How to Get the "Creamy" Water Effect in Photos

Most of us enjoy looking at photos of waterfalls and mountain streams with that smooth, glassy appearance you see on calendars and postcards.  If you're looking to move beyond basic vacation snapshots, but have no idea how to create a photo like that, you may find the following tips helpful.

The "creamy" water effect looks especially nice when used in scenes with wet, mossy rocks.  This mountain stream was photographed using ISO 200 at f/20 for 25 seconds.

Here's the secret to making water smooth: Your camera's shutter needs to stay open long enough that water is blurred by its own flow.  How you go about accomplishing that task varies according to the lighting conditions and the kind of camera you're using.  But there are some basic guidelines you can follow that will help you achieve that goal:

  1. You must use a tripod or some other means of keeping your camera perfectly motionless during the exposure.  This is one situation where handheld just isn't going to work.  If you don't have a tripod, you may be able to make do with a small bean bag or even a wadded up sweatshirt to stabilize your camera during the exposure.  
  2. Because you want to eliminate any movement, you also need to avoid jarring your camera when making the exposure.  You can achieve this by using a remote control or your camera's self-timer to eliminate the need to touch the camera when making the shot.
  3. In order to take a longer exposure without overexposing your photo, you must reduce the amount of light entering the lens.  That's why it's ideal to attempt this kind of shot on an overcast day, ideally when rocks in the scene are nice and wet after rain.  If that's not possible, try to at least pick a shady location.  If you have no choice but to shoot in daylight, and your camera lens is threaded, you can use what are known as neutral density (ND) filters to cut down on the amount of light.

As you might guess, the more manual control a camera offers, the easier your task.  But if you don't have a high-end camera, there are still some techniques you can use to increase your exposure time and create a more pleasing image.  In the following sections, I'll provide some tips for different kinds of cameras that you may find helpful.

SLR/ DSLRs

If you have a late model film SLR or a DSLR, you have the most manual control available.   If you have an SLR, choose the slowest speed film you can buy (ISO 100 or less).  In the case of a digital SLR, pick the lowest ISO your camera offers - typically ISO 100 or 200.  Your camera manual will provide instructions for choosing an ISO. Setting the speed is important because if you let the camera pick an ISO automatically, it will tend to raise the value to a number that freezes motion - the opposite of what we're trying to accomplish.

Many lenses also offer some type of image stabilization (IS) or vibration reduction (VR), which is useful when shooting handheld.  In general, it's a good idea to disable this function when shooting on a tripod because the action of the lens in countering vibration may introduce unwanted movement where there isn't any.

You'll need to take your camera off its fully automatic mode, since you don't want your camera choosing settings for you.  I'd suggest setting the main dial to aperture priority  ("A" or "Av") or shutter priority mode ("S" or "Tv").  Either one will effectively provide the same result.  In the case of aperture priority mode, you can select a smaller aperture (a bigger number fstop number - like f/16 or f/18), which will force the camera to select a longer exposure.  If you select shutter priority mode, you'll choose the length of the exposure and the camera will automatically pick a smaller aperture.  You'll need to check your manual for exact steps here since they will vary by make and model.

In either case, adjust the camera's exposure settings so that your exposure is around 1/2 second or longer. The longer the shutter stays open the more amplified the effect.  Exactly how long will depend on lighting and the chosen settings.  You'll need to experiment a bit to explore the capabilities of your camera and the exposure time required to get the desired effect in any given situation.

Point-and-Shoot Cameras

If you have a point-and-shoot camera, your level of control will vary depending on the specific features of your model.  Some models offer a lot of manual control, and you may be able to refer to the section above for pointers.  Even if you don't have all of these settings available, many point-and-shoot cameras will at least allow you to select the ISO.  By default, the ISO will probably be set to "Auto," but check your settings to see if you can pick a particular speed.

By choosing the lowest available ISO, you can control how much light enters the camera.  You may also be able to add an ND filter if your point-and-shoot has a threaded lens.  There are third party adapters on the market that allow for the use of add-on lenses and filters, although you'll have to do some research to see if these will work with your particular camera.  (Of course you'll want to weigh the costs of accessorizing a point-and-shoot camera against buying even a low-end DSLR, particularly if you're delving deeper into photography.)

Most point-and-shoot cameras do have a tripod mount on the bottom of the camera, which will go a long ways toward taking sharp photos in low light. 

Smartphones

If you're like a lot of people today, your primary camera is your smartphone.  While more limited, with a little effort you may still be able to obtain at least a somewhat creamy water effect.  Since smartphones don't have built-in tripod mounts, you'll need to find another way to stabilize your camera.  This can be as simple as propping it against an object but that can be tricky given their slim profiles.

Fortunately, there are all kinds of accessories available today, particularly for iPhones.  I'm an Android user, so my options are more limited.  I use an inexpensive device called a Phoneboat.  It's a spring-loaded clip with a tripod mount on the bottom that will secure almost any make and model of phone for shooting stills and video.  There are doubtless dozens of similar (and more sophisticated) mechanisms out there, but all you need is a way to hold the phone perfectly steady.

The second hurdle to overcome is the camera itself.  Generally speaking, smartphones aren't designed to provide manual camera control.  There are third party apps that will let you select an ISO, and this may help increase exposure time.  

A few apps (like 645Pro for the iPhone and Long Exposure Camera 2 for Android) provide additional control over your smartphone's camera features.  I've not tried either of these so I can't offer specific guidance here.  One app I do use regularly is Vignette.  Among other useful features, it has a timer function that keeps me from having to touch the phone at the moment of exposure.  If you use an iPhone, you may want to check out this article, which describes using an app called Slow Shutter Cam to achieve long-exposure effects through some clever digital trickery.

While you can't directly control the settings on your smartphone camera, you may find that some of these methods and apps let you approximate what a dedicated camera can do.  Get creative; try holding a pair of sunglasses in front of your lens when shooting to further reduce shutter speed.