Capturing the Flow of Water

Falls at Glen Onoko (Fujifilm S-5 Pro, Nikkor 16-85mm VR f3.5)


It is April in Pennsylvania and the streams are running hard.

As a landscape photographer, one tries to anticipate events and conditions that predictably (or sometimes sporadically) occur, at different points in the calendar. One of these events is occurring now. As I write this, the region’s creeks in rivers are filled to capacity, and sometimes beyond, by the melting snow pack, spring rains, and by the water released as the ground finally thaws.

This occurs at a time, in the northeastern US, when there is little other visual interest in the outdoors, which has returned to the browns, and greys that we gratefully left behind in November prior to the first winter snow.

It is during late March and April in the mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania, that the exuberant water flow provides us an opportunity for some interesting imaging, that will last hopefully until the first blooms of May. In fact, it is these rivulets, brooks, and torrents that ultimately enable the greenery that will be the focus of our efforts, later in the season.

Spring Rivulet, Sand Springs Trail (Fujifilm X Pro 1, XF 55-200 f3.5 @1/7 sec)

Hiking in the Appalachians in April, one can observe water during the various stages of its journey, from a melting snow drift, converging into streamlets that follow seldom used courses over the mountainsides, searching out better established stream beds. Here and there they form tiny cascades, often quite beautiful, but also quite ephemeral.

Small Falls (Fujifilm X Pro 1, XF 55-200 f3.5 @1/4 sec)

Creeks and streams run hard during these times, the water cold, the current formidable, enough that trout struggle to hold their usual feeding positions behind the rocks and boulders. A creek bed, that contains barely a trickle in August, can be uncrossable during the first warm days of spring.

Most avid photographers I think understand the basic concepts of shooting moving water. It is common among less experienced photographers, to work toward the classic cloudlike water flows that are often seen in waterfall imaging. But there are actually multiple techniques to depict water flow in ways that are evocative of its character and setting.

Standard equipment for shooting flowing water includes a good camera/lens combination capable of shooting at higher (tighter) apertures but still retain sharpness. The ability to mount neutral density filters to further reduce light levels is also very important. Neutral density filters are dark, color-neutral, on-lens filters: essentially “sunglasses for the imager” that allow one to use slower shutter speeds than would be possible given the amount of ambient light. This is important for smoothing water flow. A tripod and a remote release are essential to prevent camera movement.

Over the Glen ( Fujifilm XE-1, XF 18-55mm f3.5 @1/6sec)

I have been shooting this spring with a variety of cameras, including my Nikon bodies, and the various Fuji’s. Perhaps the most intriguing cameras to use, however over the years, have been my X 100, and later my X100s.

Now my Nikon bodies are certainly also useful, but require more lugging and more shot discipline (for slow speed shots, one should use mirror lock-up and trigger them remotely).They are weather sealed however and have wonderful imagers.

I have also been shooting with my Fuji equipment. Certainly the X Pro 1 and the XE-1 work nicely in this setting. But it is the X 100s and its predecessor, the X 100 that offer several unique features and attributes that make them particularly adept at shooting moving water.

First and foremost, the Fuji imager (like the Nikon) has a wide dynamic range, which allows, you to “pull back” the exposure of an image where the water itself is frequently “blown out” by the extended exposure times needed to smooth the flow of water. These cameras however, are much smaller which is helpful to minimize the weight one must carry, particularly when hiking to remote sites.

Unlike the other Fuji’s, they have a leaf shutter, which tends to minimize shutter-induced movement artifact. This can be an issue in other cameras, particularly DSLRs, which may suffer from “mirror slap” as well as the effects of focal plane shutters. Reducing camera induces vibration, in turn allows one to utilize lighter tripods than would be necessary for DSLRs.

Spring Flow on the Nescopeck (Fujifilm X 100s @4sec)

The X100 twins have built in neutral density filter. Adding a second neutral density or polarizing filter in front of the lens amplifies its effect and allows the cameras to blur water in surprisingly bright light.

There is also a threaded, shutter button that facilitates the use of a simple cable release.

For me the only 2 disadvantages, of the X 100/X100s is the fixed lens, which does reduce their versatility a bit, and the native ISO of 200 which tends to push exposures towards faster shutter speeds than would an ISO 50 or 100. And I suppose it would help, if the camera was weather proofed a bit, to reduce the anxiety of using it near high-flow waterfalls, where there is often mist and spray at the base.

It does appear that the new and splash proof XT-1, perhaps with an on-lens variable neutral density filter might be useful around moving water, especially when weather proofed lenses are available.

Back to technique; like snowfall, one can use different shutter speeds to achieve different effects. The violence of flowing streams and waterfalls can sometimes be displayed better by freezing the action, with all of the churning and splashing in graphic display. On the other hand, blurring the water evokes tranquility, and a sort of “mystical quality” to the scene.

Riffles (Fujifilm X 100s @ 3sec)

Shooting at tighter apertures slows things down, but too tight a iris can lead to diffraction, and thus blurring of details that you want to appear sharp.

Shooting at sunrise, or at dusk is generally desirable, but particularly when photographing moving water. Here not only the quality of the light, but the diminished quantity of the light, has definite advantages. Shooting at midday, often it’s better cloudy than sunny. On a partly cloudy day, I will often set up the camera and tripod, and wait for a moment when the sun is obscured to shoot. This again reduces scene contrast, and allows you or the camera, to select a lower shutter speed.

Dam at Hickory Run (Fujifilm X 100s @1/3 sec)

After a long winter I think there is something joyful about all of this. I think we as humans, find peace near to watercourses. Maybe our archaic instincts find comfort in celebrating through photography what is for us, a life giving resource.

As photographers, the April runoff offers an opportunity for powerful imaging, prior to the emergence of “botanical” spring.

About henrysmithscottage

Henry F.Smith Jr. has been involved in photography for 35 years. He has become well known as a chronicler of the Eastern US landscapes , though his portfolio includes, portrait, event, and "street photography". His work has been displayed in multiple galleries throughout the northeastern US, and is available for sale for use in public and commercial spaces. His book "Pennsylvania Seasons" is available through major booksellers. He is also a writer and editorialist whose work has appeared in a variety of "daily's" in Pennsylvania. "Dr. Smith" is also a Pulmonary and Sleep physician who practices in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He is happily married, with two wonderful children. Inquiries to purchase prints, and for photographic services can be made through:
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1 Response to Capturing the Flow of Water

  1. Pingback: The Gear that I Use: The Manfrotto Beefree Travel Tripod. |

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