Creating Mood, Motion and Emotion with Water

July 22nd, 2011 by Jack Graham

Creating Mood, Motion and Emotion with Water | © Jack Graham / Jack Graham Photography

Oregon Coast

While driving down from a workshop at Olympic National Park last week, I was thinking about some of the locations we visited. Though there are hundreds of miles of rainforest in the park, much of the park contains some diverse locations that feature water. There are some of the most picturesque rivers, waterfalls, shorelines and small spring fed streams, within the park, all with different dynamics that make for some great photos ops. So I made some notes to include within this essay.

Water is very important to me and my photography. Whether taking an image of a grand landscape, or a macro image I love including water as either a subject or as an accompaniment to the subject itself. In other words, water is often included in many of my favorite images. An ocean scene as well as dew drops on a leaf, both containing a water feature can convey a special feeling, that is unique different from scenes without water.

Water adds mood, reflects light, and depending on the light can be many different hues. Water is an unpredictable feature and therefore can be used to create photographs that transmit varied feelings.

Unlike mountains, canyons, forests, etc, one must be prudent in observing how water interacts within a scene. We need to take the textures, colors, tones, and form into account when including water in our images. Depending on the time of day, the light and shape of the water can change drastically. Knowing an area and the potential can really help when considering an image including water.

Like other aspects of nature photography, we must take the overall visual design into effect when photographing all types of water. Is one area detracting from others? Is the light working for you or against you? Do you need to relocate your position?

Mono Lake, California

Water movement will change the mood of the image as well. Calm water, in great light before sunrise transmits a totally different feeling than moving water in similar locations. Time your trips, pay attention to the weather and do some scouting and return if necessary at the right time if needed. Experiment with different lenses. I love wide-angle lenses on mirrors lakes with great skies.

Often we choose not to shoot when a breeze creates ripples on the water. I would suggest that you experiment with different shutter speeds. You can create impressionistic effects on the water by varying your shutter speed. Today we have access to variable ND filters like those from Singh-Ray and Genus that can stop down to 8 stops.

Still Creek, Oregon

Select a telephoto lens to move in and capture specific areas like reflections, rocks, plants or even a reflection of the land or even a building. Different times of the year yield more color and different effects as well. I love photographing the reflection of the fall color in water. The lower the camera is to the ground, the more color you’ll pick up. Include some leaves on rocks to add more interest to your photograph.

If you read many of the books written on general photography, we are told to use a polarizer when photography water to take the glare off the ware. Be careful, sometimes you shouldn’t use one. I rarely use a polarizer when photographing water at sunrise. The polarizer will remove a lot of the reflected light, color and subject matter from the water. I also like to photograph small intimate areas of streams with colored rocks, moss-covered rocks that are under the water. I never use a polarizer when doing this. (TIP: when trying this look for smooth water, not white-water, and look for dips created by rocks to evoke the motion in the water).


no polarizer, 200mm lens–look for the dips & colored rocks below the water

When photographing waterfalls, take into account your shutter speeds. I suggest reading my article on waterfall photography.

Varying your shutter speed also creates different and at times surreal looks on moving water. Choose whether you want to freeze the water, or let it go to that silky effect to create the mood you want in your image. Use shutter speeds longer than ¼ second to create the silky effect. Conversely, I love to photographing crashing waves at high shutter speeds to capture the spray, frozen in the image that tells the viewer where I was and the dramatic sense of power in the wave itself. However, the ocean can convey a wonderful feeling using low shutter speeds, especially at low tide. The bottom line is to experiment!

Using a tide pool as the foreground

I really love photographing at the ocean taking all the previously mentioned things into consideration. I especially love the tide pools found here on the Pacific Coast. Use these as foregrounds if at all possible. Watch the tide, it can come in quick. Recently I just made it back on shore and only had to wade knee-deep as the tide came in quicker than I thought.  Always be aware of your surroundings and never turn your back on the ocean!

Experiment with different ISOs. This will adjust your shutter speeds, while leaving your aperture of choice in place. (And of course remember your tripod and quality head). If you have leaves moving in a pool of water try a 5-10 second, or longer exposure and capture them moving for some interesting abstract images.

Be aware of the light. Blue skies can cast a blue effect on water on clear days. While post processing carefully adjust the temperature to compensate for this effect if you wish. Use weather conditions along with water to create moody effects in your images. For instance, fog can create a special dreamy effect. Fog often appears on water when the temperature of the air falls below that of the water. Prior to sunrise the fog can have a bluish cast oto it, but after sunrise, the same fog can become a warm gold, offering a wonderful addition to any image.. Scouting out areas to photograph when the light is too harsh to shoot, then going back in great light, as well as being prepared with weather information is mandatory to capture striking images. I use the Photographers Ephemeris to predict the sunrise time and direction in the location I am photographing in.

Consider where you have water in your location and how you can use it to create some special photographs. Go back to the same location at different times and use the water along with the subject matter to make some interesting images. Water adds never-ending possibilities to photography.

Sunset, Cannon Beach, Oregon


Read more about Jack on his website here, and learn about his workshops here.



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