How'd You Get The Water To Look Like That?

"How'd You Get the water to look like that?"

A simple explanation for how I achieve the look of water in my images

Waves Crash at Daybreak

"Waves Crash at Daybreak", captured on a spring morning in Reid State Park, Georgetown, Maine.

I was showing my work this past weekend at the Art in the Park festival in South Portland, Maine, and spoke to a lot of people about my work. Many asked simple questions, such as which image is my favorite, or what my favorite spot to photograph is. One question that inevitably comes up is "Do you Photoshop your images?"  That question is a touchy subject for many photographers, as it often implies that the photographer being asked has somehow created elements to the scene that were not actually present when the image was taken.

I was having a conversation with a woman who asked me that very question, but as we spoke, it became apparent she wasn't asking about color or elements. Eventually, it came out: "How do you get the water to look like that?" She had been looking at a lot of my seascapes, with waves crashing over rocks, the tide receding, or, in some cases, the water looking as calm and flat as could be. It's a simple sounding question, with a not-so-simple answer.

Annisquam Lighthouse at Sunset

"Annisquam Lighthouse at Sunset", captured in Gloucester, MA.

I want to try and explain in a way that is accurate, but without getting too technical. Most people are familiar with taking photos, at least on a basic level using their phone or a simple point-and-shoot camera. These cameras (or phones) adjust all settings for you, so you don't get to see the decision making that goes on behind the scenes. The camera or phone does that for you.

On a camera, there are three basic settings that control the look of the image. Shutter speed refers to how long the camera shutter is open to allow light into the camera to make the photo. It is a measurement of time, that in a camera, can be as short as a fraction of a second, such as 1/500th of a second, or as long as several minutes. It is this setting that determines how motion appears in a scene. Sports photographers who need to stop the action use a faster shutter speed, such as 1/500 or even 1/1000th of a second. Sometimes, allowing the motion to blur creates a feeling of movement in a scene, so you would use a slower shutter speed to allow that motion to blur in the shot. How slow depends on several things I'll discuss in a moment. Many phone cameras don't allow you to decide shutter speed easily. Most cameras where you can change lenses have a dial that lets you control the shutter speed.

On-Camera Filter

I use on-camera glass filters such as this to help me control how much light enters the camera, and thus, how long my shutter speed can be.

Through a lot of experimentation over the years, I've found that I prefer a slightly slower shutter speed when I photograph water. A faster shutter speed makes the water look very choppy, appearing to have less flow to it. By using a slower shutter speed, my images of water appear more fluid, if that makes any sense. They are more expressive, as opposed to literal captures of water. This gives it a more painterly feel, which often leads people to ask the questions I mentioned above. By manipulating the shutter speed in this way, I can determine exactly how I want the water to look.

The one factor I can't control is how much light there is. Before the sun sets, or after sunrise, it is often too bright to slow down my shutter speed enough to get the look I'm after. This is where my filters come in. I use Benro Neutral Density filters to help me control the light. Neutral density filters are dark pieces of glass that affix to the front of the lens, similar to sunglasses over your eyes. You can see the filter on my camera in the photo above. They come in varying degrees of darkness and reduce the amount of light that enters the lens when I make a photo. I simply choose the one I need to get the shutter speed I want to make the photo I'm envisioning.

Shining Through at Portland Head Light

"Shining Through at Portland Head Light"


So, that is the "simple" answer to how I get the water to look the way I do. Essentially, it happened by accident a few times, years ago, before I realized what was going on and began using the on-camera filters to get there intentionally whenever I wanted. Some people have complained that it doesn't look "real" or "natural", which is fine. I'm not interested in communicating literal views of the scenes I photograph. I want to show my viewers scenes in ways they don't see them with their eyes. I want to communicate the feeling I had when I was standing there making the photograph. Hopefully I've succeeded!