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The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Water Photography: Gear, Settings, and More

The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Water Photography: Gear, Settings, and More

Few subjects come close to the level of dynamism and unpredictability quite like water. Unsurprisingly, water photography remains one of the most challenging subjects to photograph for beginners.

Water is a famously finicky element, just as soon becoming a block of ice as a cloud of vapor. That doesn’t even touch on how messy it can get with areas like splash photography! Entire subniches of photography are dedicated to capturing its complexity, but all of them have commonalities in terms of technique. If you’re wondering how to get started with camera settings or essential gear, you’re in good hands.

Water is a tricky subject to photograph due to its transparency, reflectivity, and shifting hues. This beginner’s guide will help you avoid common pitfalls, gather the right equipment, and learn your way around useful techniques.

Source Image: Pixabay

Table Of Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. What is Water Photography and What Makes it a Distinctive Niche?
  3. The Different Types of Water Photography and Their Challenges
  4. Necessary Equipment for Water Photography 
  5. How to Capture Different Types of Water 
  6. Conclusion: A Dynamic Attitude is Essential for Capturing Water’s Unpredictability

a splash of water flaring out into little droplets against a blue background

Source Image: Pixabay

What is Water Photography and What Makes it a Distinctive Niche? 

Water photography is almost as hard to classify as it is to take photos of. At its most simple, it’s photography of water – but this definition is still a little gray. 

Let’s start from the top. Water regularly shows up in photography subniches such as beverage photography, oceanic photography, and environment photography. In fact, this niche can be further sliced down into different facets of water, such as water reflection photography. 

Drawing the line between water photography and similar subniches usually depends on the focus of the photo. Strict water photography tends to center on the water itself with little to no surrounding elements. That said, you can make a reasonable argument that water photography can be any photo with water as a significant focal point – such as a lake or a winding creek.

Overall, this niche stands out for its ability to capture the sensations of water of being brisk, cold, and refreshing. With a little practice, you’ll be able to invoke these visceral responses in the viewer – making someone feel thirsty, crave the cold splash of a swimming pool, or miss the ocean breeze. 

a wide river surrounded by rocks and lush trees against a cloudy sky

Source Image: Pixabay

The Different Types of Water Photography and Their Challenges 

Water photography takes on several forms – literally! Each type has its own visual appeal, as well as technical challenges for the photographer.

a close up shot of rolling and foaming bright blue ocean waves

Source Image: Pixabay

Ocean Photography

When it comes to iconic photography, the ocean definitely takes the cake for popular subject matter. It’s not only frequently at the heart of many recreational activities, it regularly makes its way into countless photography fields such as travel or conservation. 

Ocean photography is a broad term that’s easier to narrow down depending on where you are – if you’re above water level, you’re doing beach photography or surf photography. If you’re below level, you’re doing underwater photography. The ocean can be both an easy and challenging subject depending on which form you’re taking photos of. Long, smooth stretches of the horizon are a solid starting point for beginners due to the water being more still. 

Where the ocean tends to get tricky are its foaming, rolling waves. These are lovely to witness, but can be difficult to capture due to the sun’s glare or the foam’s bleached out colors. 

a glassy and slow moving river surrounded by green, red, and orange autumn trees

Source Image: Pixabay

River Photography

If you’re not close to the ocean, the river also provides a beautiful source of inspiration. This body of water’s iconic twists and turns has made its way into many works of art – just look at all the loving snapshots of La Seine in France.

Depending on the river’s size and movement, it can either be a technical challenge or a rather simple affair. Thinner, slower creeks often provide strong contrast due to being more shallow, but can also be rather reflective. Faster rivers with more splashing, moving parts are often where photographers meet their technical limits.

Learning how to capture moving water in photography means learning your way around exposure. Faster moving rivers have spray and splash that’ll require photographers to use different shutter speeds – usually slower – to capture water accurately.

a tall white waterfall splashing onto gray rocks surrounded by mossy green hills

Source Image: Pixabay

Waterfall Photography

When you want to practice water photography with one of its most distinctive shapes, waterfalls are the way to go. These long, elegant creations are great for snagging people’s attention. 

Waterfalls gain much of their appeal not just through the water itself, but the valley or crags that surround them. They also tend to lead into rivers, making them a rather multifaceted subject. 

Depending on how you shoot a waterfall, you can significantly change the texture and lighting of the water. You can capture its glitter or make it appear almost like flowing silk. 

close up shot of a yellow flower covered in droplets of water

Source Image: Pixabay

Water Droplet Photography

Anyone who’s taken a photography class in high school will tell you water droplet photography is practically a rite of passage. Water droplets are a popular beginner’s subject for literally distilling the complexity of water into a smaller form.

This subniche of water photography is rather charming in how it focuses on the little details. It’s a good choice of subject matter if you want water to be more of a supporting element. 

Splash Photography

A splash of water can be one of the most invigorating sights for a viewer, whether it’s a person diving into the ocean or an ice cube falling into a glass of tea. Unsurprisingly, there’s significant overlap between splash photography and subniches like beverage photography

This subniche focuses on capturing the movement and shape of moving water, snatching glittery reflections the human eye is too slow to catch. This deceptively simple subject can still be challenging for having a lot of clean-up. After all, you can’t get a splashy shot unless you make a mess first!

Underwater Photography

While splash and water droplet photography are more accessible, underwater photography has a higher entry point. It’s not exactly the subniche you dive into when you’re a beginner (no pun intended).

Taking photos or video underwater is one of the most challenging due to needing extra equipment, such as an underwater camera and a dive suit. You usually need to know how to swim, too, unless you plan on using a camera crane from the safety of a boat. 

However, if you’re a fan of the water and have a higher budget, this subniche could still be incredibly rewarding for a new photographer. The ability to take photos of vibrant coral reefs or rare fish is an unparalleled experience.

example of underwater photography showcasing a diver holding a camera in deep blue water

Source Image: Pixabay

Necessary Equipment for Water Photography 

Certain photography gear is better suited for the challenges of water photography than others. Some of these tools are standard, while a few are specific to subniches like underwater photography.

Let’s take a look at what you’ll need if you want to start experimenting with water photography. 

A Neutral Density Filter (or ND Filter) to Reduce Annoying Glare

The neutral density filter is the Swiss Army knife for photographers. Its ability to reduce annoying glare, slow down shutter speed, and saturate colors makes it well suited to multiple types of water photography.

Are you trying to take snapshots of ocean waves, but constantly get annoying glare from the sunset? Just slip on an ND filter. If you want to capture the particularly rich and sumptuous shadows in a moving river, this filter will also enhance the vibrancy of your shot. 

There are several variations on the ND filter to help you fine tune the final result. If you lean toward more subtle enhancements, stick with the solid graduated filter. For more abrupt and stylistic gradations in color, try a hard graduated ND filter. 

This filter also slows down your camera’s shutter speed, perfect for reducing blur so you can capture foaming, splashing detail. 

Camera Housing or Waterproof Cases for Underwater Photography

If you’re thinking of going the underwater photography route, you’ll need to get familiar with camera housing. This term refers to the physical shell that encases your camera to protect it from water. 

The price point for both these tools varies quite a bit. Waterproof cases are simple and affordable, basically a sleeve to hold your camera and let you take shots manually. These are best for shallow diving sessions instead of more involved, deep dive photoshoots. Expect to pay between $40 to $80 for a DSLR compatible case.

Camera housing is more expensive due to having more bells and whistles. To use this device, you have to use a compatible vacuum pump to remove air from the camera. Since water pressure gets higher the deeper you dive, you don’t want to risk your equipment breaking. Expect to pay a few hundred dollars for high-quality camera housing and a vacuum system.

Waterproof Gear Like Muck Boots and Camera Covers

When you want to take shots on or around the water, you and your camera will need to dress the part. Muck boots and camera covers are common additions not just for water photography, but anyone who likes to snap shots outside.

Muck boots will do wonders to keep your shoes and socks from getting soaked near rivers, oceans, puddles, or wet terrain. 

Camera covers should be part of any photographer’s kit. They’re incredibly affordable – rarely more than $20 or $30 – and protect water or snow from damaging your camera. If you’re not careful about preventing moisture, mold can grow in the creases or even on your lens.

A Tripod for Stabilizing Shots

Shaking hands is a pretty frustrating phenomenon for beginning photographers. Water isn’t the most forgiving of elements, so consider getting a tripod to stabilize your shots.

Tripods can be heavy duty or lightweight depending on how you like to do things. If you’re active and like to travel a lot, look for a travel tripod or a cell phone tripod. Some even come with a carry bag for easy set-up and transportation. 

Remote Shutters for Extra Control

Another feature you can use to stabilize your shots are remote shutters. Instead of manually clicking the button and risking a blurry shot, you use a remote to trigger your DSLR or smartphone.

Remote shutters can come with either a cable or a wireless setting – the former is better for travel when your Internet is unreliable, while the latter is better in city environments or a studio. 

Your smartphone model will have some variation on the remote shutter, which you can customize by timing. If you use a DSLR, you can buy a separate wireless remote or connect your camera wirelessly to a tablet or phone.

extreme close up of water droplets on a reddish purple leaf with visible veins

Source Image: Pixabay

How to Capture Different Types of Water 

Each type of water photography has its own challenges. This list will cover the most significant hurdles for beginners to help you get started. 

Fast Shutter Speed to Capture Splashing Water

The amount of light entering your camera will drastically change the end result. When you want your splashing water to look vibrant and crisp, you’ll want a slower shutter speed to brighten things up.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, however. Since water is so dynamic, you want to get comfortable tweaking your shutter speed or aperture to adapt. 

To start off, your shutter speed should be roughly double your focal length to reduce the risk of blurring – for example, a 50mm lens with a shutter speed of around 1/100th of a second. 

Consider a focal length of 1/250 for larger splashes and a 1/1000 to catch the smallest droplets. An f-stop of around f/14 will also provide the right amount of light to ensure more detail is captured.

A Long Exposure for Moving Rivers and Waterfalls

Sometimes you don’t want crisp, glittering detail. Perhaps you want to give a moving body of water the illusion of being made out of silk or glass – enter the power of long exposure photography.

Long exposure is easy to remember because it basically stretches everything out. A blinking light moving down the highway can transform into a shooting star. A splashing, frothing river can turn into a crest of silky foam. 

When using a DSLR camera, the best way to create long exposure is to switch to your manual mode. This gives you the ability to tweak your aperture to the right amount – consider starting between f/8 to f/11, though a lower f-stop of f/2.4 is better for more dimly lit settings. 

Neutral Density Filter and Wide Angle Lens for Capturing the Ocean

When you want to capture breathtaking shots of the ocean, you’ll need to distill both its size and its color. The neutral density filter and wide angle lens work well together here.

Ocean photography often emphasizes the sheer size of the sea. A wide angle lens allows you to capture as much of the environment as possible (though you can always switch to a narrow lens for close-up shots). 

The neutral density filter will reduce the occurrence of annoying glare, especially during the evening when the sun is particularly intense. 

Narrow Focal Length and Macro Lens for Water Droplets

Water droplets are a little too small for certain focal lengths to capture. You’ll need to narrow things down with both a narrow focal length and a macro lens.

Not only will a macro lens allow you to zoom in extra close on droplets of water, you’ll be able to capture tiny subjects such as flowers and insects. 

turquoise ocean waves with bright white foam

Source Image: Pixabay

Conclusion: A Dynamic Attitude is Essential for Capturing Water’s Unpredictability

Whenever you pick a subject to explore with your photography, you need the right attitude to match. Water is a dynamic force that’s best captured with a flexible mind.

Choosing the right camera settings depends on the kind of water photography you want to capture. Long exposures tend to work best for waterfalls and fast-moving rivers, while fast shutter speeds are ideal for splash photography. Wide angle lenses are fantastic for ocean photography, while macro lenses are better suited to water droplets. Since water can change on a dime, switching between these settings is vital for finding the best result.

Alongside learning your way around settings, it’s essential to add some waterproof gear to the mix. Muck boots and camera covers are vital for moving around wet and rainy terrain. When you want to dive into the water, look into waterproof cases or camera housing to protect your equipment. 

One minute, water could be splashing and spraying everywhere. The next minute, it’s calm and still. A flexible attitude and eagerness to experiment are some of the best tools in your toolkit for water photography.

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