Water Colours: The British Landscape Is Blessed with a Plethora of Lakes, Rivers and Streams. Armed with a Few Simple Tips and Tricks, Photographers Can Turn Them into Works of Art

By Wilson, Keith | Geographical, February 2008 | Go to article overview

Water Colours: The British Landscape Is Blessed with a Plethora of Lakes, Rivers and Streams. Armed with a Few Simple Tips and Tricks, Photographers Can Turn Them into Works of Art


Wilson, Keith, Geographical


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Geo photo

February is one of the coldest and wettest months of the year, a time of blustery weather and skies packed with rain clouds blowing low across the landscape, leaving the fields sodden and rivers well fed with free-running water. Although we're quick to complain about incessant wet weather, this ready supply of water has given the countryside its shape and form, as well as providing an essential source for life, growth and seasonal colour.

Rivers, lakes, mountain streams and waterfalls are common features of the British landscape, whether as a visual element to a wider scene, or as the subject of a view itself. Some stretches of water are major landmarks that influence the geography and history of the space they occupy, such as the River Thames winding through Greater London, broadening its banks as it flows nearer the sea. Other water features are small and hidden, such as a silent mere, barely a speck on a map, known only to those who live close by.

RIVER DEEP, MOUNTAIN HIGH

Water takes on many guises, and how you photograph it depends as much on its form and prominence in the scene as the overall effect you wish to achieve. One of the most photographed landscapes in Britain is the pyramidal mountain peak of Buachaille Etive Mor, near Glencoe, in the Scottish Highlands. Forming a ridge around eight kilometres in length, this picturesque mountain is almost encircled by the River Etive and a tributary, the Coupall. The widely photographed northeast face is usually composed with the falls of the River Coupall included in the foreground to add interest and perspective.

Once the basic composition is decided, the next decision for the photographer is deciding how to depict the running water: as a soft blur or with clarity, the light reflecting off its surface. Shutter speed selection is the key to achieving the desired effect--the longer the shutter is kept open, the more image blur will be recorded. An exposure of around two seconds will capture the falls as a white rush of frothing water, while speeds of around 1/60 second or faster will keep the water's surface sharp. Of course, the more rapidly a river or waterfall is flowing, the faster your shutter speed needs to be to 'freeze' the water's movement.

MIRROR REFLECTIONS

It might be stating the obvious, but one of the most appealing qualities of water is its reflectance. How many times have we heard someone commenting on the perfect stillness of a lake's surface by describing it as 'like glass'? Well-lit reflections of a natural or architectural landmark on a lake, or even in a street puddle, catch the viewer's imagination very effectively.

The best time for experiencing that glass-like surface is early on a cloudless morning in winter, when the sun is low and the air is crisp, still and cold. Mist is likely to be rising from the lake's surface, adding another atmospheric element to the scene. When the mist burns off, and assuming the air remains still and the sky clear, the surface will offer a perfect mirror reflection of the landmark beyond.

Again, mountain scenery such as England's Lake District, the lochs and Munros of Scotland, and Snowdonia National Park in Wales provides the perfect settings for shooting reflections. So, when composing that beautifully lit scene of a mountain, castle or boathouse reflected perfectly on the glass-like surface of a lake, do you focus on the reflection itself or the subject of the reflection? Answer: it doesn't matter. Ultimately, the light reaching your camera lens is reflected from the surface of everything that is in front of you. More significant to determining where you point your camera is making an accurate meter reading, in which case you need to bias your chosen exposure to the light reflected from the subject and not the water's surface.

Being so reflective, water can also magnify highlights from a bright sky, making it difficult to meter accurately. …

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