August 2019 | Issue no. 37 | by mark shaiken

“Roil” – to move or proceed turbulently. Water roils when it rushes down a waterfall or races along in a river or forms waves and gets pushed in and out on a beach. When it roils, water looks awful busy, as it sprays, and foams, and hustles to whatever its final destination may be. That is what nature gives us – hustling water. Nature also gives us water in a lake that ripples. Rippling may be more gentle than a roil but it is not still. I like my water serene and still, or at least a bit calmer.  One of the more fun photographic techniques is to slow water down, eliminate the hustle and the ripple. The difference is dramatic. I won’t present any of the roiling images in this post. You know what they look like.  It is just a matter of taste, but I am not a fan of them. Instead, do :: or :: diso will focus on the fun stuff. . . the images where water is slowed down, which for me is a bit of an analogy to photography itself:  I shoot to help slow down my world and block out any noise and I hope for the same when you pick up your camera and go forth.

[Eight second exposure near Flat Head Lake, in Northwest Montana]

The technique requires the use of equipment in addition to your camera and lens to implement. You need filters, a tripod, a ball head, and a cable release, and you are in business. The equipment is available from many different solid manufacturers. For the record, I use a Gitzo carbon tripod, an Acratech ball head, a Nikon cable release, and I exclusively use Singh-Ray filters, a small independent filter company in Florida, whose slogan is: “capture what you imagine.” That slogan fits the slow water images to the T. For slow water shots, I can make an image with a water element and imagine, and then create, how the water should look if the water was calm and more serene.

The overview is simple: the key to slowing water down is to take long exposures. Hence, the need for a tripod and a cable release. I can start my quest for longer exposures by reducing light nature’s way:  by making my image early in the morning, at dusk, or during an overcast day.  In addition, I drop my ISO very low – 100 ISO (or lower depending on how low an ISO your camera can generate), I stop down my aperture as small as it will go, and I pick my filters that I will use.  I put my camera on the ball head mounted on the tripod and frame my shot.  Once I have focused, I change the camera to manual focus so that when I squeeze the shutter release, the point of focus does not change.  I also shoot only in manual mode for these shots.  Then, I squeeze my shutter release, and wait for the magic.

[Four tenths of a second exposure in Glacier National Park, Montana]

The length of the exposure will vary depending on how much and how fast the water moves. The longer the exposure, the more you will reduce the detail in the water – roiling, spray, ripples, tidal movement. In a river or a waterfall, an exposure of 1 second or less usually yields water strands or ribbons, which I like. An exposure of 30 seconds on a lake will make it mirror-like. An exposure of 6 seconds at the ocean may or may not be long enough to smooth out the water. Because of this, I shoot trial and error for long exposures. I will start at about 8/10 of a second and go for longer and longer exposures as I look for different effects. If the light is low, I can usually use just a polarizer.  All polarizers to different degrees reduce glare and enhance skies, and should be used, if possible where the light source is at a 90 degree angle from the filter – side lit light.  Polarizers also filter out some of the light.

There are polarizer choices – I like to use either Singh-Ray’s: (a) LB Color Combo filter (which enhances reds, greens and warm tones), (b) warming polarizer (which slightly boosts the warmer color tones), (c) neutral polarizer (which is just what the name says – neutral), or lately (d) Bryan Hansell Waterfall Polarizer (which is a new filter that holds out some more light). Each filter will hold back some light and therefore permit a longer exposure. If I have sky as an element of the picture, I will combine the polarizer with a graduated neutral density filter, which has a clear portion that gradually morphs into a darker portion. Line up the beginning of the darker portion approximately where the sky begins on your horizon, and the light from the sky will be knocked down and balanced better with the rest of the image.  I hand hold my ND filters but I acknowledge that many use a filter holder made by Lee Filters.  Here is an ND filter:

If I really want a longer exposure, to make the water appear almost glass or mirror like, I turn to a Singh-Ray Vari ND filter, a magical filter that I use a great deal. The “Vari” means variable.  This filter can dial in different levels of darkness – the darker the filter, the less light will get to your  sensor, and the longer the exposure needs to be.  And, this filter can also be used in conjunction with graduated ND filters as well.  Here is the Vari ND.

Here are some examples of images using these filters (and a couple of other, more funky, filters as well):

[Thirty second exposure at daybreak in Sausalito, California with a Singh Ray Vari ND filter and a 2 stop Galen Rowell graduated neutral density filter]

[Six second exposure with a Singh-Ray Vari ND filter and a 1 stop Galen Rowell graduated ND filter on the coast in San Luis Obispo County, California]

[Thirty second exposure at dusk of Kansas City Missouri from across the Kansas River using an FLW filter and a three stop Galen Rowell graduated ND filter.  The FLW filter at dusk really enhances the blues and is a Bryan Peterson trick]

[Thirty second exposure of Lake McDonald at day break in Glacier National Park, Montana using a Singh-Ray Vari ND filter and a one stop Galen Rowell ND filter]

[1.6 second exposure of Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, with a neutral density polarizer and a two stop Galen Rowell ND filter]  

[Fifteen second exposure of Whitefish Lake, Whitefish Montana using a Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue Polarizer filter and and a one stop Galen Rowell ND filter.  The Gold-N-Blue is a crazy filter that can dial up blues like nothing else]

[1/10 of a second exposure in Santa Barbara, California using a Singh-Ray neutral polarizing filter]

In the case of water falls or rivers, you will have some choices.  If you really slow down the exposure, you achieve almost a cotton candy look to the water.

[Thirty second exposure of a portion of Aluvial Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado using a Singh-Ray Vari ND filter]

[Thirteen second exposure in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado using a Singh-Ray Vari ND filter]

I am not as big a fan of the cotton candy look, however, and find that I am more drawn to water that still shows some movement even after slowing it down.  Those images look something like this:

[Four tenths of a second exposure in Glacier National Park using a Singh-Ray Vari ND filter]

[One second exposure in Glacier National Park using a Singh-Ray Vari ND filter and a two stop Galen Rowell ND filter]

[1.3 second exposure of Clear Creek in Clear Creek Canyon State Park, Colorado using a Singh-Ray Vari ND filter and a one stop Galen Rowell ND filter to help with the sky]

And, you don’t have to be in a national park to make this technique work for you. There is water in the city for you to control and slow down.

[Five second exposure at dusk of Meyer Circle, in Kansas City, Missouri using an FLW filter and a two stop Galen Rowell ND filter]

[Four second exposure of the Broadmoor, Colorado Springs, Colorado, using a Singh-Ray Vari ND filter and a one stop Galen Rowell ND filter]

There is not a great deal of post work.  In my raw file, I will balance light in the entire image.  If I use the FLW filter, I will decrease the purple and magenta sliders and increase the blue sliders.  I might reduce blue luminosity to slightly darken a blue sky for emphasis, and occasionally, I might selectively add clarity to water ribbons and strands, or to a reflection, to draw out some subtle emphasis.  And with that, there you have it.  I hope I have whet your appetite to give this a try.  I don’t like to suggest that you spend a bunch of money on camera gear since I am a great believer that the photographer, not the camera, makes the image.  But in the case of slow water, if you like the effects, you will need some gear.



Mark Shaiken skylineDenver based, mark shaiken :: photography
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