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Technique – Using Long Exposures to Achieve “Glassy” Water

By Christopher Lin on April 23rd 2009

If there were a statistic of the most commonly photographed things in the history of photography, I bet the ocean/beach would be near the top of the list. And as with any commonly photographed subject, the challenge for amateurs and professionals alike is finding something that differentiates the image produced by you and the millions of iterations produced by others.

Some of the techniques employed to achieve differentiation include HDR and other Photoshop techniques, unique lenses such as fisheyes or tilt-shifts, or simply patience, i.e. waiting for unique clouds, colorful skies, or stunning waves. Another technique that I would like to introduce (or remind you of) is the technique of using long exposures.

stearns-wharf-santa-barbara-wedding-photography-006Shot at Sterns Wharf in Santa Barbara, CA on a Canon 5d Mark II on a 17-40mm f/4L lens at f22, 30 second exposure, and ISO 50 (low)

There are obvious and not-so-obvious reasons to use longer exposures. Maybe you simply need the long exposure because it’s too dark to get a proper exposure otherwise. Or maybe you need higher apertures because you want to capture as much depth of field as possible. But here’s another reason you might want to consider setting up the tripod and dropping your exposure time down: glassy water.

[Recommended: 10 Long Exposure Photography Mistakes To Avoid]

As always, showing is better than explaining. See the image above and notice how the ocean water looks so calm, even Ëœglassy.’ This image is of Sterns Wharf in Santa Barbara, CA; and like any pier in the Pacific Ocean, there are waves in the water. However, the long exposure has essentially blurred out anything moving, i.e. the waves, and the result is a smooth, glass-like body of water, giving the image a dreamy effect without any need for Photoshop.

Here’s how you get the image above.
1) Set the camera on a tripod
2) Take your apertures up to f22 (You’ll get a bit of aperture diffraction!! but the decrease in overall clarity is sacrificed to obtain this effect as well as the depth-of-field in the image)
3) Decrease your shutter speed as low as you can go and still get the exposure that you desire
4) Make sure your ISOs are as low as possible as longer exposures will automatically increase the amount of grain in the image (any grain will decrease the overall clarity of the image)
5) Use a remote trigger or set a timer on your camera so you don’t risk any camera shake (any movement will also decrease the overall clarity of the image)
6) Click away experimenting with different over and under exposures (most likely under exposing a little) to get your desired image.
7) Dodge and burn in post production order to even out your exposure by burning the highlights and dodging the shadows (shooting low ISO is critical for this stage)

The longer the exposure the Ëœglassier’ the water will look. For example, take a look at an image shot a bit earlier in the evening, when there was more light. At f22 the proper exposure required a shutter speed of 4 seconds, not enough time to achieve the glassy effect.

Shot at Sterns Wharf in Santa Barbara, CA on a Canon 5d Mark II on a 17-40mm f/4L lens at f22, 4 second exposure, and ISO 50 (low)

Notice how the Ëœglassiness’ of the water has decreased compared to the first image shown. Now view this final image, taken even earlier in the evening and notice how each wave is fully visible.


Shot at Sterns Wharf in Santa Barbara, CA on a Canon 5d Mark II on a 17-40mm f/4L lens at f4, 1/60, and ISO 400

Which image is the best? The answer is very subjective; and glassier is not necessarily better. Remember that I introduced this article with techniques to make your images different from the ordinary; and this is just one way of achieving that.

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Co-Founder of SLR Lounge and Photographer with Lin and Jirsa Photography, I’m based in Southern California but you can find me traveling the world. Click here to connect on Google +

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Joseph Prusa

    Good info

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  2. The 10 Must-Photograph Places in Northern Ireland Using Long Exposure

    […] [REWIND: Technique – Using Long Exposures to Achieve “Glassy” Water] […]

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  3. How to be Creative with Slow Shutter Speed

    […] You can turn moving water from waterfalls or in the ocean or a lake into a smooth, silky, ethereal flow simply by slowing down your shutter speed to around ½ sec or more. I love the artistic way that you can play with long exposure and water. For a more in-depth look on this type of photography, you can check out our article on using long exposures to achieve glassy water. […]

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  4. Chris Baylor

    Awesome post. I concur with Norm, Mirror lockup is essential for long exposure shots as well as general landscape shoots. Another point would be to check your focus or set the focus to the infinity mark and maximum aperture that the lens will support.

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  5. Linh Tran

    Thank you so much for this tutorial. Do you guys offer classes? If not, you should. =P

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  6. norm lao

    Good tutorial, don’t forget mirror lockup for long exposures!

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  7. John Naccarato

    I love it. Gonna go try out some stuff like this over the weekend to see what I can come up with! Thanks!

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  8. Tim Halberg

    well done. Haven’t seen a nice picture from the warf in a while.

    would love to see more articles like this to help people out.

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