How to Make Moving Water Look Silky Smooth in Your Photos

While on a South American sojourn, Mark Wallace landed in Mindo, Ecuador. Standing right on the edge of a roaring river, Wallace gives us a perfect tutorial on how to use your circular polarizer and neutral density filter set (and a bit of post-production) to create a beautiful image that makes the water look as smooth as glass. Here’s what he has to say:

Gear for Rushing Water Photos

Wallace used the following gear to take his demonstration image:

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark III
  • Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens
  • Benro C1682TV1 Travel Angel II carbon fiber tripod to stabilize the camera during long exposures
  • Hoya 77mm (0.6) multi-coated neutral density filter to reduce the light coming through the lens
  • 77mm Tiffen Circular polarizer to cut down on the glare from the wet rocks and the gushing water

Camera Settings

Wallace used the following settings for his water photo, but recommended settings will vary based on your lighting conditions:

  • Aperture priority mode set to f/20. This is to ensure a really wide depth of field and to allow for a slower shutter speed, which creates that glassy smooth effect.
  • ISO 100
  • 2-second delay shooting so that he can cut down any movement of the camera when the shutter button is pressed
  • The test shots revealed that the exposure was off by about one stop (under) so to compensate he used exposure compensation and set his exposure to +1
bracketing and exposure compensation

Use exposure compensation to tweak your exposure.

  • Wallace also used bracketing to take five photos in order to get just the shot he wanted.
  • Continuous drive mode


The final image required some editing in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. Because of the nature of the lighting, there were a lot of shadows on the banks of the river, and the details needed to be retrieved from those areas. Also, the highlights in the image were really treading on the borderline and needed to be slightly tweaked.

cancelling vignetting using Lightoom crop tool

Wallace used the crop tool in Lightroom to reduce vignetting.

The circular filters and the lens Wallace used resulted in some unwanted vignetting at the corners of the frame. He simply used to the crop tool in Lightroom to overcome this problem.

Having bracketed the exposures means Wallace was able to use them to create a HDR image. This is how Wallace’s attempt looked after post-processing:


Final HDR Image After Post-Processing

Do you have other tips for photographing moving water? Let us know with a comment below!

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One response to “How to Make Moving Water Look Silky Smooth in Your Photos”

  1. Uttam says:

    One of the most important gear is: TRIPOD, which is shown in video but it’s not mentioned in this article.

    At one point, you can take picture of smooth silky rushing water without ND filter and/or Circular Polarizer Filter, but you can not take picture of smooth silky rushing water without TRIPOD ( Even with or without ND/Polarizer filters) because, picture will be blurry as hell without tripod and so of no use.

    PS: To take picture of silky rushing water without any filters, all you need to do is take under expose shots with higher shutter speeds. Ofcourse, it won’t be super great as taken with filters, but will be great enough…!!!

    If you don’t have Shutter Delay option, you can use either Mirror Lock-Up or Self-Timer option…!! :)

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