The Secrets of Photographing Water
Whether you are shooting a lake or stream, the ocean, or even the occasional downpour, water is a frequent theme in nature photography. Here are a few quick tips to help you make the most of whatever water you may encounter.
Who can resist the mirror-like reflection of a snow covered peak in a mountain lake? But photographing such a scene isn't always as easy as it seems. Never mind that you first have to be there when the wind is calm so the water is undisturbed. That's basically a given, although I still have a photo I took years ago on my first visit to Reflection Lakes in Mt. Rainier National Park one windy afternoon. Suffice it to say there's no indication in that shot of why Reflection Lakes is called "Reflection Lakes."
What I want to talk about here though is the fact that even when the water is smooth the reflection may not be distinct. When you point your camera lens at the surface of the water, part of what you see is reflection, but part is what is under the water. Water may reflect, but it's not really a mirror. You can help enhance the reflection by using a polarizer. Normally people tell you to use a polarizer to eliminate reflections, but as you rotate it you'll find that the reflections are minimized in one orientation and maximized at another. It's the latter that you want. Simply screw the polarizer to the front of your lens and rotate it while looking through the viewfinder. When you get to the maximum reflection point, you'll know it.
Another point worth mentioning is that if there are a few ripples in the water from a light breeze, don't despair. Just keep shooting. As the waves roll through, every shot will be different. With enough shots, you increase your odds of getting one with the reflection looking the way you want it.
Seeing Through Water
As nice as reflections can be, sometimes you want to see through the water instead. As I've already mentioned, a polarizer can both increase reflections and help eliminate them. It all depends on how you rotate it and what the angle to the sun is. This should be your first line of attack when combating a reflection to see what's under the water.
But if you plan to take photos of a tide pool, reflections can a nuisance not easy to deal with it even if you have a polarizer. Think about it for a minute. Most places where tide pools are found have little to no sources of shade. The sun can be unrelenting. Thankfully, tide pool subjects are generally somewhat small. Given this, you can sometimes create your own shade when nature doesn't provide any. Some people use standard diffusers or reflectors made from material stretched over a circular frame but I've found that a standard umbrella works even better. When opened, it can be propped up to form a dome shaped tent over your tide pool subject. No umbrella is completely opaque so I prefer black to colored ones but with digital white balance you could probably make any old umbrella work.
If it's the water itself that interests you, you can create added interest by capturing a representation of the water's flow. A photograph is a static image. If the image ends up looking like the water is frozen, something of what made that water interesting gets lost. With a tripod mounted camera though, you can use a longer shutter speed to blur the water. This is well known, but how do you pick the right shutter speed? Thankfully, digital makes this easier than it once was since you can pick a speed and see what you end up with, then adjust and reshoot accordingly.
If you can afford it, the Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter can be extremely helpful too. By rotating the front element of the filter, you can change the strength of the resulting neutral density between two and eight stops. Without such a filter, changes you make to the shutter speed must be compensated for with inverse change to either the aperture or ISO setting in order to maintain the same exposure. With the Vari-ND you can still use a slower ISO to get the highest quality and set the aperture as needed for the desired depth of field while rotating the filter to achieve the desired exposure compensation.
If think about it, rain is basically just a form of flowing water. As such, everything above pertains equally to photographing a flowing mountain stream as it does to photographing falling rain. The only major difference is that the optimal shutter speed probably differs. Whereas the typical "silky water" shot of a stream may require shutter speeds of 30 seconds or more, falling rain lends itself to speeds more in the range of 1/8 to 1/15 second. This faster speed makes sense in order to retain the integrity of each discreet raindrop. If you blur rain too much, it essentially just disappears, contributing nothing more to the shot than a slight blurring. Shooting at a faster speed though allow the drops to render as short to medium length dashes rather than continuous streaks or blurs.