How to Photograph Water: The Ultimate Guide

By August 2, 2019 May 10th, 2020 Photography

If you’ve ever found yourself enraptured by the sparkling light on a forest stream or the beauty of the sunset over the ocean, you’ve probably tried to capture it with your camera.  

These experiences can be moving but producing images of them that do them justice can sometimes be a challenge.

Water photography has always been something of a passion of mine. So, I decided to put together a list of tips and techniques I use to photograph different bodies of water. Let’s dive in.

1. Waterfalls

Iguazu Falls Sunrise

The flowing, misty, ephemeral nature of waterfalls makes it one of my favorite things to photograph. 

I love that they are always in motion, never remaining the same. But, the ever-changing nature of waterfalls also makes photographing them a bit difficult.

To help you tackle these challenges and make the most of the beauty of waterfalls, here are some tips:



One of the most alluring aspects of waterfalls is their movement.  They crash in torrents, meander among rocks, and splash playfully in a seemingly endless abundance of energy. 

To capture the water’s movement, you need to work with slow shutter speeds. This enables the sensor to record soft textures as the water moves across your frame.

So, as with most images that require long exposures, you will need a tripod. Attempting to take this type of image handheld will result in a blurry image. 


Wide-angle lenses offer a wide perspective, ideal for capturing vast landscapes and broad sceneries. As such, most waterfalls benefit from being photographed by these lenses.

Telephoto lenses, on the other hand, limits the viewing experience to a small area of a scene. The narrow viewpoint provided by these lenses often makes them ill-suited for waterfall photography. 

That said, waterfall images don’t always have to inspire magnificence and awe. Sometimes, a close, intimate perspective of a scene will work best.

So, I suggest bringing both your wide-angle and telephoto lens when you go out to shoot waterfalls. Although rare, there will be occasions when the waterfall you are photographing works better with a telephoto lens than a wide-angle lens.


Those photographers who focus on nature photography sing the praises of Neutral density filters (ND).  And for a good reason.

ND filters limit the amount of light that enters your camera without changing the exposure settings.  They enable you to shoot with slow shutter speeds without risking overexposing your image. As such, ND filters are a must for waterfall photography

Polarizing filters are also invaluable in waterfall photography.  These filters limit distracting light often seen reflected by rocks around the falls.  They also help boost saturation of color and the vividness of the photographs.

Lens Cloth

Be sure to bring lens cloth to protect your lens from water spray and mist.

It is also prudent to bring more than one with you in case you drop the one you’re using or it becomes too damp.

Also, remember to put in a place where you can easily access it, such as your jacket pockets.

When to Go

Shoot at The Right Time of Day

One thing that can make a waterfall beautiful to the eye but ruins them for your camera is bright sunlight.  

Harsh light makes the shadows in the scene particularly strong.  It also creates countless of distracting reflections off wet surfaces around your waterfall.

You can avoid this by timing your shots around sunset or sunrise, commonly known as the “golden hour” of photography. 

During this time of day, the sunlight is more diffuse, making getting an even exposure easier.

This type of light also makes it more feasible to use slower shutter speeds, which is ideal for waterfall photography.

Overcast Days

Similar to the golden hour, the light during overcast days are much softer.

Overcast days also tend to produce better colors, showing moss on trees and rocks at their best. 

The only thing you need to concern yourself with when taking photos on overcast days is the need to avoid the sky in your shots

Having a bright, white sky leaving your frame will only serve to distract your audience away from your intended subject(s).

Resource: 5 Ways to Take Beautiful Landscape Photos in Overcast Weather


Read the waterfall

For the correct exposure, you need to determine the type of waterfall you’re trying to photograph.

Identify waterfalls as being in one of two houses. The first waterfalls are those that fall with seemingly rage-filled energy.  The others are quiet and delicate. 

After determining the type of waterfall, you can start playing with your settings.

It’s best to start in manual or shutter priority mode and make the following adjustments.


Reduce your ISO to its lowest possible setting.  This will make it possible for you to take advantage of reduced shutter speeds without the risk of overexposure.  Also, it will reduce the level of noise you get in your photos.


Narrow the aperture to get the best focus and capture most of the details of your scene. This tends to settle between 100 and f/8-f/10 respectively.

Narrowing your aperture also makes it possible for you to prolong the exposure time significantly.  

Similar to a low ISO, a small aperture setting will help you prevent overexposure when using slow shutter speeds. This is especially helpful if you are not using an ND filter.

Shutter Speed

For larger falls, my exposure is often less than a second, typically between 1/4 and a full second.  This ensures that I can capture the movement of water along with its subtle details.

The smaller waterfalls work well with lengthier exposures.  I typically aim for the longest exposure I can get in this case.  

Some will chide you for the loss of sharpness that results from long exposures with small aperture settings, but pay them no mind. 

Every photo opportunity requires compromises, and losing sharpness that’s only detectable at 200% magnification is worth capturing every nuance of the water’s movement.

You can even use f/22 if it turns out to be necessary.  These smaller waterfalls often see exposures of 1-4 seconds under my lens.

Composition Tips

Find a Focal Point

You’ll typically find a lot of details surrounding a waterfall. Thus, it’s important that your composition has a clear focal point as not to confuse your viewers.

Some examples of focal points commonly used in waterfall photography are rocks, flowers, a person, and the waterfall itself.

Scout your location and don’t stop until you find an interesting focal point.

Doing so will ensure that your photo is engaging, striking, and well-composed.

Look For An Unusual Viewpoint

The most common waterfall photos tend to be taken from downstream from the bank of the river.  But this is not the only way you can frame a waterfall.

Take your time and explore the area around the waterfall. See if you can capture it from an unusual perspective. 

Try shooting it behind bushes and trees or, if possible, get behind the waterfall.  

Include a Reference Point

One of the biggest challenges of photographing waterfalls is that it can be difficult to demonstrate its scale.

To provide a sense of scale, consider including a reference point to your composition.

Plants, rocks, bridges, and wildlife are all great examples of elements you can use to show the immensity of the waterfall. 

These kinds of elements can also help you create a more unique and engaging image.

Many waterfall photos tend to look very much alike and the use of outside elements often make it possible to overcome this.

Adding a reference point in your composition can transport the viewer to the location of the photo, immersing them in the scene. 

They provide a sense of scale, place, and time that can turn a mediocre photo into an engrossing one.

Shoot Horizontally

It is the nature of waterfalls to be thin and tall, making most people default to using portrait orientation to capture them. But, this tends to result in an unremarkable image. 

Instead, consider using landscape orientation and take advantage of the surrounding terrain.

Doing so will also enable you to add more of the surroundings and interest in your image. 

Pay Attention to the Trees

One of the tricks of shooting waterfalls is using long exposures. While it’s great for capturing the waterfall itself, it can cause problems with the surrounding terrain.  

The leaves and branches of trees in the shot can become blurred, thanks to the wind. 

To fix this, consider bracketing your images and combining them in photoshop. Although this technique is often used to control light, you can do a similar trick to control movement.

Once you’ve gotten that perfect shot of the waterfall, take a close look at the surroundings in the image. 

If there are fuzzy elements of the terrain, take another shot and freeze that motion. Try playing with your settings in the 1/100 range, or even faster.  

If you need more light, remove your ND filter. You may also need to widen your aperture and boost your ISO to achieve the necessary shutter speed. Just take care that your image sharpness isn’t lost.  

Once you’re at home, take these two exposures, and use Photoshop to blend them by using layer masks.  That process will take up a blog post all on its own, so I’ll address it in detail later.

2. Coastal Waves

Queens Bath Hawaii



Similar to waterfalls, slow shutter speed is necessary if you’re trying to capture the movement of the wave. Thus, for this type of image, you will need a tripod.

Tripod Spikes

The push and pull of the ocean on the sand can move your tripod if it’s not securely mounted. This often results in a blurry and unusable image.  

To prevent this, I typically use spike feet for my tripod. This makes it easy to drive my tripod legs into the ground and secure them for stability.

These spikes also enable me to leave my camera on the tripod as the tide rolls in and out.  

Tripod legs often don’t get enough attention, but when you’re shooting on unstable surfaces like mud or sand, they’re vital.  


More often than not, I use my wide-angle when I do coastal photography.

Since wide-angle lenses tend to stretch out objects at the edges of the frame, they do well in accentuating the sky. I find that highlighting the sky with this type of distortion works well in most coastal images.

Plus, these lenses are known for their deep depth of field. This is great, as I rarely take coastal images in which I don’t place the entire frame in focus.

Polarizing Filter

As mentioned, these polarizing filters can help boost the vibrancy of colors in your images.  

I typically use these whenever I’m trying to add a little punch to the sky or eliminate water glare.

A polarizing filter can also be useful in capturing objects beneath shallow pools of water such as sand or rocks. They eliminate reflection on the water, enabling you to capture objects beneath it clearly.

ND Filter

Similar to photographing waterfalls, an ND filter is an invaluable tool when doing coastal photography.

In cases where there is a significant amount of natural light, I default to my 3-stop ND filter. Doing so enables me to capture the form of the wave in my images.  

When to Go

The Golden Hour

The rich gold tones of the Golden hour are perfect for beach photography.  

This period following sunrise and preceding sunset gives everything a lovely warm glow that makes everything seem a little magical.

The soft ambient light during this time is also ideal for long exposures.

Plus, if you shoot during sunrise, you’re more likely to have the beach to yourself. How awesome is that?

The Blue Hour

Similar to sunrise, shooting during the blue hour is a great way to dodge the crowd. 

It’s common in my area for the beaches to be packed during the middle morning hours and sunset. But most of the crowd tends to clear up right after sunset. 

Added to being crowd-free are the beautiful cool colors present during this time. The remnants of the sun cast a gorgeous orange tint at the horizon and a cool vivid blue in the sky as the night sets in.

Overcast, Rainy, and Stormy Days

Head to the beach when the weather is poor. 

Not only do the beaches tend to clear out when storms are on the horizon, but there is also little as majestic as a storm at sea.  

The combination of powerful waves brought about by strong winds and thick heavy clouds make for quite an impressive shot. Some of my most favorite coastal images are shot during stormy days.

Overcast days also makes it possible to shoot the beach even mid-day.

This especially true if you plan to shoot in black and white. With the use of a 10-stop ND filter, you can capture some hauntingly beautiful images.



When shooting waves at the beach, you want to want to use the smallest ISO  possible on your camera. 


The most important thing about selecting aperture is crating a deep depth of field. You should use a small aperture to place most of your scene is in focus. 

Shutter Speed

To freeze the crashing waves and capture all its detail, you’ll need to use faster shutter speeds.

The appropriate shutter speed will depend on the amount of light available as well as the movement of the wave.

But, a general rule of thumb, if you want to freeze waves, is to set your shutter speed to 1/100 of a second. 

For a softer look,  experiment with slower shutter speeds.

I’ve found that using ¼ shutter speed produces the best results.  This shutter speed is fast enough to capture the shape of the waves but slow enough to provide soft textures. 

That said, when trying to capture coastal waves, it’s important to experiment with your shutter speed.

This the best way to know which shutter speed will give you the effect you want and which will not.

Exposure Compensation

If you’ve ever photographed snow, you are familiar with the struggles of shooting something that reflects a lot of light.  

Sand shares this tendency with snow. The bright color of the sand often causes your camera’s auto modes to read the scenery wrong and underexpose your images.  

To compensate, increase your exposure compensation by a stop or more to retain the details within your shots.

Also, keep in mind, when shooting in places that have a lot of contrast, it’s almost impossible to get the right exposure in just one image successfully. 

A good example of this is when you are shooting backlit coastal images. That is, you are shooting the coast with your camera facing the sun. 

For such occasions, you might need to consider taking multiple images with different exposures. 

Once you have a set of images with important areas of your scene properly exposed, you can combine them in post-processing.


How to Use Your Camera: Understanding Exposure

How to photograph Backlit Images

Composition Tips

Camera Angle

The ocean’s grandeur is a fantastic subject, but to capture it properly requires a little thought.

Make sure you position your camera to get a good proportion of the water, beach, and horizon in the frame. This will aid the viewer in experiencing the depth of the horizon.

For a more balanced composition, follow the rule of thirds and position your horizon off-center in your frame.

Also, remember to make sure your horizon is straight in the image. Straightening your image in post-processing will require you to cut out parts of your image.

Portrait (Vertical Format)

The vertical format is often neglected in most landscape photography. But by dismissing it, you’ll miss a lot of amazing compositional opportunities.

For example, coastal photos with tall palm trees can benefit substantially from a vertical format.

The vertical orientation will encourage your viewers to view your image up and down instead of side to side.

This effect on your viewer is a great way to enhance the height and depth of the palm trees in your photo.

Vertical orientation is also a great set up when you’re using the shoreline to as a way to lead the viewers through your image.

In any case, always keep this format in mind when taking any images, coastal or not.

Resource: 11 Compositional Mistakes Beginner Photographers Make


Always pay attention to the water moving around you. Learning the behavior of the water will help you discover how to compose your frame to get the best results.  

In my experience, the best timing to press the shutter is when the water begins to crest at the peak of the frame. With my shutter set to ¼ of a second, I can freeze the crest of the wave right before it crashes. 

I’d also advise continuing to shoot until the water finishes receding.  I find that doing so produces the best set of images for a particular wave.  


Adding interesting elements in your foreground is a great way to create a distinctive and engaging coastal image. 

Beach photography is full of constantly changing features you can use in your foreground. From the soft shifting sands to the rolling waves, the coast provides an endless variety of elements you can capture.

Even the sandiest beaches will contain places where rocks break through the sand and stand against the relentless sea. When placed in your foreground, these rocks can serve to give your image a distinct and arresting character.

Round pebbles in wet sand is a favorite shot of mine. They are particularly fascinating to photograph if they are placed where the surf can barely reach them. These pebbles cause receding water to leave interesting patterns tracing their path.

Tranquil pools and streams also serve as the ideal foreground for coastal images.

Always make time to explore your location to find interesting foregrounds for your image. Doing so will enable you to create captivating images with features that capture the eye.  

Focal point

Similar to photographing waterfalls, it’s important to determine your focal point when composing your coastal image. This will help draw your viewer into your image and encourage them to explore.

If you happen to encounter sandcastles, sculptures, and other man-made structures on the beach use them as a centerpiece to your photo.

Another incredible feature of beach photography is wildlife.  From see weeds to soaring gulls, you’ll find an abundance of photogenic wildlife to add interest to your photos.

The waves are often a major draw, and they’re certainly a central focus of beach photography. Properly leveraged in your composition they can add an emotional depth to your photo.  

Some other common focal points often used in coastal images are silhouettes, palm trees,  people, and boardwalks.


Blending multiple images with different forms of waves is one of my favorite ways to do coastal photography. This is because it’s really difficult and rare to capture the most interesting waves with a single shot. 

So, what I do instead is find my best waves from three different images and combine them in photoshop.

If you plan to do the same, make sure you don’t move your tripod until you have captured all the waves you want to have in your composite image. 

This will make it much easier to blend the waves later in post-processing.

Another important thing to remember is before moving your tripod is to make sure you properly capture each element you want to be included in your scene.

For example, if you’re going to include a sunburst in your composite, make sure to take an image exposed for the sun before moving your tripod.

3. Water Reflections

Rippled and smooth water can both be an effective way to showcase reflections in your images. Calm water can create mirror reflection, while ripples create textured, abstract reflection.  Be sure to play with these various features to see what they can produce.


Polarizing Filters

Using a polarizing filter will bring out the blues in the sky and emphasize the vibrancy of natural colors. These filters are also fantastic tools when you’re trying to eliminate the glare caused by light reflecting on the water. 

ND Filter

These filters make it possible to produce water that is velvety smooth, which can produce incredible reflections full of color and texture. 

Telephoto and Wide-Angle Lenses

The lens you choose will depend heavily on the subject you’re photographing.  Vistas will typically employ wide-angle lenses, and the same will be employed for capturing their reflections. 

A long zoom can be used to isolate a reflection from the surroundings. These lenses are also a great tool for abstract water reflections.


Even with fast shutter speeds, your shots can always benefit from the stability of a tripod. Using them ensures that your camera will be steady and your images will be sharp.

A tripod also enables you to easily angle your camera and keep it to a position you desire. This will make it easier to capture multiple shots of the same scene until you are satisfied.

When to Go

During Calm Weather

Capturing reflections is best done when the water is as perfectly still as you can manage.  

If you can get no wind, all the better.  Wind blurs the water’s surface and causes ripples that can ruin an otherwise perfect mirror image.

Fast shutter speeds may work, but better still to avoid windy days.  

When The Sun is Low

When trying to capture reflections on the water, you’re going to want to avoid bright sunlight, and the midday entirely.  The glares and shadows you’ll get from these periods will be unattractive in your photos. 

The early morning and late day are best.


Manually Set the Exposure Point

While automatic exposure can work for capturing reflections, they often turn out darker than you may want.  

A manual alteration of the exposure point helps to produce more life-like images of the reflection.  

Manually set your exposure point on the mirrored image. The point you select inside the mirrored images should have the same exposure as the water around the reflection. 

This process will help properly expose your images of water reflections.


Smaller apertures are generally the most appropriate for images with reflections.

Selecting a narrow aperture will enable you to capture stronger reflections and greater detail. In most cases, an f/5.6 will work for small areas, while f/11 will be better for landscapes.  

That said, a shallow depth of field can also provide wonderful opportunities. They are great for creating abstracted scenes.

Wide apertures are also great for creating images with layers. This will allow you to add depth by focusing on one object and blurring out the rest.

Shutter Speed

To capture a sharp reflection, you’ll need to use fast shutter speed. This is true even if you’re photographing calm water. In addition to fast shutter speed, consider using a tripod for added stability and sharper images. 


Contrary to the previous examples, photographing water reflections will often require you to use fast shutter speed. 

This means that you may have to set the ISO on your camera a bit higher to overcome the reduced exposure.

That said, avoid going to 800 or even 400; otherwise, you may find a lot of grain your image.

Composition Tips


Instead of focusing on the reflective surface, focus on the reflection itself. Doing so will help make sure that you capture the reflection with clarity and impact.


Pay attention to the angle from which you are shooting. Your point of view can have an enormous impact on reflections. 

For instance, an image from a camera positioned above a reflection will be entirely different from that of one positioned to the side of it.

Before pressing your shutter, make sure to play with a variety of angles.

4. Streams

If you enjoy strolling through the countryside, you’re bound to have noticed the abundance of streams, creeks, and rivers they tend to have.

These features can provide incredible photo opportunities to a photographer who immerses themselves in the scene.

Water serves as a fantastic chance to play with leading lines. This is true whether they guide to a human-made feature, a waterfall, or a mountain.   

Streams serve as an excellent subject for photography.  The sound of the bubbling river, the soft textures of moss, and the delicate shape of a bird’s wing can inspire the imagination.

Streams can also provide you abundant ways to enhance your composition and elevate your focal points. 

Through their endless meanderings, you’ll find interesting lines and curves that are great devices for guiding the viewer’s eyes.  

Streams also provide an endless variety of vibrant colors you can use in your images.  With a little luck, you may even be able to capture beautiful splashes of color or even a full rainbow.


Flips Flops

If you’re somewhere where these open-toed shoes will work then, by all means, use them.  

They’re perfect for places where the waters are free of waterborne critters like leeches and crawdads.  

Also make sure that the surface you are shooting on is not slippery, as flip-flops aren’t the best when it comes to traction.

Lastly, do not use these flip-flops if you plan on shooting in a location where there is thick mud. They tend to get stuck on these surfaces, making it very difficult for you to move.

Water shoes

Water shoes can be a great option where flip-flops are impractical. They’re specifically designed for handling wet environments, giving better grip on slippery terrain.

Warm environments are going to be the most practical for this type of footwear.

Wellington Boots

Also known as Wellies, these boots are perfect for any environment and are comfortable enough to wear as you hike.  They’ll do the job well and even come in an insulated variety for colder climates.

Thigh Waders

These are perfect for those environments where you’re getting into deeper waters.  While not as convenient as wellies they’re perfect for getting into places you might otherwise miss out on.

Chest Waders or Fishing Waders

Don’t let embarrassment keep you from getting a set of these incredible tools.

If you’re doing water photography, there is no better “Shoe”.  These will let you reach anywhere in the water up to your chest without getting wet.  They’re phenomenal for getting truly unique shots.

Waders might look as subtle most of us would like, but they’re worth it. This is especially true when you spend a great deal of time in rivers that are fed by melted snow.  

Wet Suit

This is truly the ultimate in water photography garments.  Wetsuits are not only useful for shooting streams and rivers, but also with coastal and waterfall photograph. Have fun with these!

Lens Cloth

Similar to photographing waterfalls, be sure to keep lens cloths handy when photographing water streams. 

Jackets with Closable Pockets

Another thing you’re going to want to have is a garment with a lot of closable pockets.  As you stray from the shore you’ll discover lots of opportunities to fill your pockets with various bits and gadgets you’ll need while shooting.  


Backpacks are also an essential item for this kind of photography, as shoulder bags and the like can fall in the water.  


Polarized sunglasses are on my personal must-have list as well to make sure I can see the scene clearly.  Without them, slippery rocks can surprise you, resulting in disaster.


Shutter Speed

To capture a still shot of fast-moving streams, use fast shutter speeds.  On the other hand, if you’re looking for a photo with a flowing dreamlike quality a little slower may suit.

Typically, shutter speed between 2 and ⅛ seconds will produce soft and blurry textures depending on the speed of the stream. 

That said, the best thing to do is play with a variety of shutter speeds to see which one gives you the best result.

This is especially true if you’re not planning on blending multiple images later in photoshop. 

In such cases, you want to think very carefully about the exposure you’ll use. 

The water that is flowing the fastest will generally end up being the brightest part of your photo. Keep this in mind when composing your images. 

Remember that the viewer is likely to look at the brightest elements within your photo first. So be intentional in the way you arrange them in your pictures.


In most cases when water is involved you will want to shoot the lowest ISO possible. This will produce a high-quality image with little noise. 


Use a small aperture (around f/8-f/11) to place most of your scene is in focus. 

Composition Tips

Get in the Water

If you want to guarantee that you’re going to capture a bunch of disappointing images that are uninspired, stay on the shore.  

Getting in the water is really the only way you can be certain you’ll be capturing everything the river has to offer.  It will be among the rocks and water that you’ll find the best lines to create stunning compositions. 

This will require shoes designed to venture into the water and clothes that don’t mind getting wet. 

Remember to be safe, of course. There’s no reason to put yourself at unnecessary risk.   

Pay Attention To The Weather

While great stream images can theoretically happen on any day, those that are slightly overcast tend to be the best. 

You want to have some light in your scene, so a fully overcast day won’t be the most ideal. But neither is a cloudless sky. Strong sunlight can easily blow out the image when water is involved.

A little light rather than a lot is perfect. 

Beware Fast Flowing Rivers

These tend to be remarkably dangerous if you aren’t careful, to both you and your equipment.  

The mercurial nature of water means that a place that was safe to set up your camera a moment ago can have a surge the next that topples your tripod.  

To help minimize this kind of impact, place two of your tripod legs behind rocks and one leg in front. 

Clean Your Lenses Regularly

When shooting a stream or river, you’ll inevitably get spray or mist on your lens.

Be sure you’re regularly cleaning the lens to keep your images clear.  As mentioned, you can attach a filter to your lens as you compose your image before you shoot to help mitigate the spray.

Exclude The Sky

While the sky can certainly be a stunning addition to any photo, it often serves as a distracting element when it comes to stream images. This is especially true in overcast weather

Skies tend to be bright and grab the attention away from your focal point. There are times this will almost be the desired effect, but by and large, you’ll want to avoid it in your photos.  

This can be impossible in photographing mountains as a backdrop to the stream, but even in these cases, you should minimize its presence.


I hope this guide has helped in answering some of your questions about water photography.

Just remember that learning photography is just as much about studying as it is about practicing. Trial and error is the best way to help you learn. So grab your wellies and get shooting!


Leave a Reply