A Matter of Seconds

When shooting moving water, the most important decision is the choice of shutter speed (or exposure time).  Most photographers prefer to use a long exposure time to convey a sense of movement of the water.  However, how long is long enough?  Half a second? Two seconds? Ten seconds?  It is a matter of personal taste.

I took these photos at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on a foggy spring morning. Generally speaking, when taking images of waterfalls and creeks, I almost always try to avoid direct sunshine hitting the water, since it will cause ugly blown out highlight areas.  I much prefer to shoot during a cloudy day or when the scene is in the shade. A drizzling day works ever better!

One of the most useful accessories when shooting water is a polarizer filter. The filter serves two purposes: (1) it eliminates the glare from wet rocks and foliage, and, (2) it acts as a 1.3-1.7 stop neutral density filter to slow the shutter speed by reducing the amount of light entering the lens.

For the first photo, I used a Cokin Z-164 CPL on a Cokin-Z Pro holder mounted in front of my Canon 16-35mm F2.8L lens.  I set the ISO to 100 and my aperture to F13. The CPL effectively reduces the shutter speed to 0.5 second, which is perfect to capture the sense of movement of the water in the creek.  I also used a Lee 2-stop soft GND to prevent the sky from over-exposure.

Enchanted Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 16-35mm F2.8L @ 16mm, ISO 100, 0.5 second, F13, Cokin Z-164 CPL, Lee 4×6 2-stop soft GND.
Enchanted Creek

On my second try, I added a Lee 4-stop ND (Neutral Density) filter  in front of the above setup, resulting in a much longer exposure time (8 seconds).  The slower shutter speed completely blurred the water flow, creating a dream-like mood that matches well with the surrounding fog.

Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 16-35mm F2.8L @ 16mm, ISO 100, 8 seconds, F13, Cokin Z-164 CPL, Lee 4×6 2-stop soft GND, Lee 4×4 4-stop  ND.
Enchanted Creek

The different shutter speeds created very different feels.  Which version is “better”? It is in the eyes of beholders and I have heard different opinions from my fellow photographer friends.  The first version is more dynamic and the texture of the foreground is lovely.  The longer-exposure one is soft and moody. When you are in the field shooting, choose a shutter speed that works best for your personal style. If you cannot make up your mind, just try different speeds!

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4 thoughts on “A Matter of Seconds

  1. I like the first one . Because in the first one water looks more dynamic.When I look at it, I can even if hear the sound of the running water in this quiet foggy forest,which is just like a beautiful music. Although it’s just a still picture,it brings me not only just visual feeling but also audiotary enjoyment. In the second one water is too foggy and totally lost the feeing like the first one. Thanks for this beautiful photo.

  2. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 16-35mm F2.8L @ 16mm, ISO 100, 8 seconds, F13, Cokin Z-164 CPL, Lee 4×6 2-stop soft GND, Lee 4×4 4-stop ND. Just wondering how do you add so many filters to one camera, I mean I am trying to understand how can you use a CPL and two ND filters at the same time, is there a special holder for this, please share. Thanks . Incredible images

    • I used a Cokin Z-Pro holder, which could hold a CPL and a ND filter at the same time. The GND was hand-held.

      Note that the Cokin Z-Pro holder’s original configuration could hold three filters. However it will result in some vignetting at very wide end. As a result, I removed one filter slot so there is no vignetting at 16mm end now.

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