How to Photograph Rivers
Photographers are drawn to water, and with good reason. It helps set the mood for a photograph, and water can double the impact of colour and light when used effectively in a composition. Photographing rivers in landscape photography can effectively add structure, flow, and movement to images.
Rivers come in a vast variety of shapes, sizes, and settings; from raging torrents carving a path through deep valleys flanked by mountains to calm, babbling books nestled in tranquil woodland. Each river (and each section of a river) has a unique character, which evokes different feelings in the people who visit.
Therefore, it’s important to let the mood of the river guide your approach to shooting it.
Start by identifying the character and mood of the scene. Is it tranquil and calming, peaceful and idyllic, or dramatic and breathtaking? Is the river wide and fast-flowing, with water crashing and cascading over rocks, or is it still and reflective? Is it isolated and remote or in a more urban setting?
Your compositions should aim to capture this character and mood, and identifying this will influence the techniques you use.
Composition in landscape photography
Rivers make natural leading lines through the landscape, directing the eye through the frame. Look for curves and S-bends (common in rivers) which add a sense of rhythm and movement, and look for a focal point, such as a tree, building, or bridge towards which you can direct the viewer’s eye.
Positioning the water so that it enters from a corner creates a sense of dynamism, pulling the viewer’s eye into the frame and helping to create a sense of depth in the composition.
Considering camera height
Camera height and viewpoint are important considerations. An elevated viewpoint reveals the shape and size of a river. So, for broad rivers which stretch into the distance, shoot from a bridge or high bank if possible, looking along the length of the river.
Shooting from lower and closer creates a more intimate feel and, depending on how fast the water is flowing, a more dynamic composition. Getting close to the water with a wide-angle lens, with the water flowing towards the camera, can be particularly dramatic, giving an up close and personal perspective. This more intimate approach works particularly well with woodland scenes.
If you like foreground interest, rivers provide plenty of options. There are often reeds and grasses growing on the riverbank, and many rivers feature water cascading over rocks.
If possible, get in close with a wide-angle lens to make the most of the foregrounds, and ensure you create enough depth of field to keep everything sharp from the foreground to the background.
One effective way of doing this is to use the ‘double distance’ focusing technique. Select a mid to small aperture such as f/16, and calculate the distance from the camera to the nearest point in the composition which you want to keep sharp. Then, focus at double that distance – for example, if the nearest object is 1 metre away, focus on an object 2 metres away.
Incorporating the sky
The sky is an important ingredient in any landscape photograph. If the river you’re shooting is set in woodland, you’ll probably want to exclude the sky as the contrast will be excessive, and the bright highlights are likely to distract from the rest of the scene.
Excluding the sky focuses attention on the river itself and increases the intimate feel of the scene.
With rivers flowing through open landscapes, you are much more likely to want to include the sky. It will help to define the atmosphere of the image and if the water is flowing slowly enough, you’ll be able to double the sky’s impact by including its reflection.
Scenes like this can be very contrasty, so check your histogram to make sure that your camera is capturing the full range of tones. If it isn’t, then consider using a graduated filter or bracketing exposures and blending your shots.
Rivers running through valleys can be problematic, as you may have a triangle of bright sky at the top of the frame between mountain peaks. If the scene has too much contrast for your camera to capture the full tonal range, then bracketing and blending exposures are the best options, as the transition line of a graduated filter will be obvious in the scene.
Finding a focal point
Bridges are useful as focal points and also for gaining an elevated viewpoint, but they can also make interesting subjects in their own right. They also provide such a wide variety of subject matter, from medieval stone bridges to modern architectural masterpieces.
You can shoot them from the bank, showing their span across the river, or shoot along the bridge to create a vanishing point. This latter approach tends to work better with modern structures, which have clean, bold lines. It’s also worth looking for other river details to focus on: boats, jetties, and of course, wildlife all make excellent subjects.
When to shoot
Rivers shoot well in a lot of different conditions, but there are certain times of year and day when they look their best. Spring is an excellent time of year, with lush, green foliage framing the waterways, and autumn is another peak time, with reds and golds reflected in the water.
The duller tones of late summer, especially after a dry spell, are less appealing and winter, with bare trees and muddy banks, can also be uninspiring. On the other hand, on a cold and frosty morning in winter, riverside scenes can look quite magical.
Rivers generally look their best first thing in the morning. The low, warm light is flattering to the landscape, and there is often a little mist rising from the water adding to the atmosphere. Mist can also help hide any untidiness in the background.
If there is any sunrise colour, this will be reflected in the water, increasing its impact. If the surface of the water is disturbed, you can always use a neutral density filter to extend exposure time and smooth out the water.
The ‘blue hours’ also really suit river scenes – these are times of day before sunrise and after sunset when the blue wavelengths are scattered through the atmosphere, resulting in cool blue tones and very saturated colours. The blue tones will be reflected in the water and if the river is in an urban setting, the blue hues will contrast beautifully with the artificial lights from the buildings.
If the river you’re photographing is in woodland, this opens up possibilities at other times of the day. Woodland scenes can be shot in the middle of the day, especially in overcast conditions, when the light is soft and diffused, and the levels of contrast are reduced.
First and foremost, you need to think about safety. Rivers can be dangerous, with fast currents, deep water, and steep, slippery banks. It’s often tempting to get into the water for an interesting viewpoint. However, you should only do this if you are certain of the depth, if the water is slow-moving, and if you have suitable footwear, i.e. wellies with a good grip. Take particular care when walking over rocks and along muddy banks.
The techniques you employ should be relevant to helping you capture the river’s character. For example, polarisers are useful in most situations when you’re shooting water, but how you use them may differ.
If the water is still enough to create clear reflections, then you might polarise the water to enhance those reflections. If you’re shooting waterfalls or cascades, then you might polarise in such a way as to remove reflections, increasing the contrast between the white water and darker water.
When shooting waterfalls or cascades, think carefully about how the length of exposure will convey the sense of motion. A longer exposure – 10 seconds or more – will completely smooth fast-flowing water, giving it a silky texture and creating a tranquil feel. If you want to show the power and energy of the water, try a shorter shutter speed of around a second (or slightly more or less, depending on how fast the water is flowing).
This will blur the water enough to create a sense of motion but will retain its texture and shape, giving an impression of its power. Often, you won’t need to use a neutral density filter for this type of shot, especially if you’re shooting in woodland, where the light levels are already low. The two stops or so of light absorbed by a polarising filter will usually be enough.
The other important thing to consider when deciding on an exposure time is how this will affect any foliage included in the shot.
Ideally, you don’t want blurry leaves in the shot, so you’ll need a fast enough shutter speed to freeze movement and/or shoot in between any gusts of wind. Alternatively, you can set a long enough shutter speed that any blur looks deliberate rather than the result of an error.
Always bring a lens cloth
One vital piece of equipment when shooting rivers, especially if you’re near waterfalls, is a good lens cloth. There can be a lot of spray in the air and you’ll need to keep a close eye on your lenses and filters and wipe them down regularly to keep them clean – unless you want a soft focus effect!
The good news is that it’s a lot easier than when you shoot on the coast, as freshwater cleans off filters and lenses much more easily than salt water does.
With the incredibly dry summer we’ve experienced, autumn could be here sooner than we think and it’s one of the prime times for shooting rivers.
So, scout some locations along the banks of your nearest rivers and be ready to get some great shots!