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photo by skynesher via iStock
Whether your goal is to capture the sheer power of a roaring river or you simply want to capture the serenity of a babbling brook, there are plenty of possibilities for creating gorgeous photos that highlight rivers and streams.
Aside from the vast differences between small streams and raging rivers, you can approach how you capture their movement in different ways as well.
That includes using a faster shutter speed to freeze their movement, using a polarizing filter to reduce glare and improve the view into the water, and using a neutral density filter to get a gorgeous, milky blur of the water’s movements.
In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to photograph rivers using these techniques.
How to Photograph Rivers: Use a “Fast” Shutter Speed
photo by en-belitsky via iStock
In many situations, using a slow shutter speed and either a polarizing filter or a neutral density filter is the way to go (more on that below). But occasionally, you might want to freeze the movement of water in your images.
You can do that by using a “fast” shutter speed - say, less than one second.
While this isn’t a fast shutter speed by any means, it’s certainly faster than the seconds-long exposure you need to blur the movement of water.
The result of this approach, as you can see above, beautifully captures the whitewater rapids of the river.
Since the river is so far away, this is a more effective approach than blurring the movement of the water with a long exposure.
photo by Hakase_ via iStock
Likewise, I often like to incorporate people into my landscape shots, and rivers are a perfect candidate.
As shown above, a fast shutter speed (in this case 1/250th seconds) froze the movement of the river, the movement of the little girl, and the movement of the water splashes she’s creating.
Quick Tip: When photographing rivers, try various vantage points to get the most creative composition. As seen in the images above, taking river photos from a very high point of view and a very low point of view creates completely different-looking images.
How to Photograph Rivers: Use a Polarizing Filter
One of the most important items you need for photographing rivers is a good polarizing filter.
A polarizer has many different effects on your landscape images. For starters, they improve the vibrancy of the colors in the landscape, like plants near the edge of the river and moss on rocks.
Secondly, polarizing filters help minimize glare off of water. That means that your images will have less blinding glare from the sun and more crystal clear waters. That, in turn, means that you can highlight features under the water’s surface, like the shape of rocks and boulders or even plantlike and fish under the surface.
Third, polarizers boost the contrast in the sky, making the blue color of the atmosphere deeper and richer while boosting the white of the clouds.
Not only that, but polarizing filters also cut down atmospheric haze, so if there are distant elements in the background (like the mountains in the image above), they’ll appear crisper and more detailed if you use a polarizer.
photo by Klod via iStock
Another benefit of a polarizer is that they slightly reduce the amount of light that enters the lens. Though they only extend your shutter speed by a couple of stops, it’s still enough to get blurry movement of the water.
If you don’t have a neutral density filter to really help slow down your shutter speed, a polarizer can be used as a solid substitute for getting a little bit of blur to enhance your photos.
Quick Tip: A polarizing filter works best when the sun is at a 45-degree angle from your shooting position. If you can’t position yourself at a 45-degree angle, strive to get as close to that as possible.
Ready to photograph brooks, streams, rivers, and other bodies of water? You need a polarizing filter first. Outfit your lens with a polarizer.
How to Photograph Rivers: Extend the Shutter Speed With a Neutral Density Filter
photo by kellyvandellen via iStock
To turn the movement of a river into beautiful, milky blur, you’ll need to extend the shutter speed to at least a couple of seconds.
The problem, of course, is that if you extend the shutter speed to that length of time, you’ll end up with a wildly overexposed image. That’s where a neutral density filter comes in.
Of the three, I use the 3-stop and 6-stop filters most often for photographing rivers because allow me to slow the shutter to the perfect amount to get maximum blurry goodness.
The whole point of using a neutral density filter is to block light from entering the lens so you can extend your shutter speed while also producing hyper-neutral results. A poor ND filter will have a color cast that ruins your images, but high-quality filters like the ones I have from Haida won’t. You’ll get spot-on colors with beautiful blur!
photo by CasarsaGuruvia iStock
There are a lot of tricks to working with neutral density filters, most of which are an article all their own.
Quick Tip: ND filters can be pricey, but the higher the quality of the filter, the better results you will get. Just like with lenses, you want the best quality you can afford.
How to Photograph Rivers: Avoid the Sky
photo by DieterMeyrl via iStock
Though it might seem counterintuitive to avoid including the sky in your photos of rivers, it can actually work to your benefit.
That’s because by honing in on the river and surrounding landscape itself, you can create a much more intimate landscape photo. With that kind of close-up view of the water and landscape, you can create a much more detail-rich photo.
photo by Fotos von Reisen, schwarz weiß und diverse via iStock
Besides, if you’re trying to highlight the river as the primary subject, you don’t need the sky. If you’re shooting during the middle of the day, the chances are good that the sky will be extremely bright with little detail (unless you bracket your exposures). Likewise, if you shoot at sunrise or sunset, the colors of the sky might overpower the rest of the scene.
So, give a skyless river photo a try and see how they turn out. You might find that it’s the best kind of river photo!