How to photograph smooth water (Part 1)

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

It’s Easter Sunday, 2020. Unfortunately we are still in quarantine worldwide. I thought I’d go out to get some fresh air and to take some photos to keep myself creative.

We currently live in an apartment that has no garden, only a balcony. It's still too cold for me to sit out there, as the sun is avoiding us. Maybe summertime we will bring some sunshine.

Not far from our apartment--about two minutes walk--we have a little swamp. Oh yeah, I can already be very happy about that. As the water fills the swamp given, all the goodies come with it, like small plants, trees, mushrooms, moss--all these things make me very happy indeed, compared to living a quarantined life.

I grabbed my camera, my mask, my rubber boots, and aimed at the swamp. My goal with today’s photography is to create a smooth, smooth water surface.

As always, I start with the end product. This became one of my selected images that I retouched.

Canon EOS 6D Mark II, f/6.3, 1/540sec, ISO-100, Lens: Canon 24-105

The weather outside was partly windy, but fortunately there was sunny weather outside; it was 10°C / 50 Fahrenheit.

What's in my bag?

Camera: Canon EOS 6D Mark II, Canon EOS 700D

Lens: Canon 24-105, Canon 50mm 1.8, Sigma 70-300 Macro

Filter: ND filter - Ice Optical Glass ND10000

Tripod: YoTilon ultralight travel tripod, Joby mini tripod

Canon EOS 700D, f/5.6, 1/250sec, ISO-800, Lens: Sigma 70-300 Macro

I first walked around our little muddy swamp to decide what I was visualizing in my head, before memorializing it on my photograph.

Canon EOS 700D, f/1.8, 1/400sec, ISO-100, objektív: Canon 50mm 1.8

In order to be able to take photos with a long shutter speed during the day (because this will make the surface of the water mirror-smooth), I will definitely need a filter. An ND filter.

If you know what an ND filter is good for, feel free to skip this section. However, I would like those who have never used such a filter to understand its purpose.

What is an ND filter good for?

It is called: Neutral-density filter. The purpose of this filter is to reduce the amount of light entering the lens.

Let's look at our example. We want to photograph rippling water to get a mirror-like surface. To do this, we will need to achieve a blurred result with a lower shutter speed.

Normally, without a filter on a bright sunny day, no matter how narrow we set the aperture, we can’t avoid getting an overexposed image. (This can be fixed by choosing a time when there is less light out there, e.g. overcast before rain, near sunset, winter overcast.)

In this case, the ND filter comes in handy, by setting the appropriate values, we can achieve the desired blur with our camera.

There are also ND filters with different darknesses. Examples: ND2, ND4 ... ND400 ... ND100000. Those with lower darkness also can be used for video. Neutral density filters do not affect the coloration of the image and are ideal for pairing with other filters.

The ND filter that I will use today is an ND10000, also called a 15 stop ND filter. It's very dark. The small-digit filters, when lifted towards the light, can be see-through. It is somewhat like sunglasses, but as the numbers grow, the glass becomes darker. Through ND10000 the light can no longer be passed on at all.

Canon EOS 700D, f/1.8, 1/400sec, ISO-160, objektív: Canon 50mm 1.8

How to use ND filters

I have an ND filter that needs to be screwed onto the front of the lens, mounted within a slim filter ring (as shown in the picture). There are some other types where you put a filter holder on the lens. In general, the filter holder is made with metal, allowing for creative use of light correction or special effects. Simply slide in different square-shaped filters to take beautiful shots.

You can calculate in your head how to use the filter or you can try different shutter speeds, whatever suits your taste. The latter is often time-consuming when we wait for up to 10 minutes for our image and in the end, it turns out that we have not chosen the right speed. Taking advantage of today’s modern world, I’d rather offer you an app.

My phone is an android phone, but I'm sure anyone, regardless of phone, can find this app: ND Filter Expert.

There is a free version of it and there is a paid one. I am using the free version and it works perfectly for what I need.


Before screwing the ND filter onto the lens, first set the shutter speed. I usually search for the right value in live view. The light must be measured before you mount the ND filter because after that you will see exactly nothing. For this image, I chose a 1/60sec of a shutter speed because I didn’t want a very light image, I was going for early morning, moody light.

 Canon EOS 700D, f/1.8, 1/400sec, ISO-100, objektív: Canon 50mm 1.8

The ISO always should be the lowest to reduce the noise on the image. Most cameras out there have a basic ISO-100 but some of them can have ISO-50. Select these options.

Take a test image, if you like what you see on the back of the screen of your camera, then very carefully mount your ND filter.

Now we will need the ND Filter Expert application. On the top line, "Exposure Time," choose the shutter speed from the drop-down menu. In my case 1/60.

Then in the next line, "No Filter," select the filter you use. Again from the drop-down menu, I chose 15 stop ND filter.

Well, this is where the magic happens, because it calculates how long the film is going to be exposed.

My app says that my camera should be exposing for more than 9 minutes.

These apps, fortunately, speed up our working process. Before I found this app I was just trying to figure out the time. I had to wait 25 minutes to see the end result and at the end, my image was either overexposed even with the filter or underexposed.

All you have to do now is to press the shutter button and relax.

It’s important to note here that always use a self-timer when you are going for long-exposure photography. Even minimal movement of your camera will cause blurring in your end result. I guess you don't want to find out after 20 minutes that you need to delete the image because it's useless. Nope! Been there, done that.

I was using the Canon EOS 6D Mark II for this project. I set the self-timer for 10 seconds and then put it in Bulb Mode and set it to that specified duration - 9 minutes. This way I did not have to check my watch when the 9 minutes was over.

Why did I use a 10-second self-timer instead of 2 or 5 seconds? In the present situation, the ground was swampy. I pierced the legs of the stand well into the ground, but still this ground was not standing on a smooth asphalt. I wanted to make sure that after I pressed the shutter button, all the vibrations would stop by the time the camera started shooting.

That is it guys! Now you can add your filters if you want to enhance your images.

If you found this post useful, feel free to like it, share it, or comment on it. Have a nice day!

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