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An In-Depth Guide to Long Exposure Water Photography

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Read Time: 8 min

What makes a large body of water such an interesting subject for nighttime photography is that it's really a blank canvas. Light reflecting off the surface creates unique textures and vibrant colors. The movement of the water captured with a long exposure adds surrealism to the image.

The possibilities are endless as to what locations you can find that have a good combination of water and available light. It could be a lake, river, harbor, bay, waterfall or, of course, the ocean. Here are seven tips to help get you started.

1. Look for Interesting Light Sources

Photo by peasap

Chances are you aren't going to bring along an entire setup of lighting equipment for this type of shoot. In fact, don't. Be creative and find interesting light sources that could create different patterns and textures on the surface of the water. Incoming light to brighten up a body of water can come from natural or man-made sources.

Look for bridges, piers, city buildings, boats, the stars and moon. All of these emit light that's excellent for reflecting off the surface of the water. Experiment with different locations to get different colors and shapes.

For instance, light from the sky will reflect and brighten up the water smoothly and uniformly. But look at the reflections of buildings and you see something more abstract. Geometric shapes appear because of the angularity of the buildings. Whether you want the simplicity of a clear night sky to light up the ocean or lake or the complexity that man-made structures brings, find interesting lights to enhance the look of the water.

2. Tripods & Tips for Camera Settings

Photo by the_tahoe_guy

Making sure your camera is still for these long exposures will create the look of movement. Any tripod will do the trick. Keep in mind that composition is key and when using a tripod it's best to adjust the height either above or below eye-level. Stand on elevated ground to get a broad perspective of the water. Or use a smaller tripod to look slightly upward for a majestic feel.

Remember that when you lower the ISO, you should be setting a longer exposure to maximize the available light you're working with. Nighttime images also tend to look very grainy because photographers bump up the ISO to compensate for the lack of light. But in doing so, you limit yourself to the amount of time you can expose the water for. The longer you leave the shutter open, the more the motion of the water will appear. However, there is a sweet spot as to how long you can leave the shutter open for a particular shot.

I like to set the shutter to BULB so I have full control over the amount of time the image is exposed for. It's a good idea to start out with an ISO of 200 and 30 second, 2, and 5 minute exposures and then tweak the settings as they seem fit. That could perhaps mean raising the ISO to 400 with a 20 second exposure.

3. Check the Weather (and the Tide)

Photo by paul bica

Is it going to be a foggy night? Does it look like it's going to rain? These are things to get excited about.

Dynamic weather is a good thing when it comes to photography. The unexpected nature of different weather conditions without a doubt creates unique images. The fog is never going to roll in exactly the same way again, so just that alone can make for an interesting image that can never be reproduced or copied.

Weather is definitely a factor you should consider before going out to shoot at night. Things like rain, fog, wind and lightning all affect bodies of water in very prominent ways. The texture of the water and the mood of the image changes a lot with just a simple change of the weather.

Find a spot by the water you'd like to shoot at. Take one nighttime image when the weather is tranquil and another when it's dynamic (during a storm perhaps). Then compare the two images. Notice how different the water looks and how much this changes the overall image. It's up to you which one you prefer, but it's good to experiment with different conditions.

Also, don't forget to check the tide book before you go out. You wouldn't want to end up with a bag full of soaked equipment because the tide went up in the middle of your shoot. Still want to get the look of a high tide? Find places that are elevated - such as a pier, boardwalk, or aggregation of rocks that are high enough to avoid ruining your gear.

4. Go with the Flow

Photo by W Mustafeez

If you're familiar with shooting long exposures with people as your subject, you may be used to asking them to stand perfectly still. But a body of water, like the ocean or even a calm lake, is going to move. No matter how glassy the surface looks, there's no way to tell the water to stop moving. Use this movement to your full advantage by setting a long exposure.

This way, the motion of the water is conveyed. It will have a smooth and silky texture - much different than how it looks to the naked eye. There is a surrealist quality to water movement which really appears best at night because of the limited light you're working with. The motion creates uniformity in the look of the image. Imagine what a fog bank looks like rolling in. That's what an ocean taken with a long exposure will look like.

5. Find the Best Lines

Photo by D.H. Parks

The composition of lines will help your viewers navigate through the darkness of the image. Angle is important because you want to get enough water in the frame, but you also want to include other elements to make the image unique. Because water - even at night - is just water until another subject is introduced. The composition you choose will help set the atmosphere of the image.

Find the best angle by following the coastline. Natural lines are a dream for many photographers. After all, lines and curves and shapes are prominent aspects of photography - from architectural to fashion. So when it comes to shooting the ocean or a lake, look for the lines of where the water meets the shore. Follow them to compose your image. Frame it so that the line of water starts at one corner of the frame and extends diagonally. Instantly you're following the rule-of-thirds.

6. Before the Sun Comes Up or Goes Down

Photo by Gemma Stiles

A little bit of light from the sun is also a good source of light. But don't wait too long or start too early (depending on the time you're shooting) because then the sun will become too dominant of a subject and the image will turn into either a sunrise or sunset shot. And that's not what we want to achieve with this tutorial.

So if you're using light from the rising or setting sun, make sure you work quickly. Have your tripod set up way before you need to shoot. This will ensure that you're getting the optimum amount of light and still preserving the nighttime quality you want.

Colors in the sky really pop against the water when the sun is just below the horizon. Setting an exposure from 10 to 30 seconds is a good range for getting ample light without sacrificing the darkness.

7. Make Something Else the Focus


The water could also be the highlighting element to something more intriguing in the shot. No matter where you are, there's so much to be explored. Try scouting a location or two during the day first. Then focus on what it is that will enhance the body of water you're working with.

Remember how I mentioned that water is really just a simple subject until another element is introduced? Well, here's an exception - or trick, if you will. You don't necessarily need a subject to make the image more interesting if you make reflections the interest.

Look for reflections of light on the surface of the water. Shoot tight and direct and the images you'll create will almost look like abstract paintings. The reflective quality of the water when the sun goes down makes for an excellent blank canvas for surrounding light sources. Change the angle and achieve new combinations of colors and patterns. This is a good approach if you want to try something more abstract than a realistic landscape shot.

Photo by Kevin Dooley

Set Out Tonight

Shooting water at night can take a little practice. But it's all about fine-tuning these techniques that make this type of photography so interesting to achieve. Each night can bring something new. The motion of the ocean is constantly changing and there's always new lights and angles to be discovered.

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