Monday 26 September 2011

How To Photograph Beautiful River Scenes

Photo by Joel Bedford

Rivers make a wonderful subject for the outdoor photographer yet I find people rarely set out with the intention to photograph them. I find they offer an abundance of opportunities from grand sweeping vistas to detailed abstracts to wildlife as well as being fantastic places to enjoy the outdoors.

Photo by  MikeBehnken

Having photographed many river locations I find they all have their own unique character. I see my role as the photographer being to identify and emphasise this character. I do this by asking myself a series of questions when I first arrive at a location:
  • Is this a large and impressive river or a small natural bubbling stream?
  • Is this a setting people might describe as being idyllic and picturesque or is it more of an urban or industrial setting?
  • Is the river clean and pure or dirty and full of litter?
  • Does the setting convey a feeling of tranquillity and calm or are there other emotions it sparks and if so what?
  • Is the river fast moving and powerful or more slow and sedate?
  • Is the water rough surface rough and broken by rocks or flat, calm and full of reflections?
With these essential questions answered I turn my attention to capturing images by assessing and deciding how to use a number of factors.

Photo by joiseyshowaa

Weather and light

The weather conditions, time of day and time of year all help in determining the type and quality of light you will have to work with. It may sound obvious but you can't do too much about these factors so look to create photographs that make the most of the light you have available.

Photo by Steve-h

Early morning and late evening light is probably what most photographers think of as being the best light. Typically the sky is colourful and with larger, slower moving rivers, this great light will be reflected making the river appear to glow. Shutter speeds will be longer at this time of day which also helps smooth out the surface of the river. This is probably the best lighting conditions to create a mood of calm and tranquillity. It's not always easy to organise yourself to be out photographing at this time of day but it is immensely rewarding in terms of images and the sheer pleasure of watching a sunset or sunrise.

Photo by Ian Sane

Midday light, at least outside the winter months, tends to be a little harsh and it can be difficult to reflect the character of the river in its setting. If however the river is in an urban landscape this type of lighting can still work well at it can be used to emphasise the unattractive elements. Also if the river is strong and powerful you can use the bright lighting to freeze the action. If you find yourself trying to work under harsh lighting conditions that don't suit you location, try to seek out wooded areas where there is plenty of shade or focus in on capturing detail shots.

The same advice also tends to hold true for bad weather such as rain. Also immediately after a rain storm, when the weather breaks can also produce magical lighting. The clearing rain storm in the image above produced very dramatic lighting, despite being shot at midday. The rain also helped swell the river to give a great cascading effect over the rocks.

The weather condition that is one of the best for adding mood and character is mist and fog. Rivers in autumn are often great locations for mist early and late in the day. Such conditions tend to be best around sunrise and sunset, often catching the colour of early morning sun. Look for the larger slow moving rivers located in open fields as these often give rise to the best mist.

Photo by Steve Gatto

Autumn is also a great time of year to photograph rivers and streams in woodland areas. Trees will be changing colour making for vibrant scenes. Leaves will be falling into the river, often gathering in pools around rocks. Here be on the lookout for opportunities to shoot swirling patterns caused by leaves caught in the rivers current. With longer shutter speed this slow movement can be recorded as a swirling pattern. Consider using a polarizing filter to give a longer shutter speed but also to emphasise and saturate the vibrant autumn colours.


The direction in which you shoot the river can also have a huge impact on the character of you convey in your photograph. Shooting across a river tends to create a rather static image that flows in on one side of the composition and out on the other. If you have to compose with the river flowing horizontally across the image try to include something in the foreground of the frame to create a feeling of depth to the image.

Photo by Esparta Palma

Often large areas of the riverbank are nothing but grass. In this situations there is little to hold the viewers attention. Try to find locations where there is something to include in the foreground such as rocks and reeds.
Shooting along the river from its bank offers more potential especially where the river tends to bend and meander. Long straight rivers are less photogenic but can offer some potential. Look for long stretches where the perspective of the river can be emphasised using a wide angle lens. The best positions however tend to be on bends as this lets you show off the bend and lead the eye into the image. Curves are more photogenic and pleasing to the eye than straight lines. Bends also allow you to position yourself so you look like you are shooting from in the river. This can further be enhanced by a long lens to ensure there is no foreground. When doing this though remember to include a point of interest to focus the viewer's eye and attention.

Photo by Puliarf

Shutter Speed and Depth of Field

Finally, give some consideration to the shutter speed you will be using. Don't just stop down to a small aperture for good depth of field and accept the shutter speed. Increase the ISO a little if you need to as the shutter speed can be a big influence the character of the image you create. Long shutter speeds give smooth water and reflections, which all add to a sense of calm and tranquillity. Fast shutter speeds freeze the water and can really emphasise the feeling of power and strength in the water.

Written by Robin Whalley

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