Photographing Flowing Water

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by Michal Szklanowski

Probably everyone has seen beautiful photographs of flowing water at least once, in which water itself wasn’t captured at certain point of time, but rather that the photographer allowed a long exposure time, which causes water stream to appear continuous and smoothed out.

Using long exposure when photographing water means that all the other details on the photo appear unnaturally sharp, but the water itself turns into the kind of foam, which softly falls in the photo. Using even longer exposure times can cause very similar effect on clouds, but this falls outside of the scope of this article.

Such photos usually require a DSLR with decent lens, a tripod and a neutral density filter, which darkens the scene, giving camera a chance to use longer exposure than it would be necessary under daytime lighting conditions. Is achieving similar effect with a smartphone camera, where we have no control over exposure time, even possible?
Hardware

To photograph flowing water will require some planning. It is no longer enough to put the smartphone in your pocket, go out and start shooting in the wild. For this type of photography you need a tripod.

Why a tripod? Because shooting photos with exposures longer than 1/30s will inevitably cause them to be blurred if the iPhone is handheld. Blurred photos, when done intentionally, can be seen as some sort of art, but in photographing flowing water we want the rest of the scene to remain remarkably sharp.

What tripod to choose for our smartphone? I can confidently recommend two options:

1. The spider-like GorillaPod is a very universal tripod which fits almost every smartphone (apart from phablets). Spider mechanics allows the photographer to use it on practically every surface, horizontal or vertical, as far as mount it on less expected places (such as on a street light, tree branch or balcony).

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Picture 1 – Joby GripTight GorillaPod (vendor’s official photo)

Amazon.com store link: Joby GripTight GorillaPod Stand for Smartphones

2. The Joby GripTight Micro Stand for smartphones is a variation of the Joby tripod, the same smartphone mount, but the spider is replaced with a typical tripod, which, when collapsed, takes almost no space. Micro Stand ideally fits for situations where you can put a tripod on a horizontal surface and is also ideal for “puddleography” (photographing from just over the ground). The very small size makes it practical to attach it to your keys (for example) so that it travels with you.

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Picture 2. Joby GripTight Micro Stand for smartphones (vendor’s official photo)

Amazon.com store link: Joby GripTight Micro Stand for Smartphones

Apart from the tripod, you will of course need a smartphone. I took my iPhone 5 for the trip, but you will be able to achieve very similar results with Android or WP8 smartphones.

Apps

Apart from hardware, we will need specialized apps, which give us more control over exposure time. I chose:

1. PureShot (https://itunes.apple.com/en/app/pureshot/id591785487?mt=8)
PureShot is one of the best apps on the market, targeted to advanced mobile photographers. In this article though, I will only use one feature of the app – night mode – which allows extending of exposure time to 1 second.

2. Slow Shutter Cam (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/slow-shutter-cam-long-exposure/id357404131?mt=8)
Slow Shutter Cam can be used in all the situations where we need long exposure times. That means evening and night photography as well as to “painting-with-light” photos. In this specific instance, rather than painting with light, we will be painting with water.

3. AvgNiteCam (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/slow-shutter-cam-long-exposure/id357404131?mt=8)
Using AvgNiteCam was a sort of experiment, which I did to research to determine if the app can deliver better or more innovative photo than other two apps by taking multiple photos and averages them to get the final result (instead of a long exposure time for a single image).

The Subject

Besides knowing how to photograph water, you need to actually have some water to be photographed :) If you happen to be on holiday, you will certainly be able to find a fountain, river, waterfall or other place where water is simply falling down. That’s all we need.

Flowing water looks best when shot at dawn or at the sunset. The light has very interesting shades and the white water is better visible against the rest of the subject in the photo.

For illustration purposes in this article I chose two places to photograph: an exit of River Birs into the Rhine and a fountain on the crossing of St. Alban Graben and Dufourstrasse in Basel (Switzerland)

Note: The photos used in the article have not been processed at all. That’s deliberate – I wanted you to see what kind of material can you get solely after a mobile photography session of flowing water.

River Birs.

I arrived at Birs just after the sunset. The sun was already gone, but there was still enough daylight to shoot some photos. On the nearby little street the lamps were already on. Jumping on the rocks, I positioned myself towards the river, settled my GorillaPod and was ready for the photo session.

A short recap on how to take photos with a long exposure time:
1. The smartphone must be steady, either on a tripod or laying/standing on a stable surface (such as a table)
2. Pressing the shutter might cause movement and thus a blurred photo, so it’s best to either connect your headphones to the smartphone and use the volume button to snap a picture or use a Bluetooth-enabled remote shutter such as Shuttr.
3. If the app supports it, additionally set the time so that the smartphone can stabilize itself. In this case you can use a traditional shutter (on-screen button or volume button on the phone).

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Picture 3 – Birs: PureShot, exposure time: 1/11s, ISO: 400

I took the first picture (picture 3) with PureShot, with night mode turned on. Additionally, I set the timer with a delay, so that the smartphone could stabilize itself after I pressed the shutter. I was not thrilled with the result. The reasons are:
● Grain: despite relatively low ISO, grain is clearly visible (especially in the upper part of the photo, but on the water as well)
● Sharpness: photo is slightly blurred despite the smartphone being stabilized on the tripod. It turned out that the masses of the water flowing down cause rocks to minimally vibrate, which caused the blur. Well, I would have to live with that, since I don’t have any other place to stabilize the camera.

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Picture 4 – Birs: Slow Shutter Cam, exposure time: 15s, ISO: 500; Light Trail mode, sensivity: 1/64

I took the second photo (picture 4) with Slow Shutter Cam. My settings:
● Self timer na 5s
● Capture mode: Light trail
● Shutter speed: 15s
● Sensivity: 1/64

The result was much better. Using Light Trail mode caused the camera to make one background photo and then lay over the moving elements onto it, as on the canvas. That is, in the final photo you don’t see the snapshot of the water, but rather it is ‘flowing’ and very smooth. Plus very nice, discrete reflections from street lamps on the water surface. Not bad.

One can experiment with different values in the Sensitivity parameter, which (according to the app developer) changes that way the app ‘paints with light’. In my case, I achieved the the best results with a setting of 1/64.

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Picture 5 – Birs: AvgNiteCam, number of photos: 32

I captured the third photo (picture 5) with AvgNiteCam (with the number of photos set to 32). The way AvgNiteCam captures the scene is a bit different: it takes a large number of photos of the same scene, one after another, and then averages them, creating one final photo. Unfortunately, the app doesn’t write anything to the EXIF header so I don’t know which settings were used to produce the photo. Nonetheless, the result is quite similar to that of Slow Shutter Cam, but brighter – which unfortunately means that the house visible above river level is blown out.

The undisputed winner: Slow Shutter Cam.

Fontanna (The Fountain)

I reached the fountain when it was already dark, at approximately 10 pm. The fountain itself has its own interesting illumination, and adding to that is the light coming from the street nearby. I set my GorillaPod on the edge of the fountain, mounted the iPhone and started shooting.

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Picture 6 – Fountain: Camera (built-in), exposure time: 1/15s, ISO: 800

I took the first picture (picture 6) as a baseline reference so that I could compare the other images to it later. I used the built-in Camera app of the iPhone for this shot. Results:
● high ISO (grain clearly visible)
● poor tonal range (I chose to skip the built-in HDR option)
● despite the tripod the photo is not sharp enough

Please notice that the light setup is very challenging one: some of the reflectors are mounted underwater, and an one is mounted pretty high over ground (to illuminate the tree), and the wall behind the fountain is lit up by the street lights. It creates a difficult task for iPhone algorithms setting the exposure time.

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Picture 7 – Fountain: PureShot, exposure time: 1/7s, ISO: 400

PureShot (picture 7) did a bit better job, as it increased the exposure time to 1/7s, which brought down the ISO to 400. The streams of the water are a bit smoothed, but it’s still not the effect we’re looking for.

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Picture 8 – Fountain: Slow Shutter Cam, exposure time: 15s, ISO: 800; Light Trai model, sensitivity: 1

At the fountain, I decided to carefully examine how the Sensitivity parameter works in Slow Shutter Cam. After setting it to 1 (Picture), I noticed to my surprise that the app catches a lot more light and the streams of water are not blurred at all but rather they are layered one on top of another (please note a handful of very little water streams near the sculpture).

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Picture 9 – Fountain: Slow Shutter Cam, exposure time: 15s, ISO: 800; Light Trail mode, sensitivity: 1

Taking a photo with Sensitivity set to 1/64 (picture 9) resulted in similar effect like with the river: photo – the image is very dark, with a lot of blur to moving elements.

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Picture 10 – Fountain: AvgNiteCam, number of photos: 32

And the result from the third app (AvgNiteCam) is shown in picture 10. The final effect is as if we combined the static part from Slow Shutter Cam with sensitivity 1 with the moving water parts from the shot with sensitivity of 1/64.

I decided to set this one aside for further post-processing (you don’t want to know how many other really bad photos from this walk I have in my Camera Roll).

Post-processing (or as Koci says: apping)

Because the photos presented here are meant to illustrate the photographing of flowing water, I decided not to post-process them at all. In most cases though, you would want to tune some parameters to give them some punch or highlight to a particular element of the photo. Among the most common corrections done on the photos shot at night are:
● Removing noise and/or grain. One of the best noise removal algorithms available on the market is coming from Adobe (PS Express, Adobe Revel, PS Touch, Lightroom Mobile). You will find a decent algorithm in Perfectly Clear app.
● White balance correction. I usually use iPhoto module for this.
● Selective corrections of certain parts of the photo using brushes. Some of the apps that offer this capability: PS Touch, Leonardo, FilterStorm Neue, Handy Photo
● Adding some additional elements on the night sky (stars, moon etc) – try LensLight, LensFlare and AlienSky.

If you choose to do post-processing on a desktop computer, you can get good results in Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture. These programs have a non-destructive workflow process, where you can roll back to any previous step at any moment.

Creative process
As I mentioned before, I chose Picture 10 for further post-processing. I will try to show you what you can do with a bit creativity and unconventional approach. Picture 10 was a bit better lit than the others. The fountain was ok, but the wall behind it is was way too bright. It was so bright you hardly noticed the fountain, which I wanted to be the main subject in the photo.

I spent some unproductive time trying to create a mask out the wall only, while leaving the fountain and tree. Making a mask with semi-transparent leaves is a nightmare. I went to sleep frustrated.

After a few days I gave it another try and here’s what I was able to accomplish.

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Picture 11 – Fountain after post-processing

What is needed:
1. A spotlight with focused stream of light
2. A stylus (I used Wacom Bamboo Stylus mini)
3. Photoshop Touch or Leonardo

And this is what I’ve done:
1. I opened the photo in Photoshop Touch on my iPad
2. I added a new empty layer and set the blending mode to Overlay
3. I duplicated the new layer, leaving the blending mode as Overlay
4. From the menu tools, I chose Camera Fill (filling layer from the iPad’s built-in camera)
5. I turned off the light and turned on the spotlight. In PS Touch, I chose the front-facing camera.
6. Using the spotlight, I lit up the scene from the bottom (that means I placed the spotlight on the right side of iPad’s camera). I tapped on shutter in PS Touch.
7. I selected the second layer and this time I lit the scene from the top (spotlight on the left side of camera). I tapped on shutter in PS Touch.
8. The effect left me speechless. The lighting in the scene changed significantly. I achieved exactly what I wanted, that is stronger illumination of the fountain and the little sculptures below the big one, and additional beautiful light streams on the wall and the tree. The little devils were illuminated with very nice blue shade. I exported the result to the Camera Roll.
9. I opened the picture in iPhoto. I fixed the contrast and added a bit of brighness.
10. Then I opened the Brushes section. I love iPhoto brushes. They allow some creative potential even for such a terrible artist like me to make the local corrections of the photo that look good.
11. With the softening brush I softened the front of the fountain, tree leaves and the wall behind, creating the illusion of shallow depth of field (which is available in much bigger cameras like DSLRs). I needed a stylus for delicate moves (the Bamboo brand stylus did a great job here).
12. With sharpening brush I sharpened the little devils below the main sculpture. I wanted them to look even more devilish.
13. Using the brightening brush I brightened the rest of the fountain, revealing the texture of the sculpture (which was previously in shadow), and saved this version to Camera Roll.
14. A couple of final touches, which I did in LensLight: I added some Bokeh Dots and the Anamorphic Dust texture and saved the final to Camera Roll.

I hope that you like the final photo. I don’t claim to have invent the torch trick myself, came from the great Adobe evangelist Russell Brown, the full tutorial you can watch on Adobe TV.

Summary

As you can see, even with the smartphone camera, pimped with smart software, you can make quite nice photos of flowing water. I hope that the tips from the article will help you achieve better results when photographing in difficult lighting conditions. Some more examples where apps like Slow Shutter Cam or AvgNiteCam will do great job are:
● city landscape containing car traffic (painting with light)
● photos of fireworks
● photos of lightning

If you have any questions concerning the article, please add a comment below the article.

About the Author

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Michal Szklanowski

Michal Szklanowski is a Polish mobile photographer, living in Basel, Switzerland with his wife and 3 kids. Michal is a member of Polish mobile photography enthusiast group Grupa Mobilni. Michal’s photos were featured multiple times in various Instagram contests as well as in iPhonePhotographySchool.com.

You can see his photo collection on his Instagram page.

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