Just Add Water


A few weeks back, I was exploring a rock formation near the Little Colorado River. I found a number of petroglyphs. It occurred to me that almost all the petroglyphs and ruins I've encountered in the Southwest were near rivers or streams. The ancient desert people had compelling practical reasons for living near water. I suspect, though, that they also enjoyed simply looking at it.

I love to include water in my photographs. Judging by what I see on photography forums, I'm not alone. Water can significantly improve a photographic composition.  It's worth considering why.

Eliminating Clutter

Much of water's visual appeal comes from its reflective quality. Water is nature's mirror. It generally takes on the luminance and color of its surroundings. Water's reflective quality can help to simplify an image. Here's an example.

The water in this scene reflects the clear blue sky. Neither the sky nor the water offers anything interesting to look at. In conjunction, though, they create a simplified canvas on which the other visual elements are organized. Because the expanses of blue above and below don't compete for attention with the key visual elements, the impact of they key elements is enhanced. If the lower part of the image were instead filled with foliage, the composition wouldn't work nearly as well.

In most instances, a body of water will primarily reflect the sky. If the sky is uncluttered, the water will be as well.

This simplifying effect of water is one reason so many photographers include it in photographs. Our world is visually cluttered. Anything that can reduce unnecessary detail in an image will help to focus the viewer's attention on the key visual elements.

Creating Balance

Water will often reflect surrounding detail. That makes it helpful when composing photographs for a distinct reason. In the photograph of the creek above, the trees on the shoreline are reflected in the water. The reflections produce a localized symmetry that adds order to the image, and what we might call balance—or harmony. The balance that results from the symmetry of reflected detail accounts for the quality of tranquility that we often associate with images of water.

In addition to being cluttered, our planet is visually disorganized. Reflections in water create small pockets of order and balance amid the visual chaos. Those pockets are promising subjects for photographers.

Although the symmetry we get from reflections in water can be useful, we shouldn't overdo it. Many of us have taken photographs of this sort:

I was pleased with this image at first, but it hasn't held up for me. For me, images of this sort are too balanced, to the point of being static and dull. Tastes vary, but I find reflected detail more appealing when used in images that avoid so much overall symmetry. Reflections, like herbs and spices, work best when used with restraint.

Juxtaposing Hard and Soft Elements

Moving water offers photographers an entirely different advantage. We've all seen long exposures of moving water that reduce the water to a silky blur. The blurred water is almost always juxtaposed with fixed visual elements that are sharper. The juxtaposition of what's hard and soft, continuous and discontinuous, is very appealing to most of us. I've heard some people call the effect a cliche. If so, it's a cliche I never tire of.

Consider these two shots of the same water feature, one of which I discussed in a previous entry:


The first image was taken at twilight, and was exposed for 2.5 seconds. The second image—which I took only for purposes of comparison—was taken in mid-afternoon, and was exposed for 1/25th of a second. I much prefer the first shot for at least two reasons. First, the softness of the water in the first image compliments the sharper detail in the background. The second shot is too uniformly hard, even though I softened the water somewhat during processing.

Another reason I prefer the first image is that it better captures the experience of looking at the falling water. I've never seen falling water stopped in mid air, except in photographs. That's not how it looks to me in real life. The blurred water in the first image isn't exactly how it looks either, but it's a better approximation of my subjective experience.

How to Photograph Water

For the most part, photographing water is like photographing anything else. Only a few differences occur to me.

Polarizing filters can be very helpful when photographing water. There is often a lot of glare on streams and lakes. A polarizer can cut through the glare and render the water transparent.

I generally don't consider a cloudless sky an advantage when I'm photographing landscapes. If there's a body of water involved, though, a cloudless sky can work well, as the first photograph in this entry demonstrates. An overcast sky, by contrast, can make a body of water look gray and unappealing.

If we want to blur moving water, we need a long exposure. That can be done in bright light with a small aperture and a neutral-density filter. I prefer the simpler solution of shooting in low light, usually at dawn or dusk. The light is usually better at those times, anyway.

I think it helps to give some conscious thought to why water offers advantages in composition. Mostly, though, we just need to go where there's water, walk around and look. Good compositions are waiting to be found. Some 2500 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Laotse wrote that water benefits all things and does not compete with them. My eyes tell me he was right.

Don Peters' photographs can be found at http://cornflakeaz.smugmug.com/