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Photographing Water

Being able to photograph a lake bordered by mountains or trees robed in brilliant autumn foliage on a sunny windless day is a gift. When the water is as smooth as glass, clear reflections can make for stunning photos. But when the wind picks up or it starts to rain, the reflection can disappear in an instant and breathtaking scenery is suddenly dulled.

I experienced the dramatic change in a lake's appearance within seconds as I set up my tripod at Rocky Mountain National Park's Sprague Lake. Fortunately, the rain came and went quickly.

sprague lake - clear reflection

sprague lake - rain dissolves reflection

Don't let cloudy skies stop you, however. Wait for sun if you see patches of blue sky anywhere and work with photos taken with an overcast sky on Photo Shop. Of course, sometimes direct sun is not desirable. Early morning misty shots are mysteriously beautiful, especially with steam rising from warm water.

crystal creek reservoir - pikes peak If I want to capture a lake's backdrop plus anything in the foreground like a tree or rock on the shore in front of me, I will usually set the aperture to f/18 - f/20 to get everything in focus. The speed should be slow to deepen color saturation - normally somewhere between 1/30 - 1/100 - depending on how much sun is available. With a tripod you can easily go slower than 1/30 if the sun is low or behind clouds and you need to let in more light. If the water is reflecting bright sun, a circular polarizer will cut through the glare and deepen blue tones in the water and sky.

Waterfalls are a delight to photograph because it's fun to experiment with the very different effects from high and low speeds. You can stop water droplets in mid air with a speed of at least 1/125 or much higher, depending on the lighting. To create milky smooth water along shorelines or waterfalls, use a tripod and speeds below 1/15. I like to have the shutter open for a full second to get soft white swirls, but you need shaded water, a cloudy sky or a polarizer to keep the water from becoming a flat overexposed mass of white.

slow speed - rocky mtn national park falls

seven falls early morning shadow If you are traveling from a distance to mountainous areas, it may be worth your while to see if you can determine where the sun will be when you arrive, so you can get favorable lighting. One time we arrived early in the morning at Seven Falls. We missed the crowds, but I was not happy with how far the shadows cut into the waterfall.


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