Capturing the Essence of Water

From rivers to streams, streams to the seas, waves and rapids. Capturing the power, and softness of water is a real challenge. One must ask themselves when approaching the churning surf, or the windy stream beneath a thunderous fall,  “how do I capture the feeling, the essence of the water before me?”.

Every Scene has a story to tell. When those scenes contain a liquid element its an opportunity to elevate that story, to capture motion, and atmosphere. To capture drama.

How we capture it is the tricky part…I believe to best capture it, you must be IN it. You must feel the waves lapping at your feet, or the constant flow of a frigid spring stream rushing around your legs. The waterfalls mist falling on your cold cheeks or the salty drops of sea spray as the waves crash against the rocks. Connecting, giving your thoughts to the water, and letting it tell you its secrets.

To me water is one of the most inrtinsic things on earth. Water welcomes you, embraces you and heals you. Its random, yet steady nature is so soothing, and can almost hypnotise you. Studying its flows and patterns, searching for lines that havent appeared in the sand yet.

To capture the essence of water we need to capture its motion, yet also its power, its texture and feeling. 


You want the viewer to feel what you felt, and smell what you smelled, heard what you heard. I believe that you can create images so immersive that all of your viewers senses will be engaged. Part of accomplishing this is finding a composition that directly immerses your viewer by positioning your camera in a way that is quite frankly “in the s@#t”. In order for your viewer to feel what you want them to, you must give them a perspective that connects their mind to that feeling. If its drops of chilled water hitting your cheek then so too must your camera! 

This of course means putting your camera in sometimes precarious situations. If youre like me, then this means your camera is almost in the water and most certainly getting wet. But oh the immersion! 

Looking for bubbles churning from a plummetting fall or wave, previsualize it receiding or blurred over the course of a half or full second, or maybe even longer. Youll begin to notice these lines that form, creating that driving visual you need to push or pull your viewer in. Use these lines to give your viewer a path into your world. 

Then, once you have poised yourself over the perfect flow, you must then find the perfect shutter speed..


In the image below I noticed this arrangement of volcanic rock, and suddenly dreamt it was the fossilized remains of a sleeping dragon. Its soul still burning deep inside, hence the title “Dragonheart”. Once I made this connection the story flowed, my imagination running free. This can be a really useful concept when youre looking for composition in any scene. Trying to create a story from what you see, like imagining shapes in clouds like we did as kids! 

If you look at the marked up version below you will see what the thoughts were while deciding on the composition. Placing a large rock in the lower right with breathing room all the way around. This is the anchor, but only part of it. The water that entered this cove on the left needed to fill in, otheriwse it would’ve left a void. High tide had passed and was outgoing, so it required several shots to get the wave build up needed to balance the rock on the right to be blended later.

This image uses three very classic compostional methods, the X, and C shapes and the framing method. The large rock in the left midground (the dragons head) and the seastack in the background (part of the subject/dragons back) along with the rocks in the fore and mid-ground, formed a vague X-shape. As well, the entire foreground frames the Light, the most interesting clouds and Seastacks which together forms the subject, and forms a C, or spiral as the scene advances. The dark, ominous clouds above driving you back down into the scene, back toward the light (the “heart”) and the rest of the subject and capping off the frame (think vignetting). The rocks in the midground acting as stepping stones. 

“Dragonheart” (2020)

Shutter Speed

Understanding the speed and flow of the stream, the perfect timing of the receiding wave or the raging waterfall is critical in finding a shutter speed that best captures the right mix of blurry motion, and the droplets of spray, or its wirehair texture that is going to convey that essence so well. 

A great shutter speed to start with for almost any scene is 1/3rd-1/2  of a second. If the flow is lighter then elongate it, if it is faster and heavier speed it up, and sometimes even blend multiple frames together to “build up” flow where its otherwise lacking. Capturing many frames at varying shutter speeds can be very beneficial to the overall impact of the image. 


Left: a 1/2 second exposure                                                       Right: a 1.6 second exposure

0.5 Seconds 1.6 Seconds

Post Processing

Now that half of the process is completed and youve captured the perfect composition wth exactly the right shutter speed, its time to bring it all together! 

There are a few things you should consider here, like “what is the overall feeling you want to convey”?, is it drama, or serenity? emphasizing the contrast, and highlights in the water is a great start regardless of the answer to that question. But if youd like to punch up the drama, perhaps enhancing the texture and motion is the ticket! Enhancing the texture will also add depth to the image, making it feel like you can reach out and touch it, and pumping up the highights in the water will strengthen the visual flow. (Visual flow is a concept in and of itself and I have a great tutorial covering many aspects and techniques of this concept, check it out HERE.) If you’d like to enhance the mood and serenity of the image perhaps enhancing its softness will help. In any case, doing these things should be done with care and precision, like anything else, building up the effects.  

One easy way of achieving these ideas is in Lightroom, or Adobe Camera Raw (ACR)! You can use the very handy gradient and brush tools to kill two birds with one stone. The integrated Range masking ability makes targeting these highlights very easy! Watch this short video below! 

You can comtinue this idea with LR plug ins from NIK or others or with basic knowledge of photoshop, and use of Plug-ins like NIK “Detail Extractor”, “Tonal Contrast”, or NIK Viveza’s “Structure” tool and masking to further enhance texture and contrast. Keep in mid there are many more techniques to accomplish the same sort of idea.

Lightroom & ACR Tools


If you have taken many photos of the scene to capture wave motion at different speeds or even the same, youll want to take the time to sync any settings youve made to the base, or original image so that there is uniformity and even tones accross them all. Then, with a basic understanding of photoshop you can stack them all in layers, and using the blend mode “Lighten” blend the different wave motion in one layer at a time to your liking like in the video below. 



More Examples of Water Enhancement

Before After
Before After

Do you want to take your photography and post production knowledge to new heights?


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My Name is Joshua Snow, I am a Fine Art landscape and Night Photographer born in the Appalachian Mountains but raised in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate NY. In 2012 I had reached... Read more

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