3 minute read

How Moving Water Creates Compelling Landscapes

If you’re looking for a way to give your landscape photography something extra, moving water can be a great way to do it. Read on to find out how

There’s something about water. Whether it’s the awesome power it has to shape the Earth, the life-giving properties it possesses, or even its ability to devastate, it creates a certain subconscious excitement that makes you sit up and take notice.

So, it’s no wonder that when you add flowing or moving water to a landscape photograph, it has a similar effect.

FUJIFILM Exposure Center - How moving water can improve your landscape photography. Image of still mountain lake reflecting snow capped peaks

Photo © Karen Hutton

Creating Atmosphere

However you choose to frame moving water, the result offers a unique view that is impossible to experience with the naked eye. This immediately adds interest to your photograph, hooking the viewer in.

With that said, the way it is illustrated will convey different feelings and atmospheres. So the first thing you need to think about is what you are trying to achieve with your image, as this will affect the camera settings you use.

In a nutshell, a fast shutter speed – such as 1/2000 sec – will stop the water in its tracks and present every single drop, splash, and ripple in fine detail, whereas longer shutter speeds of around one or two seconds will reduce these details until the water becomes a smooth blur.

Learn photography with Fujifilm, Shutter Speeds and Motion Blur
Learn photography with Fujifilm, Shutter Speeds and Motion Blur

The image on the left was made using a fast shutter speed of 1/4000 sec, whereas the image on the right was made using a slower shutter speed of 1 sec.

Before you begin, observe your scene and decide how you want your viewer to feel when they look at it. For example, you might be on a rugged, stormy coastline wanting to highlight the volatile conditions and play on the threat that the crashing waves present. In this case, it may be better to use a faster shutter speed to enhance the sharpness of the swells and texture in the droplets of spray.

Conversely, when photographing fast-moving, choppy waters, using a longer shutter speed can turn the water into mist, giving the image an air of mystery, melancholy or even add a certain spookiness.

FUJIFILM Exposure Center - How moving water can improve your landscape photography. Log exposure photograph of rocky outcrop amid choppy seas

Photo © Karen Hutton

And if you’re on the edge of a stunning mountain lake at sunset and want to convey the serenity of the experience, use a longer shutter speed. This will make the surface of the slower-moving water take on a smooth, inviting softness, giving it a dreamy look and feel.

However, arguably the best way to add drama to your landscapes is to use a long shutter speed to convey the movement of flowing water. This works brilliantly with waterfalls or fast-moving streams and rivers. When done right, it can produce astounding results that give your images a fairy-tale quality and can even create an almost hypnotic optical illusion that the water is actually moving in front of your eyes.

FUJIFILM Exposure Center - How moving water can improve your landscape photography. Long exposure of waterfall and an eddy that creates a whirlpool effect

Photo © Justin Black

It’s worth remembering that if you are using a shutter speed of one second or longer it is essential that you use a tripod to keep your camera steady. This helps to ensure that anything moving blurs, whereas everything static, stays static. For really long shutter speeds you may also need to use a neutral density (ND) filter to limit the amount of light that hits the sensor and avoid over-exposure.

If you’d like to learn more about the techniques involved in long exposure photography, check out FUJIFILM Photo School! Sign up today using the form below and receive a year of free weekly photo lessons direct to your inbox!

Enhancing Composition

In addition to creating atmosphere, moving bodies of water can be a great way to enhance the composition of your image. By using them as leading lines – elements of a photograph that help lead the viewer’s eye through the picture – they make fantastic storytelling tools.

Leading lines can take on many different forms, so when photographing rivers, coastlines or waterfalls, it’s important to consider the bigger picture and pay attention to how they add to your overall photograph.

Some examples could be the gentle meander of a river, or the column of water cascading over a cliff edge, or maybe the ripples and swells of a seashore.

FUJIFILM Exposure Center - How moving water can improve your landscape photography. Photograph of woman looking down a valley along a meandering river towards snowy mountain peaks.

Photo © Daniel Malikyar

Take a Considered Approach

No matter how you use moving water, there is no doubt that adding this element to your landscape photography will be not only visually pleasing, but help you tell a more compelling story with your images.

But the most important thing is to begin your creative process with a clear aim. When approaching a scene always ask yourself ‘why?’ and the rest will follow.

FUJIFILM Exposure Center - How moving water can improve your landscape photography. Sunset shot of lighthouse on snowy coastline

Photo © Bryan Minear