How to Get a Silky Water Effect with Long Exposure Photography

Perhaps you’ve seen a photo of a river, waterfall, or ocean waves where the moving water looks like silky, flowing ribbons of mist and wondered how the photographer created that effect. Well, it’s not as hard as it seems, and it’s one of the many special effects that can be achieved with long exposure photography. Photographer Joshua Cripps offers three tips for how to get that streaky look when photographing ocean waves:

“The ocean is a wonderful place to photograph. Its constant moving and grooving makes it an endless playground to experiment with all kinds of long exposure effects.”

ocean waves long exposure

1. Use a shutter speed between 1/4 of a second and 2 seconds.

This is the shutter speed “sweet spot” for getting that streaky effect. Anything faster won’t show the water’s movement. Anything much slower, and you get into what Cripps calls the “oatmeal zone,” where the water looks like “an undefined, gloopy mess.”

beach at sunset

Extra tip: To ensure good results at this shutter speed, you’ll need to use a tripod and shoot during a time when there’s lower light levels, like at sunrise, sunset, or when it’s cloudy. Or pick up a neutral density (ND) filter to tone down bright daytime conditions.

2. Get your timing right.

For waves, Cripps recommends snapping your shot at the moment when a wave is just starting to recede down the beach.

long exposure beach photo

Extra tip: Use a remote shutter release so you can trigger your shot at the exact right moment without risking any camera shake that might ruin your photo.

3. Look for funneled water.

You’ll get the strongest streaks when the water is being funneled somewhere, such as around or between rocks.

seaside sunset photo

Extra tip: It’s likely that your tripod will sink or shift when mounted in sand with water flowing around it. Prevent this by giving your tripod legs a good, firm shove, planting them as far down into the sand as you can. This will give you much better stability.

Share your tips for long exposure water photos in the comment’s section below!

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