Shutter speed of 1 Second to create water streaks

One of my favorite subjects to photograph is water. Using different shutter speeds on your camera, you can create a diversity of different moods. Some of the best examples that involve water are waterfalls, creeks, rivers, and waves. 

The three main shutter speeds that I use are 1/100, 0.5-1 second and 5-30 seconds to convey varying moods.  

A faster shutter speed, like 1/100, creates an image that exudes the powerful force of water.  An example of this would be large ocean waves crashing against shoreline rocks. A fast shutter speed “stops” the waves in the moment and thus conveys a mood to the viewer that signifies power, strength, and intensity. In this example, the subject of water can be manipulated to create a style that conveys emotion to the viewer. 

Fast Shutter Speed to catch the crest of the wave

A fast shutter speed of 1/100 sec to capture the power of the spouting water: Image by Kati S

A mid-range duration of shutter speed such as 0.5 to 1 seconds can be utilized to create a more dynamic mood. This is especially effective for capturing water in the form of waves and movement. For example, having “streak-like” motion lines as the waves approach the camera. This effect gives the appearance that the water is right in front of the viewer. Thus, the emotion and mood that this particular shutter speed creates is one of tension, excitement, and anticipation. It tells a story that there is more to come. 

Using a 1 second shutter speed to accentuate the streaks in the water
Using a 1 second exposure to achieve the streaks in the water

The third and last use of shutter speed is long/slow such as a range of 5 to 30 seconds. This is generally known as a long exposure. The effect of a longer shutter speed blurs out the water and gives the viewer a sense of calmness, peace and tranquility. To achieve a longer exposure the use of filters might be needed. Using a Neutral Density filter helps to lengthen the exposure by darkening the available light coming into the camera. The end result is an image that is soft, ethereal, and almost painterly. The overall mood conveyed by a long exposure allows the viewer to feel a sense of serenity. 

Using a long exposure to create a more subtle mood in the water

Create a more peaceful mood to the image with long exposures

So with three different types of shutter speed that create vastly different moods which one is the correct one?  The answer depends on the story you were trying to convey to your audience.  Pre-visualize in the field your feelings at the time you capture the image and integrate that mood into the final product. Say for example you may want to capture the power and rush of the ocean waves, therefore a faster shutter speed would achieve this intended goal. When shooting at sunrise or sunset when the sun is near the horizon I like to use a shutter speed of 1 second. The combination of the warm light from the sun and the shutter speed create a dynamic image that really draws the viewer in. The other example might be after sunset in the twilight hour. In general I like to use a softer mood when cooler colors are present such as the times before sunrise and after sunset are fantastic for longer exposures. 

Below are examples of the three shutter speeds discussed in the article. Although each image is captured with the same composition, each image has very different moods because of the shutter speed difference.

Fast Shutter Speed 1/100 Second
Shutter Speed 1 Second
30 Second Exposure
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