Tips & Techniques » Photographing Water
If you look back at my article Light As Subject of Your Photograph, you will see that I have a real passion for light and its ability to create memorable imagery. One of the most fascinating things for me is to observe how moving light interacts with static objects. I first noticed this while in an airplane. As the person next to the window was stationary in her seat, the light from the window was moving as the airplane turned. A veritable theatrical spotlight was shifting over her face and body, onto the seat, the wall, the aisle and the cocktail.
I noticed, in a movie with scenes filmed around a pool, the way sunlight reflected off of the pool and played across the bodies of the people by the pool. I am sure we have all seen this happen in person. But we are so conditioned to having the light source be static, if anything moves it is usually the subject—a person, car, dog, etc. I think the concept of water as moving light can create a most unusual and compelling visual—watch your kids, or even a stranger, as they lay near the pool and water creates a multifaceted series of rippled and waved light bouncing, dancing and cavorting about.
So, what happens when we use the concept of a dynamic light source, like water, and make that the focal point of our image? In the following examples I was trying to accomplish a few things— to take advantage of the light’s movement on the water, to take advantage of the colors of light on the water and to use the water/light source as the subject of the image.
Consisting of approximately 75% of the frame, this first image is clearly about the water. I used the two hulls of the rowing sculls merely to act as a visual counterpoint to the sparkling water. In this image, the hulls help to create depth, distance and balance. When viewing water like this, use your LCD to view the water, the sparkling highlights and the density. Are the highlights burning out? Are the adjacent objects too dark? Look carefully and critically at this first exposure and bracket several exposures above and below the initial exposure, as needed. Remember, this is not film, and using space on your card generally costs nothing. I usually bracket in the smallest increments possible, as I want to look for the subtleties in depth of field, contrast and density between exposures. (In this regard I have just finished editing thousands of images with my good friend Richard McCaffrey for an upcoming book. Richard would always say I always shoot too much and I would always say he shoots too little. It ended up costing us each the same amount!)
The cute little golden mermaid on the gunwale of a gondola would be reason enough to take the image for me; as you may have seen in my past articles I have long been fascinated with design elements, gargoyles and statuaries. But the real reason to me for this image is the golden reflection in the water. Frankly, the mermaid is visually fun, providing contrast and color, but it is used as an excuse to show the complexities of the water in the background.
This is an example of how the light on the water drew my attention. The steps have limited value in the image; they direct the eye into the frame, establish scale and provide some interesting geometry. But it is the golden, moving, sparkling water that is the real subject of this shot.
Here is the dark and sensual bow of a gondola—perhaps 15% of the frame--juxtaposed against the dense, colorful, moving and playful water. While the boat provides some detail, it is a foreground note to the background subject. The boat also provides symmetry and contrast, but with the preponderance of water in this image, we should have a pretty good idea that the water is the central subject.
And now we see the famous statuary and pool at the Trevi fountain. I used the rocks in the foreground to provide some sense of depth and to block the eye from leaving the bottom of the frame. I also included, against my better judgment, the people in the background. They provide scale and some cultural and historical information. My real fascination was the mixing colors of the water, the highlights created by the spotlights around the side of the pool and especially the two major highlights running from back to front of the frame, and more importantly that subtle golden highlight running in between.
While I certainly recommend a visit to a wonderful setting like Italy, what is more salient is to suggest that you look critically at how water moves light and how it sometimes provides a subject in and of itself. Look for the light on the water and see the objects surrounding it as secondary. Take time to notice the ways that color and density change when your position changes. Experiment with light and water and take lots of images.
Follow the light…f-stop fitzgerald