The Best Shutter Speed for Moving Water

The Best Shutter Speed for Moving Water

I often get asked, “what is the best shutter speed for moving water”?  The answer to that question is simple yet complex.  The best shutter speed for moving water is the one that makes the water look the way YOU want it to.  The hard part is deciding how you want it to look.  Do you want it frozen?  Flowing like cotton candy? Or do want it to look like fog rising from the depths?   To provide some visual examples, I’ll pull some images from our recent workshop in Olympic National Park.  This park is an amazing place to play with shutter speeds as we visit the incomparable coastline of the Olympic Peninsula as well as lakes, streams, and waterfalls.

Sharp, blurry motion or complete loss of structure

The interesting thing about water is that it can take on so many different looks.  My least favorite is the look of frozen water.  To me, this rarely shows the power or elegance of the wave, stream or waterfall.  Then there is a bit of the blur.  Getting that streaky motion is always exciting and can really bring out the feel of motion.  Lastly, using super long exposures you can take the constant motion of the ocean waves and turn them into the most placid of lakes.  Here are some starting points capturing these different looks:

  1. Sharp- 1/500 up to 1/8000
  2. Blurry streaky motion- 1/15 down to 1/2
  3. Flat, no structure, calm- 2 seconds to several minutes

Crashing Waves

For this example, we’ll take a quick trip over to the Island of Hawaii.  In the first image, you can see the frozen water. The wave is very sharp.  To capture the frozen droplets I used a shutter speed of 1/800 of a second.  While interesting, this frame doesn’t seem to have the power of the second frame which was shot at 1/6 of a second.  The slightly slower shutter speed allows the wave to streak across the scene providing a more dynamic feel.
1/800 of asecond
1/6 of asecond

I find that Shutter speeds between 1/6 and 1/15 usually give me this nice feeling of motion in crashing ocean waves.

Slower Waves-Cotton Candy look

Back to the mainland and up to Olympic National Park.  For slower waves, you can use a variety of shutter speeds.  To get that long streaky action you may want to start with 2-4 seconds.

3 second shutter speed to blur water
3-SecondExposure
3 second shutter speed to blur water
3-SecondExposure
3 second shutter speed to blur water
3-SecondExposure

 

Notice that each image looks a little different?  That’s due to the timing of the waves.  WHEN you snap your shutter is as important as which shutter speed you’re using.  Begin by shooting several different frames at various shutter speeds.  When you find a shutter speed you like, try several more frames at that speed.  Next, try plunging the shutter at different moments of wave configuration.  Experimentation is key here!

Below is an image that I made using a 1-second exposure.  Notice it still has the streaks?  The closer you are to the water, the faster it will move by your camera.  In the image below I was using a wide angle lens and was very close to the foreground water.  In the images above I was much further away from the waves so a slightly longer shutter was needed to gain the same effect.

1-SecondExposure

Another take on the ocean is using very, very long shutter speeds to completely smooth out the waves.  Depending on the light, you’ll often need a heavy duty Neutral Density Filter.  Something in the range of 8-10 stops.  I always carry a 2-8 stop Variable Neutral Density filter, and a 10-Stop Neutral Density Filter.  In the following images, I used a 40-second shutter speed to flatten out the ocean. The super long shutter speeds tend to create a very peaceful feeling rather than one of power or dynamics.

40 Second Shutter speed to smooth water
40 SecondExposure

 

40 Second Shutter speed to smooth water
40 SecondExposure

When it comes to streams and waterfalls we start to use a different set of shutter speeds.  I find that falls and streams can look good between 1 second and 1/8 of a second.  Of course, every situation is different and the result depends on the focal length lens you are using as well as how fast the water is flowing. In the following example, I chose a shutter speed of 1/8 of a second to keep a little structure in the heavy water flow over Sol Duc Falls.

1/8 of a second exposure
1/8 of a secondexposure

Here’s a close up of the same falls on a different day.  Notice the subtle difference between the exposures?  This is why it’s important to experiment with several different speeds over a range.  Finding that exact speed for a particular scene will really elevate the image.  For me, this scene looks best at either 1/4 or 1/2 of a second.  Notice how the water starts to lose definition at 1 second.  In other cases where the water may not be flowing as hard, perhaps 1 second would be the perfect exposure.

1/8 of a second exposure
1/8 of a secondexposure
1/4 of a second exposure
1/4 of a secondexposure
1/2 second exposure
1/2 secondexposure
1 second exposure
1-secondexposure
2-second exposure
2-secondexposure

In another area of the park, we shoot the more delicate Marymere Falls.  Here a slightly longer exposure of 1/2 second compliments the falling water.

1/2 second exposure
1/2 secondexposure

 

So the which is the best shutter speed for moving water?  Whatever pleases you.  Just remember to do a lot of experimenting with different shutter speeds AND change up your timing when shooting waves.  Once again, here are those starting points:

  1. Sharp- 1/500 up to 1/8000
  2. Blurry streaky motion- 1/15 down to 1/2
  3. Flat, no structure, calm- 2 seconds to several minutes

I hope you found these tips helpful!  If you are interested in joining me in this amazing place, and trying out a few of these techniques,  there are still a few spaces left on The Olympic National Park Workshop, August 11-16, 2019.

Tim

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