How To Capture The Beauty Of Rivers In Your Photos

Anyone involved in landscape and nature photography can probably already tell you that capturing the awe-inspiring beauty of the world is often not as easy as it seems.

But don’t let that deter you because, with a little know-how, you can begin to snapshot babbling brooks and rushing rivers like an absolute pro.

How To Capture The Beauty Of Rivers In Your Photos

And there is so much joy to be found in river photography. You’ll get the pleasure of seeing nature at its absolute best.

All those rivers, the surrounding foliage, and nearby wildlife, really allows for some stunning picture opportunities and you’ll also feel so much closer to the place we call home; Earth.

And all those challenges, all those tricks, all that effort that seems so all-consuming at the time becomes instantly worth it when you get those visual rewards. So, what are we waiting for? Let’s learn how to get the best river photos possible!

A Note On River Photography Safety

While river photography is certainly rewarding, it doesn’t come without its dangers. Often you’ll be trekking through uneven terrain or deserted areas to locate those perfect rivers worth capturing.

You should always bring someone along with you for the shoot in case anything goes wrong. There won’t always be cell service and you won’t want to be left stranded alone while hurt.

Next, some rivers can be fast-flowing. Seriously fast-flowing. It is certainly not unheard of for there to be river fatalities where individuals are swept away by hidden currents and the likes.

You should never wade into water that is unsafe and again you should never do so when alone.

However, as long as you are responsible, and remember that the waters need respect, it can also be a lot of fun. So, let’s take a look at how you can get those award-winning river photographs(see also: How To Photograph Rivers And Streams?).

Be Prepared To Get Wet

The first step in accomplishing any goal is to set your expectations and prepare yourself. And in terms of river photography, that means not being afraid to get wet.

Simply put, if you want some really stunning pictures, you’re probably going to need to wade into the water.

Some of the very best river compositions involve getting those leading lines, and you often can’t achieve these if you aren’t prepared to get wet. Therefore, it is imperative that you are dressed correctly for your photography shoot.

Ensure that you have appropriate footwear, waterproof trousers, and a spare change of clothes for your return.

Safety Notice – Again, while in this section we are going to encourage you to wade into the water where possible you should never do so if the water is unsafe, has strong currents, or you cannot swim.

There are exceptions to every rule, and you should only heed this advice if you are in a safe environment to do so.

Avoid The Sky

Now, of course, there will always be exceptions to this rule too, but in most cases of river photography, the sky is simply not important.

There are more interesting things to focus on in terms of your subject. Instead, you want to focus on the lines, bends, and shapes of the river, the color of the water, and the surrounding area.

The only time that you should really include the sky is if you are taking a photograph where your subject is further in the distance.

Shutter Speed

You should always play around and experiment with different shutter speeds when taking pictures of rivers.

The speed you use can completely transform the image and so it’s good to have a few completely different images to play around with in the post-edit and post-processing.

The shutter speed that will work for you can completely depend on the type of image that you are trying to create.

A fast-flowing river can be made to look even quicker with a short shutter speed whereas a slower serene image will be created by using a much slower shutter speed.

We recommend playing around with shutter speeds between 0.5 seconds and 5 seconds. You can take several photos and notice the difference and then pick the option that works best for your intent.

How To Capture The Beauty Of Rivers In Your Photos


A polarizer is an invaluable tool for river photography so you’ll want to ensure that you experiment with this lens. However, remember that you should use it with caution, you don’t always have to use the full effect.

Typically using a polarizer at 100% is likely to produce too much contrast and it can distort the image and decrease the overall quality of the image. Instead, try using the polarizer at 50-80% and see which options work best for you.


Exposure isn’t always necessary, for example, if you are making a HDR blend. However, for single frames exposure can be your best friend when it is used carefully.

In most cases, the brightest part of the image will be the fast-flowing water of the river, and using exposure will make for a solid exposure baseline.

It can also be used to put a real emphasis on the subject itself if it is surrounded by distracting foliage, wildlife, or landscapes.

You want the river itself to be the shining star and focal point of the photograph and exposure will help you to achieve this.

Regularly Clean Your Lenses

This might seem like common sense, but it is an area that beginners and even seasoned professionals alike can sometimes forget.

When you are capturing images of fast-flowing rivers, and especially if you have waded into the water, there’s a good chance that the lens you’re using will become misty or sprayed with water.

This can leave you with distorted, blurry, and unsatisfying images if you don’t remember to keep the lens clean. You could think that you’ve snapped the perfect picture only to be severely disappointed when you return home.

If the river is particularly rough, or the spray level is high, we recommend using a graduated or baggy filter to compose the shot. Alternatively, you can try using your lens-hood to try and counter this issue.

Camera Height

Your viewpoint and camera height should always be considered before snapping your river photographs too. The height that you choose will depend on what you are trying to convey in your image.

Typically, an elevated viewpoint is great if you’re hoping to highlight the vast size of a large river whereas lower and closer viewpoints provide a much more intimate feel.

If you’re looking for something more dramatic, then getting up close and personal to the subject using a wide-angle lens can help you to translate your goals onto the print.


You should always pay close attention to the foreground of your river photographs. And rivers provide plenty of interesting options in this area.

From reeds and grasses to rocks to wildlife, there will be no end to interesting elements for the foreground of your image.

Where possible, we recommend getting up close and personal using a wide-angle lens as this will allow you to create depth while still keeping the image clear and sharp. The double distance technique is very effective in this case.

You’ll want a small aperture such as f/16. Then you’ll need to work on the distance between the camera and the composition you’re hoping to keep sharp.

Next, focus your camera at double that distance and you’ll create a stunning river photograph.


The weather isn’t something that you can exactly control, but it is in your best interest to try and plan your shoots around the forecast where possible.

You want to try and aim for a partially cloudy day when you can as this produces the best river photography possible.

You’re hoping to achieve photos that aren’t totally dark and grey as they produce slightly lackluster images. But you don’t want strong sunlight either as the water will easily blow out.

That’s why you’re looking for a partially cloudy day. It’ll give you that hint of light so that the images aren’t too dark and dingy without there being so much light that it hinders the overall image.

Final Thoughts

Rivers are a really stunning part of nature, and it really comes as no surprise that they are often the subject of many amazing photographs.

And from reading this article, you should now have a better understanding of how you can produce your own amazing quality images of these babbling brooks and running rivers.

There are a few things to consider when taking these photographs so let’s recap them very quickly.

You’ll want to watch out for the weather to ensure the best light, focus on the foreground elements, consider your camera height, and remember to keep your lens free of water spray, play around with your polarizer, shutter speed, and exposure, try to avoid the sky to focus on your subject and don’t be afraid to get a little wet.

Of course, also remember to put your safety before all else.

So, now, all that’s left to do is seek out those amazing rivers, don your waterproof shoes, and grab your camera. What are you waiting for? Go now!

Laura McNeill
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