How To Photograph Rivers And Streams

If you are out in nature, then it is inevitable that you come across a beautiful river or stream. These creeks can turn out to be fascinating subjects in your photography. But how to photograph rivers and streams?

How To Photograph Rivers And Streams?

Similar to waterfalls, when you want to capture the rushing water with drops splashing around rocks and boulders, then there are a few things to look out for.

From fast shutter speed to polarizing filters, river photography is a fantastic way to create immersive pictures that draw the eye to the water.

In this guide, we explain everything you need to know if you want to shoot some stunning photographs of rivers (see also “How To Use Long Exposure To Create Stunning River Photos“), streams and creeks.

1. Get Into The Water

While you can photograph a stream or river safely from the shore, you can capture a lot better photos when you get into the water. The best compositional actions and leading lines typically only show when you are within the water.

That’s when you can see the mossy rocks close up or the flow of the water diverted by boulders. This being said, whether you want to shoot standing in the water depends on the river depth, the speed of the water flow and your footwear.

If you have a fast-flowing river, then it is best to only shoot from the sidelines. On the other hand, if your chosen stream is relatively shallow and you can safely stand in it, then you are fine to take some snaps.

2. Get Some Waterproof Gear

Before you jump into the water with your camera and tripod, you will need some waterproof gear to ensure that you protect your clothes and technical equipment.

The exact type of waterproofs you need depends on the time of year, the weather conditions and the river itself. For example, if it is warm enough, then you may be able to get away with flip flops. Just keep an eye out for rocks or fish in the water.

The best way to wade into the warm waters of a river, however, is with water shoes. They come with an anti-slip sole that gives you more grip, so you don’t slip on any rocks or moss.

If you want to get into a cooler river or a stream that has plenty of wildlife, then it is best to get your wellies on. You can easily wear them on your hike to the river and they keep your feet dry at all times.

Wellies may mean a little bit of extra weight but they are ideal for shallow rivers. If the river is deeper than the top edge of your wellies, then you will need either thigh waders, chest waders or a wetsuit.

A wetsuit is the easiest option as it isn’t as bulky as many other fishing waders and you can still protect your whole body from the water. But don’t forget about your camera!

You may also want to have a waterproof case for your camera to ensure that it doesn’t get wet or fall into the water.

3. Use A Fast Shutter Speed

While you may want to use a slow shutter speed for your river photography to freeze the movement of the water in your photographs, a short exposure is a great way to catch crisp water in your images.

Ideally, you want to have a shutter speed of less than a second to ensure that you capture water droplets and any action shots. A faster shutter speed also allows you to show the clean movement of a river from greater distance, such as a mountain top.

If you want to capture people in your landscape shots, then streams and rivers can be a great place to find some interesting shots. The fast shutter speed gives you the opportunity to freeze the movement of your subject, water splashes and the river itself.

4. Avoid The Sky

Although the sky is often a big key element in many photos when it comes to river photography, you want the beautifully flowing water to be the main focal point.

Plus, just shooting the river, the trees and other natural objects around the water creates a more intimate landscape photo. You can also capture a close-up perspective of the landscape and the water which gives you a photo rich in details.

These are the reasons why it is best to avoid shooting the sky or too much of the sky. The best way to create a skyless river photo is by shooting in the right conditions. If the sky is extremely bright, then it will naturally blur out in the background.

5. Try Different Vantage Points

Landscape photography comes alive with many different angles and perspectives. Whether you capture a river meandering through a valley or a close-up water shot inside the river, you will always need a vantage point that allows for the most creative compositions.

It is a good idea to try a variety of vantage points when you want to photograph a stream. For example, you can capture your river shots from a very high point of view (like a peak) or from a very low point of view (like just above the water’s surface).

Both angles show the same river but they convey different details in your photograph. This is also a fantastic chance to see your favorite river from a different perspective.

6. Use A Polarizing Filter

In addition to your waterproof equipment, you also need a good polarizing filter to photograph streams, rivers and creeks. A polarizing filter is a piece of kit that you place in front of your camera lens.

It allows to manage the reflections of the water and suppresses the glare. This means that you will see only crystal clear water in your photo, together with the detailed objects you want to stand out, such as a fish or rocks in the water.

Landscape photographers also use a polarizer to improve the color vibrancy in a photo. It can help you make the moss on rocks or the river edge stand out better.

Although you should try to avoid the sky as much as possible in water photography, if you still want to capture a partial sky, then a polarizer can deepen the blue color of the horizon.

But one of the biggest advantages of polarizing filters is that they reduce atmospheric haze. This means you can photograph even objects in the distance in all their rich detail.

The best way to use a polarizer is when the sun is at 45-degree angle from where you shoot. While you may not fully get this angle, it is a good rule of thumb to get as close to this as possible.

7. Explore The Shadows

Where there is light, there is also dark. While it can be tempting to just focus on the beautiful sunlight falling onto the water, there are also canyons and dark crevices that you can capture with your camera.

Thanks to your tripod, you can easily move around, even in shady locations, so why not try to create a contrast between dark and light?

8. Regularly Clean Your Lens

Most rivers and streams have plenty of water that splashes up. Although this makes for some fantastic shots, these water droplets quickly can affect your camera lens.

Ideally, you should protect your camera and lens with a waterproof case to ensure that your kit doesn’t get wet. Plus, you will also need to check your lens and the case itself regularly to make sure that there is no spray or mist on your photos.

It can be incredibly disappointing if you capture an amazing shot just to find out that it is blurred because of the mist around your camera lens.

9. Apply A Neutral Density Filter 

While you need to slow down the shutter speed of your camera to create the milky blur in a river, you may end up overexposing your image making it too bright. The best way to avoid overexposure in water photography is to use a neutral density filter.

These camera filters modify and reduce the intensity of colors in your image. You can choose from a variety of different filters to see what color and how much light you want to reduce.

It is a fantastic piece of kit that allows you to extend your shutter speed for the swirling effects in water while capturing the right amount of light.

It is worth experimenting with different ND filters to ensure that you choose the best ones for your light setting and weather conditions when you photograph a river.

Neutral density filters can be relatively expensive but the quality of these filters can make a big difference to the quality of your shot.

If you don’t have an ND filter for slowing down the shutter speed, then you can also use a polarizer to enhance your photos with a little bit of blur.

10. Zoom In

Water photography such as river scenes is all about capturing an intimate moment in nature. With most river pictures, you don’t want to fit the entire scene in your frame. Just zoom in on a smaller area, such as a waterfall or a rock.

This removes the sense of direction and scale for the viewer allowing a more cozy feel to your photograph. Plus, it also gives you a lot more freedom over your abstract composition. You can work with color and motion in the water.

It is also a great way to stir the imagination and come up with some more creative compositions for your landscape photography.

11. Watch The Weather

You can capture the stunning movement of water on any day of the year. However, partially cloudy weather conditions can provide the best light for your nature photoshoot. You want to avoid dull gray days that could make your pictures look flat.

Instead, look out for days with partial cloud cover to improve your river and creek photos. This will allow you to snap a few interesting patches of light or beams coming through the trees or hitting the rocks.

Ideally, you want to go out in the early morning or late evening when you can capture soft, natural light to bring out the gentle flow of the water. This will also bring out the colors of your magical river scene.

You may also want to pick a day for your landscape photoshoot when it isn’t windy. Wind creates a lot of movement, especially with smaller objects, such as leaves.

Unless you want to show the movement across the whole scene, it is best to focus on the water movement only and avoid windy days. In addition, you may want to avoid a rainy day.

While rivers are at their greatest flow times when it is raining, it can affect your image with additional water splashes and mist. Plus, it can be difficult to continually hold an umbrella over your gear to protect it from water damage.

12. Beware Fast Flowing Rivers

Rivers with a fast water flow may not only be dangerous for you but the masses of water can also knock over your camera and tripod while you are shooting.

If the water is flowing too fast for you and it may knock you over, then it is safer for you to shoot from the edge of the water. If the river is just fast enough to move your tripod, then you can simply put a leg in front of the tripod.

This will disperse the water away from the tripod legs. It is also a good idea to secure the tripod legs with rocks to ensure that it stays solid when you are taking your photos.

Final Thoughts

River photography can be a true adventure and landscape photography with the wild flow of water is a great way to capture the beauty of nature.

If you want to take some photographs of a stream or river, then just make sure you have some waterproof gear and the right camera settings.

Laura McNeill
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