduce the amount of light making it to your sensor
Since there’s no one-size-fits-all setting for every camera, this experimentation piece is what we all have to do. Finding the right settings for properly exposed photos with the “flowy” water effect takes time and patience. Don’t worry if you don’t nail the shot on your very first try! I never do. Just make an adjustment, and try again! You’ll get it!
Location, Location, Location…?
You don’t need to travel to some far off, exotic location to practice the “flowy water” technique. In fact, the above photo is of a drainage ditch out in front of my house! Sometimes they fill with water, and I get a little babbling brook going on. Since I don’t live near any epic rivers or waterfalls, I seize the opportunity to practice my “flowy water” technique whenever this little “water feature” springs to life. Furthermore, when I frame the shot correctly, you don’t see my house or driveway–and you’d never know I wasn’t off on some wilderness adventure!
Don’t have any nearby rivers, waterfalls, or drainage ditches? What about fountains? Or sprinklers? Use your imagination! Let’s get creative!
I hope this little tutorial helped spark your creativity! Now you know how to create that smooth flowing water effect! If you live near rushing water of some sort, and have a camera that lets you modify ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, I bet you’ll create a masterpiece!
When you capture your epic flowy water shots, post ’em up! I want to see them! Drop a comment on this post with your Instagram handle so I can see what you created! Photography is fun! Now get out there and shoot!