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Photography 101: Liquid Creations

By March 2, 2022No Comments

Exploring the Creative Potentials of Water

Photo of sun setting over the ocean with waves gently coming up a beach that goes off diagonally from right to left. Sunset on Dickenson Bay, St. John’s, Antigua West Indies © F. M. Kearney
Sunset on Dickenson Bay, St. John’s, Antigua West Indies © F. M. Kearney

By F. M. Kearney

“Are there any nearby bodies of water?” This is always one of the first questions I ask myself whenever I plan a trip. Water can be a great subject on its own, or serve as a beautiful, decorative element. Of course, large bodies of water at sunset are a no-brainer. I shot the opening photo (above) on a beach in Antigua as the sun was setting over the Caribbean Sea. But you don’t have to go to the Tropics, or even visit a beach, to take advantage of amazing aquatic aesthetics. I’ve created stunning images in small puddles in local parks.

Reflective Qualities

Probably one of the most common reasons to include water in a photo is to take advantage of its beautiful reflective qualities. It’s a sure-fire way to enhance any scene. The best part is that it doesn’t matter what type of lighting you’re shooting in. Great images can be made on sunny or overcast days, but the effects are uniquely different.

If you’re a city-dweller, you should find a host of opportunities in your local park. Most large parks have lakes, and this is where you may find your most intriguing images. It’s also a great place to shoot urban/nature photos. Look for angles where you can include any surrounding buildings reflecting in the water. I shot the image below in New York’s Central Park by a lake, actually named The Lake. The winds were very light – providing for an almost mirror-like reflection. Through careful composition, I was able to place the reflection of the tall building in the center directly into the outcropping of the rock. It was the perfect spot to combine urban and nature – literally.

Photo of a body of water with a large rock in the foreground and high-rise buildings in the background. The buildings and sky are reflected in the water. Calm waters create an almost mirror-like reflection in this urban/nature scene. © F. M. Kearney
Calm waters create an almost mirror-like reflection in this urban/nature scene. © F. M. Kearney

In the photo below, I used the relatively calm waters of Hessian Lake to reflect the fall colors of Harriman State Park, located in Upstate New York. The reflection isn’t exactly mirror-like because the winds weren’t quite as calm as they were in Central Park. Also, a few wakes left behind by a passing family of geese contributed to the disturbance in the water. Combined with the winds, this resulted in an interesting abstraction of color in the reflection.

Photo of trees with fall colors in foliage reflected in a body of water. Passing geese and moderate winds create a reflection of colorful abstractions. © F. M. Kearney
Passing geese and moderate winds create a reflection of colorful abstractions. © F. M. Kearney

I shot the Central Park photo early in the morning, before the sun had fully risen. The Harriman State Park photo was taken on an overcast day. In both cases, the lakes were shielded from harsh, direct sunlight. Soft, even lighting is generally preferred in nature photography, However, when it comes to reflections in water, high-contrast lighting can be very beneficial. If a breeze is generating ripples on the water, the effects can be quite stunning.

Photo with a tree full of brilliant orange leaves on the right and a body of water in the middle distance.  On the left, there are bright, specular highlights in the water. Brilliant highlights reflecting on a lake in Central Park. © F. M. Kearney
Brilliant highlights reflecting on a lake in Central Park. © F. M. Kearney

I shot the photo above on a moderately breezy, mostly-sunny day in Central Park last fall. The sun would go behind the clouds periodically, but each time it re-emerged it would shine on different parts of the lake – casting dazzling highlights on the small ripples. If you look closely, you can see a duck passing through the upper portion of the highlights.

Highlights such as these can actually take center-stage in a photo. The autumn-colored maple leaves below were hanging over the glistening highlights of a sun-drenched lake. I shot it many years ago in the New York Botanical Garden. Using a long lens, I compressed the space between the leaves and the highlights to make them more prominent in the shot.

Photo of a few colorful maple leaves with sparkling but out of focus water in the background. Effects of direct sunlight reflecting on water.© F. M. Kearney
Effects of direct sunlight reflecting on water.© F. M. Kearney
NOTE: You may have noticed that the highlights aren’t perfectly round. I took this photo in 2011 using a film camera and an amateur, 70-210mm f/5.6-4 lens. The shape of the out of focus highlights (or bokeh) is produced by the shape of the aperture opening at the rear of the lens. This shape is determined by the number and shape of the blades used to form the opening. Pro lenses use either more blades, or curved blades in order to create a more circular-shaped opening, thus, a more circular-shaped bokeh. Amateur lenses, on the other hand, use fewer blades that are straight-edged – producing octagonal-shaped openings and similarly-shaped bokeh, as seen in this photo. If the shape of the bokeh is of little concern to you, save yourself a ton of money and only purchase amateur lenses.

Creating Your Own Windless Day

If you like the look of smooth water, but the day is just too windy… just take control of the elements and turn the wind off! Before you begin wondering from which mental hospital I’ve escaped, this suggestion is not as ridiculous as it sounds. A neutral density (ND) filter is a simple, yet extremely effective tool in situations such as this. Its sole purpose is to darken the scene so that you either have to use a larger aperture or a longer shutter speed to obtain the correct exposure. In this particular case, you would want to use it to lengthen your exposure. Simply closing your aperture down to its smallest opening will probably not result in a slow enough shutter speed to smooth out the water in normal, daylight conditions. Available in different strengths, ND filters can lengthen your exposure anywhere from several seconds to several minutes. I shot the image below at sunrise in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY. By using a ND filter, I was able to lengthen my exposure to one full minute. This gave the water an ultra-smooth (almost surreal) look – rivaling that of the sky. But, besides the water, it’s important to be aware of anything else that might move during an exposure of this length. You might not want to try this technique if there are a lot of trees or bushes in your shot. The blurry leaves that will result would not look good in the photo. That wasn’t an issue for me here because I shot this image in the winter. However, in this case, the lengthy exposure had a positive aesthetic effect by causing the clouds to streak across the sky and render the meandering ducks as ghostly apparitions. Of course, the use of a sturdy tripod as an absolute must.

Photo of the moment of sunrise from across a lake. A dead tree has fallen into the water from the left. A few ducks are behind it. Silhouettes or trees are on the far shore with a blue sky above streaked with moving clouds. A 1-minute exposure completely smoothed out all the ripples on this lake. © F. M. Kearney
A 1-minute exposure completely smoothed out all the ripples on this lake. © F. M. Kearney

Subtle Accents

Water can also be used as a subtle accent – a bit player in the scene. I shot the images below along the Bronx River in the New York Botanical Garden. Most of the river is very calm, but there are a lot of rapids in this particular section. Rather than shooting the rapids by themselves, I chose to incorporate them into the surrounding environment. I composed the scenes below so that the rapids would fill the open spaces between the trees. To emphasize the movement of the water, I used a shutter speed of ½ second. A longer exposure would have caused the rapids to lose their shape, and basically meld into the rest of the river. More importantly, I would have run the risk of emphasizing any movement in the leaves. Depending on the conditions, you might have to try several different shutter speeds until you find the right balance. Once again, the use of a tripod is a must.

Twin photos of flowing water viewed through trees. A shutter speed of ½ second was adequate to emphasize movement in the water but retain sharpness in the leaves. © F. M. Kearney
A shutter speed of ½ second was adequate to emphasize movement in the water but retain sharpness in the leaves. © F. M. Kearney

So, the next time you’re out shooting, look for any size body of water. You’d be amazed of the possibilities this common, yet beautiful, subject can provide.

Photo of F.M. Kearney F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. He can be contacted at starcollec@aol.com, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).