Highlighting the many creative possibilities of photographing water with filters

In Equipment & Technique, Landscapes, ND Filters, Polarizing Filters, Scenes & Scenarios by Olaf Bathke

One of my very favorite photographic subjects — besides people — is water. We can find so many creative possibilities in water photography because it’s almost always moving, it takes on different colors, reflects light and forms so many different shapes. In water photography, it is so easy to get really unique results. All that’s required is hard work, lots of experience and the right equipment.

Most of the time water is involved in something interesting like giving sand, stones, poles, and bridges more visual meaning and flavor. Anyone who has seen a sunset unfolding out on the open sea knows how much the water adds to the excitement. The smell and rhythmic sound of the pounding surf is doing good things to our mind. We shouldn’t need any wellness activity if we sleep at the beach from time to time. Even children know water is fun and entertaining. I know lots of stories in which water plays a leading part. These stories are not only about dumping cameras and lenses in the Atlantic Ocean or getting wet feet. They are about deeply felt emotions like falling in love or grieving. It is my task as a photographer to stir the water, emotions and creativity into great pictures.

To fully achieve my creative goals, I need to use filters. Good filters help me not only control the color and contrast in my water images, they also give me a wider choice of shutter speeds, aperture sizes and ISO settings. If my filters are of good quality, I can also control my exposures to define the water’s structure — like waves, splashes or soft sea spray. Good filters also give me the possibility for long time exposures. The better the filter, the less I have to cope with color problems and loss of sharpness. During rapidly changing light conditions, I must be quick and flexible to capture my image. Water varies not only in color. It varies in movement, speed, shape and reflectivity. I have learned to rely on my Singh-Ray filters, especially in fast changing light conditions. Filters enhance my possibilities.

The image of the Irish coast at the top of this story represents a favorite setup for me when I want to catch the structure of water or define a coastline. I used an LB Warming Polarizer to saturate the colors in the sky and get some visual penetration into the water. A 3-stop hard-step Graduated ND gave me some additional detail and drama in the sky. By adjusting the ISO and aperture setting, I could freeze the detail in the scene but also blur some movement of the water. Balancing the exposure time between sharp detail and blur depends on the lighting conditions.

This image of the falling stream of water in Iceland was a bit more tricky. Waterfalls and streams can vary greatly in speed and shape. They are found in various places with constantly changing light conditions. To capture some white streamlines without washing them out, I strongly recommend a Vari-ND Filter because of its flexibility. Sometimes, it is a just a little bit of light energy that must be changed to get the optimal exposure. I can change the exposure in really small steps simply by turning the front ring on the Vari-ND and then examining the result on my camera’s display.

This image of a Norwegian sunrise was also taken with the Vari-ND Filter which allows me to easily extend the length of my time exposure. It also enables me to work longer in sunrise or sunset conditions. With this filter, I am able to take more long-exposure images just after sunrise or just before sunset.

For this really-long-time exposure taken on the coast of Germany, I used my Vari-ND Filter plus the Singh-Ray 5-stop Mor-Slo solid neutral density filter. This setup enables me to achieve exposures of up to 6 minutes and longer. Such exposures produce very interesting and mysterious images, particularly in terms of the clouds and the surface of the water. With so much darkness in front of the lens it is not easy to focus. Being able to compose the image with the Vari-ND turned to its minimum density is very helpful. If necessary, I can even remove the Mor-Slo while I’m composing and focusing the image, and then replace it on the lens before making the exposure.

Over the time that I have been using Singh-Ray filters, I have learned a lot about the advantages that filters can provide in various situations. I’ve also learned there are infinite creative possibilities working with filters in landscape photography. I find it well worth experimenting with my filters as a way to develop my personal style. I’m also discovering there is no rule that cannot be broken and no setup that cannot be changed to achieve my personal vision.