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How to Get Silky Smooth Water In Your Photos

I’m sure you’ve seen those photos of streams or waterfalls where all the water is a silky smooth blur. It’s a surprisingly easy effect to pull off—and it looks awesome. Here’s how.

Note, this is a somewhat advanced technique and requires that you know how to use your camera fully. If you’re just starting, check out our beginners guide to photography to get up to speed.

How This Technique Works

This technique relies on two things: a stable camera and a slow shutter speed. With a stable camera, you can use a shutter speed of anywhere between 1/10th of a second and upwards of 30 seconds. Everything solid in your photo, like the rocks and landscape, will be exposed just as if you took a photo for 1/1000th of a second. Only the moving stuff—mainly the water—will blur.

To get a stable camera, you need a tripod. It’s that simple. You’ll never be able to keep your camera still for long enough by hand. Over at sister site, Review Geek, I’ve written about the best tripods. Our favorite, the Vanguard Alta Pro, is $120. It’s worth every penny.

We’ll look at getting a slow shutter speed in a moment, but first, let’s talk about what I mean by a slow shutter speed. For fast moving water, you’ll start to get a good blur around 1/10th of a second. At 1 second, it will be silky smooth.

1/10th of a second shutter speed
1/10th of a second. Notice the waves starting to blur and look good. Harry Guinness

For slower moving water like streams—or to blur more than one wave together—you’ll want to use a longer shutter speed. Your camera probably maxes out at 30 seconds, so that’s your upper limit without an intervalometer. I normally aim for a shutter speed of between 15 and 30 seconds when I can.

30 second shutter speed
30 seconds. Multiple waves while the shutter was open gave it a very smooth look. Harry Guinness

Getting a Slow Shutter Speed

Now, getting the slow shutter speed is the bit that requires some thought. You can’t just set your shutter speed to 30 seconds and expect to have a good photo. In most cases, it’ll be massively overexposed.

The first step is to use a narrow aperture. Depending on the light levels, somewhere between f/11 and f/16 is ideal. Any narrower, and you’re likely to see a drop in image quality. Over at How-To Geek, we’ve got a deeper guide to selecting the right aperture for different situations.

Next, crank your ISO down to 100—or whatever your camera’s base ISO is. Again, on How-To Geek we’ve got a full guide on choosing the correct ISO to use.

If you’re shooting in low light, like at dawn or dusk, or in a shadowy woods, this is probably enough to get your shutter speed in the 5-15 second range. Depending on the effect you’re going for, this might work.

ND filter
I used an ND filter here to get my shutter speed to 30 seconds on a bright day. Harry Guinness

On the other hand, if you’re shooting in bright daylight, your shutter speed is still probably measured in fractions of a second. This is where neutral density filters come in. Neutral density filters are pieces of dark glass that go in front of your lens. They block light from hitting your sensor, allowing you to use a slower shutter speed than you otherwise could. ND filters are normally measured in stops: a 3-stop filter blocks three stops of light, so you can use a shutter speed that’s three stops slower. For example, with a 3-stop ND filter, you can go from 1/10th of a second to around 1 second or from 1 second to 8 seconds. ND filters come in different values up to about 10-stops. We’ve got a more detailed explanation of ND filters over on How-To Geek.

If you can only afford to buy one ND filter, I’d recommend getting a 9-stop or 10-stop filter. You can always increase your ISO if you want to use a slightly faster shutter speed. It’s best to buy one from your local camera shop—they can advise you on what’s right for you.

Now, you can put it all together:

  • Set your camera up on a tripod. Frame your shot and put it in Aperture Priority mode.
  • Set your aperture to f/16 and ISO to 100. Compose your image and take a test shot to see what shutter speed your camera’s light meter recommends.
  • If it’s slow enough, switch to Manual mode, fine-tune your composition and exposure, and shoot away.
  • If it’s not slow enough, add an ND filter and try again. Swap to Manual mode to fine tune your exposure: don’t be afraid to open the aperture to f/11 or increase the ISO to get a good shot.

Dealing With Glare

One problem you’ll encounter shooting water scenes is that water can look really shiny in photos.

Harry Guinness

This is because the water is reflecting polarized light. To cut down on this effect, you need to use another filter: a polarizer. It works just like polarized sunglasses, blocking some of the polarized light reducing reflections. Here’s the same image as above, but in this shot, I used a polarizer.

Harry Guinness

Crazy difference, right? For more on using a polarizer, check out our guide right here on LifeSavvy.

As you can probably guess, I love the look of silky smooth water in my landscape images. Now you know how to get the effect, too. For some recommendations on the gear I mentioned in this article, check out the best landscape photography gear for your camera on Review Geek.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »

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