Compositional “Flow:” Photographing Moving Water in Streams and Rivers

David Akoubian
Composition in river photography is made easier when you use the flow of the water with exposure.

Water evokes several emotions when we see it or hear it and especially when we view photographs of it. Whether it be the power in a waterfall or raging river or the soft relaxing feeling of a small river or stream. I have been visiting and photographing the Smoky Mountains since I was a teenager back in the 70s, and have returned many, many times over the years to relax and enjoy all they have to offer. By far my favorite thing to do is to photograph, or even just sit by, one of the streams or rivers. I love how they meander between rocks and over ledges. In my mind’s eye they not only physically flow, but artistically flow as well. I just sit and relax at seeing the water.

Many folks will debate whether you should slow water down or capture it at a higher shutter speed, and you know there is no right answer all of the time, just at that moment for you, is what is right. For me, I almost always slow it down. They say the human eye sees things at about the equivalent shutter speed of 1/60th of a second, so anything slower than that will blur the water. I like to even blur it more, most often to a 1 second or slower. Why? I love how slow water can create the leading lines that can carry the viewer through the frame without straying visually too much.

Well, How Do You Do It?

First I love to go out after a light rain, sometimes even in light rain, or when there is good cloud cover. It reduces the contrast, but it also helps to achieve slower shutter speeds. I will also use a Circular Polarizer and a Neutral Density filter, as well. The CPL, or Circular Polarizer, will remove or reduce glare off of the water and rocks, increase saturation, as well as allow for a longer exposure. Be careful though, often if we have some color on the water from reflected sunlight striking the far banks of the river, we may want to capture that as well. The CPL will also help to reduce the exposure by a couple of stops. When it isn’t enough, I will use an ND, or Neutral Density filter, as well. I have a few filters that are a CPL combined with an ND filter, so I can remove glare, increase saturation, and slow down my exposure by 5 or 6 stops. I use and prefer drop-in or magnetic filters so they can be changed easily and safely. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times that I have seen someone drop a filter in the water as they either were screwing it on or removing it from the lens. The worst-case scenario has happened where you try to catch your filter and knock your camera into the river by mistake. That is the effect I prefer to give the continuous flow of water a leading line effect.

Using a CPL creates a great leading line for the river through the landscape.

 Photo ©David Akoubian

What Else Do You Need?

You definitely need a tripod! Because my exposures are 1 second or slower, a tripod will ensure stability and give me the sharpness I need. I choose a tripod that is sturdy and, fortunately for me, is waterproof. I like tripods that are waterproof because they also tend to stop sand, dirt, and other foreign objects from clogging up the legs. I also prefer using one that gets to ground level, even though I’m not going that low, spreading the legs as far as you can make the tripod sturdier for slow exposures. I also use either the self-timer feature of the camera or use a remote release to trigger the shutter. I use remotes that are Bluetooth enabled, but corded ones or IR remotes are fine. One consideration with IR remotes is you often have to trigger the shutter with your remote in the front of the camera body. This will help to reduce camera shake and increase your sharpness. What else do you need? Well, a sense of adventure often helps to position the leading lines you have created in the perfect locations within your frame. I will often wade into a stream to get the best angle. I prefer a wide-angle lens to get close to an element in the foreground to use as a visual anchor for the viewer. Often I place the front of the lens within inches of my foreground element to grab the viewer’s attention from the start. You do have to be careful of water drops that may hit the front of the lens if there is some splashing from a rock if that is your foreground element. I love photographing the Smoky Mountains in the Spring as often there are flowers along the banks of the river, or on rocks in the river, that can be perfect foreground elements.

Getting close to the water with a wide-angle lens to give the scene depth while the water creates a leading line.

 Photo ©David Akoubian

However you like to photograph water, fast to capture power, or slow to create mood, using the water’s flow to create leading lines in your composition is always a winner.

David Akoubian

David Akoubian is one of Out of Chicago’s diverse team of world-class photographers. To learn more about David and our photography conferences he’s teaching at, click here.

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