The “motion” in emotional water images created by stretching exposures to the limit

In Equipment & Technique, Landscapes, ND Filters, Scenes & Scenarios, Water Features by Cole Thompson

I believe that long exposures and water are a natural match. Portraying water as fluid seems so much more natural to me. My Singh-Ray Vari-ND lets me easily explore exposures of varying durations by simply adjusting the density from about 2 stops up to 8 stops, or anywhere in between.

Dark Waters
1-second exposure

My strong attraction to long exposures came about because of water. I was intrigued by the way moving water looked at different exposures; a 1-second image looked so completely different than a 10- or 30-second exposure. My very first long exposure of water was this 1-second image entitled Dark Waters created on the Blue River in Kansas City.

Lone Man No. 35
30-second exposure

This led to my photographing water in all kinds of waters and often using a very long exposure to create a smooth, milky white look to the water as in Lone Man No. 35 created in the Honduras.

Poudre River Spillway
30-second exposure

Each exposure length can create a completely different look. So I’ll photograph the same scene over and over from 1 to 30 seconds to get the right feel. Here is a very simple image of water flowing over a spillway on the Poudre River in Colorado.

Rocks and Mist
30-second exposure

Another factor affecting how the water will look is the speed at which it is moving and the direction it is moving in relation to the camera. In Rocks and Mist created in La Jolla, the waves were rushing in and out giving the water an appearance of fog.

Rushing Waters
30-second exposure

Likewise in Rushing Waters the water is often mistaken by viewers as a cloud flowing over a mountain rather than the reality; rushing waters flowing over a large rock near Washington D.C.

Fluid Water No. 6
10-second exposure

Many of my images are created at 30 seconds, but sometimes a faster exposure allows for more definition in the water — such as in Fluid Water No. 6 which was a 10-second exposure created on the Poudre River.

Primordial Soup
30-second exposure

The speed of the water and its direction of movement often affect the look of the ‘fluid water’ as in Primordial Soup created on the Oregon Coast. In the foreground there is a very slow-moving pool of water, while in the background the crashing waves of the beach are rendered soft and without definition.

Getting long exposures during the day requires a great deal of neutral density. I use the Singh-Ray Vari-ND and then stack the Mor-Slo 5-stop ND filter on top of it, giving me about 13 stops of ND. This will allow me under most conditions to get a 30-second exposure in bright sunlight.

I use the camera’s meter to determine exposure and am very careful to block stray light from entering the eyecup while metering. I usually start with a 1-second exposure and then work my way up: 5, 10, 50, 20, 25 and 30 seconds. You’ll be amazed at how different each shot can look.

Turn off the long-exposure noise reduction and use the mirror lockup for exposures in the 1 to 5-second range — mirror lockup is not needed for longer exposures.