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Water Photography With Bill Ward

Pentax user and expert water photographer Bill Ward shares some insights about photographing water.

|  Pentax K-3 II in Landscape and Travel
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Calder Valley

'Calder valley ICM' © Bill Ward

What kit do you use and why do you find it ideal for water photography?

I shoot with the Pentax K3/K3 II, both of which are fully weather sealed, making them ideal for water based photography. I've shot with Pentax equipment ever since I worked for their ad agency, Saatchi and Saatchi, in the 1990s. I find their cameras great to use: intuitive, rugged, and extremely well built.

Having said that, I genuinely think as a photographer your most important piece of equipment, both when shooting water or indeed anything else, is you. Your camera is the thing you take photographs WITH. What it can't determine is what you take photographs OF, and I'd argue that what you take photographs OF is the really important bit. So for me, and apologies for sounding like an old hippy here, your most important pieces of equipment will generally be your eyes, your heart, and your soul. All the photography equipment in the world can't and won't compensate for what you see, or what you feel.


'Driftwood, Lincolnshire' © Bill Ward

Water can be a very reflective subject, especially at this time of year with ice covering canals and lakes. How do you use this to your advantage?

Water is an extraordinary substance. As I understand it, it's the only substance on earth that, under normal conditions, exists in 3 separate states: solid, liquid, gas. It reflects light in all 3 states (not much of it actually, probably somewhere around 5% according to the scientists, but at the right angle, and with a polariser, that's enough to make interesting photographs). Often the question is how much reflected light you're trying to capture vs cutting through the top of the water to whatever lies beneath. I often have a look for shades of colour in ambient reflected light: there's often more than might appear at first sight, particularly in fast running streams. Yellows, oranges and greens can be reflected from trees above, blues and greys from the sky, and you can use these colours to help build compositions in the surface of the water. Alternatively, you can use your polariser to try to cut out as much reflected light as you can to cut through to the river bed to find leaves, coloured stones etc and build your compositions around them.

Fallen Leaves

'Fallen Leaves' © Bill Ward

What about rougher waters? Is it about taming these or is there some rugged beauty in the waves?

It all depends on what you're trying to achieve at the time, and all photographers are different. I personally don't tend to do much pre-visualising in terms of the exact shots that I think I might take on any given day. What I generally do is to have a look at the weather forecast, have a think about what might be an interesting place to go given the likely conditions, and see what I find when I get there. As a general rule, I suppose I'm looking to try to capture less how something looks, more how something feels. Specifically how it felt to spend this particular time, with this particular place. Sometimes that will mean using a very fast shutter speed (1/1000 sec) to freeze the action and capture the sheer power of the water in a storm, sometimes using a slower shutter speed (1/20 – ¼ sec in fast moving water) to create some texture and movement, and sometimes a much longer shutter speed (anything up to 20 mins) to take all the movement out altogether. I really don't think there's any right or wrong here. For me, experimentation is key. Try things out, and see what feels right. On this day. In this place. At this moment. Spontaneity, discovery, going with whatever mother nature serves up on any given day, are for me very much part of the joy.


Incoming Craster

'Incoming, Craster' © Bill Ward 

Can you talk us through your setup? Do you use a tripod/self timer for example?

I like to be broadly covered for most eventualities (within reason!). So, along with my camera (Pentax K3/K3 II), I'll probably take 3 or 4 lenses, a tripod, remote release, and a few filters, all of which fit very neatly into a small back pack. I try to travel as light as I can, as I'm often moving quite quickly, and staying out most of the day.

On the lens front, I'll usually take one wide (either Pentax 12-24mm or Sigma 10-20mm), one mid range (Pentax Da 17-70mm), and one long (Pentax DA 55-300mm WR). My most used lens at the moment is the 55-300mm, which I find particularly useful for isolating compositions and finding fine details in fast moving water. I also sometimes bring along one small fast prime (often the Pentax FA 50mm f/1.4), which I find can be really useful for experimenting with depth of field.

If I'm shooting at shutter speeds of anything over 1/20th sec, then a tripod and a remote release can obviously be pretty handy. I do increasingly use the camera handheld though, particularly when putting together icm/multiple exposures, which I find can be very useful for creating more abstract compositions, and which can often be more accurate in terms of capturing the ESSENCE of a thing, a feeling, a moment etc.

I also generally carry a polariser, a few neutral density filters, and a couple of nd grads. The nd filters are key in determining shutter speed, which for me is the most important variable when shooting water. I'll usually carry a 3 stop, 6 stop and 10 stop and use them in varying combinations, depending on what I'm trying to achieve. I tend to use the nd grads less these days, as dynamic range has improved so much on cameras in the last few years. But I do sometimes use them as a kind of see-through shield to keep the water off the lens whilst I'm composing a shot.

Last but not least, I always try to remember to take loads of wipes and lens cleaning fluid... keeping your lens free from spray/rain is obviously pretty key around water (I often use the lens hood, even when it's not raining), and anywhere near the sea the salt particles can cause a fair amount of smearing on the front of the lens.

Rainbow Falls

'Rainbow Falls, Kisdon Force, Yorkshire Dales' © Bill Ward

How important are the weather conditions when shooting watery scenes?

Weather is everything, as it determines light, and mood. Also, with water, it can determine state, as well as what is reflected off the surface. For my money, ANY weather is good. Some of the photographs I'm most fond of have been taken in the middle of an apparently nondescript day, in grey cloud, and drizzle. Thick cloud can often act as a kind of diffuse lightbox, picking out gentle contours in sand, for instance, which in direct sunlight would otherwise be lost in a sea of high contrast dynamics. The key for me, as always, is to try to stay open to whatever Mother Nature serves up at any given time, on any given day.

Waterfall detail

'Waterfall detail, Iceland' © Bill Ward

Are there composition rules to be aware of with water?

I tend to be a bit militant about this! I genuinely believe with photography there are no rules about anything at all. Ever. There are maybe some principles that other photographers may have found useful, and which you might find useful too, but you're absolutely free to try out anything you like and see how it turns out. Water moves fast. One of the joys of the sd card is that your mistakes cost nothing. They're absolutely free. And in many ways I'd encourage you to experiment and make as many of them as you can.


'Wave, Storm Katie', © Bill Ward

Is there anything about photographing water that you wish you'd been told when you started out?

Gosh, that's a tricky one. I suppose something along the lines of keep experimenting. Find other people's photographs that you like, and try and work out specifically what it is you like about them, and why they appeal to you. Also try to work out what that particular photographer might have been trying to achieve. If you're looking for inspiration, and you haven't already, do seek out David Baker's “Sea Fever” from a couple of years back, which I still think is an extraordinary piece of work. Read lots, be inquisitive, listen to other people's opinions and what works for them, go on workshops and try lots of stuff out, but if I was going to say anything, I'd say ultimately take photographs that please you.

Holkham beach

'Holkham Beach' © Bill Ward

Where are your favourite spots for shooting water and why do you like them?

I generally take most of my favourite shots in quiet places, so I spend quite a lot of time looking at maps thinking about where they might be. Roads that appear to stop near the sea for no apparent reason are often good. Like many photographers I'll be up early, out late, but often I'll just be wandering around somewhere that I thought looked like it might be interesting. I enjoy the search as much as anything else. I'm an actor by trade, which can be pretty full on when it's busy, and I find that spending time with Mother Nature, with my camera, can be a pretty good antidote.

Leaf, stream

'Leaf, Stream, Calderdale' © Bill Ward

If you could give 3 top tips for photographing water, what would they be?

  • Everyone's different. By all means look on flickr etc for locations where other people may have been, and which you think look like they might be interesting, but ultimately see if you can find places that resonate specifically with you.
  • As Billy Conolly I believe once said, there's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes. Water can be particularly susceptible to changes in the weather, as it absorbs so much light. Storms can obviously be fabulous photographic opportunities. But overcast weather can bring its own sense of calm and diffuse light, and direct sunlight can provide beautiful dappled patches dancing through trees onto a stream. Try to keep your eyes and senses open as much as you can, keep looking, and see what you find.
  • Try switching the camera to manual. I personally believe that there's a pretty good chance that you'll have a better idea of the kind of photographs that you're trying to take than your camera will. There's an argument that goes that you might miss the shot if you take it off automatic, and I suppose occasionally that might be true, but I've never worried too much about that. With fast moving water, I tend to be particularly interested in shutter speed - the difference between, say, even 1/6th and 1/8th of a second on a fast moving stream, or a breaking wave, can be considerable... so go on, I dare you...


About Bill Ward 

Bill Ward

Bill Ward is an actor and photographer, born and raised in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

He was awarded the Adobe Prize for his photograph “Rainbow Falls” at the 2015 Take a View Landscape Photographer of the Year Awards. His work was previously Commended at the 2013 Landscape Photographer of the Year Awards, and he has had over a dozen photographs shortlisted at Outdoor Photographer of the Year.

He has permanent collections with a number of fine art galleries around the country, including The Contemporary Six Gallery in Manchester, and the Mick Oxley Gallery in Craster, Northumberland. His work has been featured in newspapers, magazines, advertising campaigns and on book covers. He uses Pentax cameras, and is proud to be an Ambassador for Pentax Ricoh UK.

His primary photographic subject matter is landscapes, whether natural, urban or industrial. He is specifically drawn to water.

Constantly in search of peace and quiet, his photography is a response, and in many ways an antidote, to the time he spends as an actor working in the public eye.

He has for some time now been experimenting with ICM (Intentional Camera Movement - the process of deliberately moving the camera whilst taking a picture) and in-camera Multiple Exposures, both of which he finds can be particularly revealing of the "essence" of any meeting between a person and wherever they happen to be.

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Photographs taken using the Pentax K-3 II

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