going-with-the-flow:-experiments-photographing-water-in-motion
Photo of water in a stream rushing downstream between two boulders. Water rushing downstream allows a relatively fast 1/0 second shutter speed.  26mm, 1/10 second, f/4.8, ISO 160 © Sastry Karra
Water rushing downstream allows a relatively fast 1/0 second shutter speed. 26mm, 1/10 second, f/4.8, ISO 160 © Sastry Karra

By Sastry Karra

How often have you seen someone approach a waterfall, take their shot, and move on? The waterfall may be lovely, but they’re missing the beauty that surrounds it. Sometimes that may be in the moss-covered rocks on the bank. It might be in the colors of the rocks underneath the water. And it could be in the flow of the water. That’s what attracted me as I explored the area around Campbell Falls.

The magic of flowing water

Water, in all its forms, has a special spot in the hearts of nature photographers. Like most who admire the infinite beauty of nature, I try to notice every little thing in the scene. So, rather than just taking the waterfall shot and leaving, I usually plan to spend some extra time looking around, noticing the wide variety of wonderful details, especially when I leave the falls and walk downstream. There are endless opportunities for a nature photographer to find subjects and compositions by closely observing the patterns and shapes made by flowing water.

Perhaps Leonardo da Vinci said it best in The Nature of Water. He was sometimes called the “Master of Water” as he spent so much time studying how water behaves, flows, and moves under different conditions.

Rushing now here now there, up and down, never resting at all in quiet either in its course or in its own nature, it has nothing of its own but seizes hold on everything, assuming as many different natures as the places are different through which it passes, acting just as the mirror does when it assumes within itself as many images as are the objects which pass before it. So it is in a state of continual change, sometimes of position and sometimes of color, now enclosing in itself new scents and savors, now keeping new essences or qualities, showing itself now deadly now lifegiving, at one time dispersing itself through the air, at another suffering itself to be sucked up by the heat, and now arriving at the region of cold where the heat that was its guide is restricted by it.–Leonardo da Vinci

I might see the water circling, spraying, or bouncing in interesting ways at the bottom of the falls. When the water content is high, say after a heavy rainfall, I might see the river producing a current of bubbles on the surface of the water. Whatever the water is doing, I consider it a treat from Mother Nature! But how to capture that in a photo? And what would Leonardo do if he had a camera?

Finding patterns and flows

For the most part, I use slow shutter speeds (1/10 second or slower) to show movement. I typically use a polarizer to eliminate glare and selectively remove reflections (and give myself a slower shutter speed). Often, however, getting the shutter speed I want requires the use of neutral density filters. Personally, I prefer a low ISO (400 or under) to avoid noise. Those factors dictate my camera settings.

Water in a stream moving in a curving, S-shaped path. At the bottom of the falls. 55mm,1/8 second, f/6.7, ISO 400 © Sastry Karra
At the bottom of the falls. 55mm,1/8 second, f/6.7, ISO 400 © Sastry Karra

Coming away from the bottom of the falls, the water has a bit of speed. While rushing through the rocks, the path of the water formed a sort of S shape and the velocity of the flow meant that a shutter speed of 1/8 second would work. That gives a sense of motion while retaining some texture.

A little farther down, the water slows a bit and, with a longer exposure, the water appears much smoother. There’s not as much texture as the previous shot, but there’s a different, calmer feel to this one.

Photo of a stream meandering through boulders and downed trees. A little farther down the stream. 95mm 1/4 second, f/6.7, ISO-400 © Sastry Karra
A little farther down the stream. 95mm 1/4 second, f/6.7, ISO-400 © Sastry Karra

Experimenting with exposure, one can start to see how the water finds its way through the rocks on its way downstream. Sometimes you can’t see that with the naked eye but, with a longer exposure, the patterns and path become clear.

Leonardo da Vinci felt that water could be “divinely beautiful” in its flows, eddies and swirls. His illustrations of moving water were not really observations of a single moment in time. Instead they sought to explain what the water was doing and, by so doing, illustrated his thought process as he worked to understand and explain how water flowed.

Figure : Studies of water passing obstacles and falling, c. 1508-9. (image credit Leonardo Da Vinci Wikimedia Commons)
Figure : Studies of water passing obstacles and falling, c. 1508-9. (image credit Leonardo Da Vinci Wikimedia Commons)

I tried to visualize Leonardo’s thought process and apply that to my photography. How can I illustrate what the water is doing so that I or the viewer can understand it better?

Water transmits, but also changes light. In this same location you can often see reflections of the colors of nearby vegetation or of the sky. Those colors can help build a composition, especially if the water flow is slow and not very dramatic. The color of rocks beneath the water can also contribute color and some extra beauty. Occasionally, when the sun’s rays fall at a specific angle and the waterfall is kicking up some mist, there is a possibility of a rainbow forming.

Water flowing over rocks and tree stump creates swirling, abstract patterns. 46mm, 3/10 second, f/5.0, ISO 220 © Sastry Karra
Abstract water movement. 46mm, 3/10 second, f/5.0, ISO 220 © Sastry Karra

When I ventured a couple of hundred feet downriver from the waterfall, I noticed the way the water was flowing over some rocks and tree stumps. It seemed to create an abstract scene that hypnotized me and is hard to explain but was incredibly soothing. I guess you had to be there.

The next time you’re near flowing water with your camera, try a few different shutter speeds, especially slow ones. You might be surprised at the patterns you’ll uncover.

Epilogue

Being born and brought up under strict Hindu tradition, our Divine Mother (known as Adi Parashakti – the First Power or Supreme Energy) manifests herself in various forms representing Mother Nature giving birth to all life forms, sustaining and nourishing them and finally re-absorbing them back into herself.

Wherever I go, I always appreciate the unique beauty provided by the Divine Mother or Mother Nature. I try to respect the environment, the plants and animals, and all the surroundings. Following the seven principles of Leave No Trace and NANPA’s Principles of Ethical Field Practice help me minimize my impact. Humans and natural world are not two different entities; we are in this together.

Jaganadha “Sastry” Karra was born in India, but left when he was 24 years old. For the past 27 years, he’s worked as an IT professional, and has been living in NJ since 2004.During his spare time, he goes outdoors and takes nature photos, especially waterfalls. Along with his wife (who loves hiking), they go to many nearby state parks where he can experiment with different compositions. In the summer, when his friends play cricket, he’s been experimenting with sports photography. Find him on Instagram at @sastrykarra, where he posts most of his pictures. On Facebook, he’s active in some photography forums, like NANPA. “Maybe I’ll see you there!” he says.

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