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How to get silky water effect for landscape photography - The Photography Express

How to get silky water effect for landscape photography

How to get silky water effect for landscape photography

In this post, I’m going to share with you how to get silky water effect for landscape photography. This technique is relatively simple because your ultimate goal is to use a slow shutter speed. However, there are many other elements you should take into consideration and one of those is the uncertainty of lighting condition. This may require you to make varies settings on your camera so merely using a slow shutter speed will not let you achieve the shot that you want. With that said, let me talk about what gears you need, how to get the right composition, and how to set up the camera for your next perfect silky water effect photo!

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What gears do you need?

Tripod – You need to use a tripod if you want to capture moving water and to make it look silky smooth. The fact is it is impossible to hand hold your camera for a few seconds without camera shake. You may wonder what about placing your camera on objects so you can eliminate the need in bringing a tripod? I’ve tried that before but I regretted it because it limited my moment and camera angle of the picture. Also, I was afraid my camera would fall off to the ground when I place it on a bench or rock. So I highly recommend you do the extra task and bring the tripod with you. The tripod that I’m currently using is this one.

Wireless remote trigger – Personally I use a radio trigger instead of a cable release because you don’t have worry about wires hanging next to your camera. I’m currently using this wireless remote flash trigger.The best thing about this trigger is that it can trigger your external flash as well. The reason why it is important is you don’t want to physically touch your camera to press the shutter release button. This eliminate the chance of camera vibration while you are taking the photo.

Lenses – The great thing about silky water effect is that  you don’t need fast expensive lenses to do it. Since you’ll be using shutter speed of above 1 second basically any kind of lenses will do the job. However, I do recommend you bringing in a wide angle and a telephoto lens. I’ll tell you why later in this post.

Composition set up

Get down low – The biggest tip of taking silky water effect for streams and waterfalls is to get down low to the ground. You need to create a sense of suspense and get the feeling of water movement in the image. If that means you need to get into the middle of the stream and get wet then do what it takes to get the shot. Below are a few good examples.

Photo Credit: SFB579

Photo Credit: SFB579 🙂

Photo Credit: paul bica

Photo Credit: paul bica

Foreground, midground, background – Another composition tip is to have all elements of foreground, midground and background all in the picture. Say if you only have the waterfall in the middle of the picture with silky smooth water but nothing else, the picture looks dull. Now imagine if you get down low on the ground, have a leaf as the subject at the front 1/3 of your image, some rocks in the middle 1/3, then the waterfall with silky water at the last 1/3 of the image. Then that’ll be a professional shot.

Camera set up

Below are the steps to take after you have set up your camera on a tripod and have your wireless trigger ready. To avoid too much light (since we need slow shutter speed which means more light will enter through the camera lens), shoot before sunrise or just after sunset for the best result. Remember your ultimate goal is to get slow shutter speed.

In ideal light situation:

1)   Switch to shutter priority mode (S for Nikon, TV for Canon)

2)   Set the shutter speed around 1-2 seconds

3)   Take the shot, that it!

In situation where there is more light:

1)   Switch to shutter priority mode (S for Nikon, TV for Canon)

2)   Set the shutter speed to 2 seconds

3)   Press the shutter half way and remember the camera’s reading for the aperture and ISO (for example it said f16, ISO 200)

4)   Switch to Manual mode

5)   Now set the same setting as you remembered from shutter priority mode.

6)   Narrow the aperture gradually from f16 to f22 to test for the best exposure.

7)   Take the shot, if it’s still to bright lower the ISO even more to the “Low” settings (which really means ISO 50).

In situation where there is TOO MUCH light:

1)   Switch to Manual mode

2)   Set the aperture to at least f16, gradually move to f22 and test the exposure.

3)   Set ISO to “Low” settings and shutter speed no more than 2 seconds

4)   Use a ND or polarizing filer (mention below)

5)   If using a zoom lens, zoom in to take the shot

Additional set up

If you tried all 3 above steps and you picture is still overexposed. Try the following:

1) Add a neutral density filter – A neutral density filter (or ND filter) is used for reducing light going into your camera lens. Depending on the type and number on the ND filter, you get to lose a certain stops of light. For example, using a ND 4 filter will let you lose 2 stops of light and ND 8 filter will let you lose 3 stops of light.

2) Use a polarizing filter – If a ND filter is not an option, try using a polarize filter. What this filter does is it cut reflections on water and windows for your photograph. It also darken the skies but the most importantly it let your camera lose a couple stops of light so you can use a longer shutter speed in daytime.

3) Add a Teleconverter – Adding a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter will magnify the distance but will also let you lose 1-2 stops of light. In many cases this is bad because it causes a ‘ghosting’ effect on your picture however this is the exact recipe for getting silky water effect for landscape photography. Also, remember I told you to bring a telephoto lens at the beginning? You can zoom in to lose some stop of light.

What are your ways of taking silky water effect for landscape photography? Share them below!

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About Gary

A passionate photographer with goals to fulfill your photography passion and motivate you to take pictures even when life is busy!


  1. Great post! I learned so much!

  2. Cool tips for those starting out!! =)