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Photographing Water in the Landscape

West Burton Waterfall

Whether it’s a fast-flowing river or raging waterfall, breaking waves at the coast or a perfectly still pool or lake offering a mirror-like reflection, water is a fascinating subject for landscape photography. In this feature, Mark has an in-depth look at all aspects of photographing water in the landscape…

Photographing Rivers and Waterfalls

Moving water has to be one of my favourite landscape subjects, so I consider myself very lucky to live so close to the Yorkshire Dales with its numerous rivers and waterfalls. And possibly the greatest thing about shooting moving water is that it works best under diffused or flat lighting, so if I find myself out in the hills and the clouds roll in turning the sky to a featureless mid-tone grey, then I know exactly what to do. Head for water! On one such occasion I decided to have a look at Cotter Force in Wensleydale, which I had not been to before.

Water Landscape Photography - Cotter Force in Wensleydale
Cotter Force, Wensleydale, Yorkshire Dales

When I got there I wondered how it had passed me by, being just a short walk on a well-maintained path from the main road to the west of Hawes, and incredibly pretty! Cotterdale Back tumbles over two main cascades, made up of numerous smaller steps, providing lots of interest, but below the waterfall the beck is a bit flat and featureless, so rather than looking for nice rocks in the foreground for a lead-in to the falls I selected a long lens to concentrate on the falls themselves. I felt that the overall view of both parts of the falls looked a bit lop-sided, so I zoomed in closer and picked out a letterbox crop of the lower cascade and also a vertical composition using the upper cascade and just part of the lower which had a bit more impact. I experimented with a variety of shutter speeds to get the blurring effect in the water that I was looking for.

I prefer a fairly slow speed to give smoother lines in the falls, whilst still preserving some detail in the water, as I find the effect of using a fast shutter speed rather jagged and unnatural looking. Obviously the best shutter speed for this effect will depend on the velocity of the water being photographed, but as a rule of thumb I normally go for somewhere between 1/8th and 8 seconds, so a sturdy tripod is essential. On this occasion 1/8th didn’t seem quite slow enough, but exposures from 1/2 second down to 2 seconds seemed to work quite nicely.

Water Landscape Photography - Upper Aysgarth Falls
Upper Aysgarth Falls showing slow shutter speed blur

Aysgarth Falls, also in Wensleydale, provides even more opportunities for getting in close to the water, where the River Ure descends a multitude of cascades amongst large flat rocks (if the river level is low enough) which make an excellent base for the tripod legs. When producing this kind of image it’s quite a good idea to make sure that your camera’s sensor is as clean as possible – dust spots show up very nicely against a bright waterfall and can be a pain to remove in Photoshop, as the soft vertical lines of the moving water tend to confuse the healing brush so it’s necessary to resort to carefully cloning out each one!

Water Landscape Photography - Lower Aysgarth Falls
The amazing stepped cascade at Lower Aysgarth Falls, Wensleydale, Yorkshire Dales

I always shoot raw files and so tend not to worry too much about white balance out in the field, leaving the camera set to auto white balance, as I know I can adjust it at the raw extract stage later if it’s a problem. However, white balance is worth thinking about when shooting in these conditions, especially if you’re shooting JPEGs only. At Cotter Force, the daylight setting produced an acceptable result – a little too cool, perhaps, but near enough. The cloudy setting, however, produced a result that was far too warm, with the water looking rather muddy – not what I was expecting at all! Clearly the overcast conditions were nearer to daylight balance than I had thought – so it’s best to take extra care with this, or stick to raw files if you can.

Get your feet wet!

Very often the best view of a waterfall can be had from in the middle of the stream below it, particularly where there is a nice rocky riverbed with lots of interesting features to use as foreground.  If you’re lucky you may be able to hop from rock to rock and get a good central viewpoint without going for a paddle, but it can be useful to have a pair of wellies with you just in case!

Water Landscape Photography at the Coast

Water anywhere in the landscape plays a vital part in my landscape photography, but there is always something special about photographing the sea. Maybe it’s just the bracing sea air, or perhaps the fact that I live in the middle of the country with the Yorkshire Dales on my doorstep, which is where I photograph most, so a trip to the seaside is always a treat. But I think it’s more than that; the sea itself can yield some stark yet striking images and most recently I’ve been trying to make some pure seascape photographs rather than just coastal landscapes.

Hunstanton Cliffs at Sunset
Colourful Hunstanton Cliffs at Sunset

That’s not to say that dramatic coastal landscape should be overlooked – far from it! There is a wealth of beautiful coastline around Britain to entice the landscape photographer, and the summer months can be a good time to explore it, away from the rather drab summer greens of inland landscapes.

On one occasion, when I was returning from visiting friends in Suffolk, I took a detour to Hunstanton in Norfolk to have a look at the colourful cliffs which I had been meaning to do for some time. It was a lovely sunny summer afternoon when I arrived so I went straight to the beach. The cliffs looked glorious in the afternoon sunshine, but the light was still a little harsh, so I wandered back into the town to get something to eat.

After my fish and chip supper, I returned to the beach to catch the setting sun on the cliffs. The colours in the layered rocks were wonderful, but the cliffs alone can be a bit linear as a subject, so I found it best to shoot vertically making use of glistening pools of water in the foreground, or simply the ripples left in the wet sand to add interest to my images, with the best light coming from the last rays well after 9pm.

Saltwick Bay Whitby
Saltwick Bay and Saltwick Nab at Sunset, Whitby

Back nearer home at Saltwick Bay on the Yorkshire Coast it was the fading twilight after the sun had set that produced the best results, with cool blue light on the water left by the receding tide and a slight tinge of pink in the sky – it just shows that it’s worth waiting around until after everyone else has gone home! Although sunrise and sunset may give the best light for the big vista images of rocky shorelines and cliffs, there are things that can be done during the day.

In overcast light, or in the open shade at the top of a beach on a sunny day rock pools or simply wet rocks can provide great subjects for little detail images. It’s easy to get engrossed in these close-up shots and lose track of time, so I always take a local tide table or check the tide times online before I set off so I’m sure I won’t get cut off by the tide if I go wandering down the beach! Should you turn up during the day and at high tide then options for coastal photography may be a bit limited.

It was on one such occasion at Ravenscar in Yorkshire that I opted to make some seascape images just looking out toward the horizon. It was a blustery day with interesting clouds and constantly changing light, so I made some very simple compositions just using sea, sky and clouds, and maybe the odd rock jutting out of the water. These worked out surprisingly well, and reminded me a little of contemporary seascape painting, where very simple images just made up of layers of blue are nonetheless very evocative of the sea.

Water Landscape Photography - Whitby Sunset
Whitby Sunset – abstract with intentional camera movement

I wondered if I could do something similar photographically, so on my next trip to the coast at Whitby, having done enough of the traditional sunset shots from the West Pier, I experimented using my camera handheld with a multi-second exposure, moving the camera gently from side to side along the horizon, combining the movement of the sea with the movement of the camera to produce an abstract effect. This technique is a bit hit and miss, but I managed to produce one or two images with the painterly quality that I was looking for.

Photographing Reflections in Water

Fast flowing rivers and tumbling waterfalls are not the only inland water features that can make a decent landscape photograph. Slow moving shallow streams, canals, lakes and reservoirs all provide great subjects for water landscape photography, particularly on still days when reflections come into play. When your subject is illuminated by direct sunlight, the best reflections tend to occur when the sun is low in the sky, so we’re back to sunrise and sunset shooting in most cases.

Water Landscape Photography - Llynnau Mymbyr
Snowdon Horseshoe at sunset from Llynnau Mymbyr, Snowdonia, North Wales

A mirror-like reflection can be appealing, but I don’t worry if a little wind picks up and ruffles the surface of the water, as the softened reflection often works better than the more “chocolate-box” approach. A fairly long exposure can also be effective in smoothing out the reflection a little, and I find this is generally the scenario as I’ll be stopping the lens right down to achieve maximum depth of field, especially where I have something in the foreground, such as reeds or grasses at the water’s edge, which I want to keep in sharp focus. However, reflections can also work well in the diffused light on an overcast day, which is just as well, as this tends to be in plentiful supply during the British summer!

Water Lilies and Reflections in Colemere
Water Lilies and Reflections in Colemere

This was certainly the case when I found myself on a narrowboat, drifting through the Shropshire countryside one summer, through what seemed like endless drizzle. Photographing canal bridges (pretty though they are) became a little tedious after a dozen or so, so I was pleased when we moored up not far from Ellesmere, in the Shropshire Lake District to find the delightful Colemere a short walk from the towpath. The drizzle had stopped, and the surface of the water was perfectly still making great reflections, but mainly of summer green trees which weren’t too exciting, until I spotted a dead tree on the opposite bank to add a little interest to the reflection and some water lilies near the shore which made a decent foreground for a vertical composition, which I was quite pleased with given the circumstances.

Metering can be tricky with reflections, and even here, in flat lighting and with the sky excluded from the shot, I had to take care with my exposure to avoid any burnt out hotspots in the reflection. I just let the evaluative metering in the camera do its thing, but checked the histogram carefully to make sure that the highlights weren’t clipped, and used a bit of exposure compensation where necessary.

Reflection in Hebden Water at Hardcastle Crags
Reflections in Hebden Water

I think what I liked about the Colemere image the most was the fact that the foreground lilies start to interact with and break up the reflection, which hints towards another approach to photographing reflections – just photograph the reflection itself, without the reflected object. This can work well with sunlit buildings in cities reflected in rippling river water, but in the landscape I like to try to combine the reflection with something else, to produce a more abstract image.

When photographing Hebden Water at Hardcastle Crags a while ago I liked the rocks jutting out near the bank, and the fact that I could see the riverbed through the shallow water, so wanted to make an image of those. At first the reflected trees seemed like a distraction, but I changed viewpoint to work them into the composition. The result is a far cry from the formula mountain reflected in a mirror-like lake shot, but in many ways I prefer the ambiguity of this sort of reflection image.

Using filters in Water Landscape Photography

I tend not to use filters much, but an ND grad is probably the most useful filter to consider when shooting a reflection, particularly where the sky is involved in the image and the main subject is very bright. Using the grad over the sky and main subject will allow the reflection to be well-exposed without overexposing the sky.

Water Landscape Photography Workshops

We try to keep a good variety of subjects on all of our Yorkshire Dales landscape photography workshops, so water plays an important part! Our Aysgarth workshop focusses on moving water at Aysgarth Falls and West Burton Waterfall. On the Malham workshop we have waterfalls at Gordale Scar and Janet’s Foss and on the Bolton Abbey workshop there’s the dramatic fast-flowing Strid and reflections in the River Wharfe at the priory ruins.

You’ll find all scheduled dates on the workshops page.

Find more of Mark’s images on his own website at marksunderland.com.

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