The clear running waters of ice-fed streams are one of the most recognisable sounds of life’s emergence from winter’s slumber, while the still waters of lakes and ponds, once covered in ice sheets, also ripple in the breeze as swans, geese, coots and other waterfowl are able to dip and feed beneath the surface. For some species, the thaw at the water’s edge is critical to their life-cycle: kingfishers and small mammals such as voles burrow in riverbanks to nest, so a long harsh winter that freezes the earthen edges can delay the start of their breeding season.
One bird synonymous with the water’s edge is the small, plump and flighty dipper. Found across most of Europe, Scandinavia, parts of the Middle East and central Asia, the dipper frequents fast flowing rivers in the uplands of northern and western England, Wales and most of Scotland. It can often be seen perched on a rock in midstream, bobbing up and down, cocking its tail and then darting into the flowing water to feed.
Binoculars are often needed to locate dippers. Most of the bird’s plumage is chestnut brown and grey, which should make them hard to spot, but a white throat and their constant bobbing movement make them easier to pick out. Seeing them plunge into the rapid water to pick out insect larvae or freshwater shrimps, you’d think this diminutive bird would easily be swept away, but dippers are strong swimmers and always resurface, usually with their catch.
As with most birds, the photographer should approach quietly and slowly and remain patient for them to appear. Dippers have a habit of flying to favoured spots on their territorial rivers and then working their way downstream as they feed. It therefore makes sense, having spotted a dipper, not to venture too close but to remain in position and wait for the bird to venture downstream. They also feed close to their nests, which are also found in riverbanks, even behind waterfalls. By early spring, with hungry chicks to feed, dippers are most active, constantly bobbing and dipping into the river for food throughout the day.
LONG LENSES & BEANBAGS
When photographing small, quick-moving birds that are never still for more than a second, fast shutter speeds and a burst of frames are required to get crisp, sharply focused images. Working from a distance that doesn’t disturb the bird, means you will also need a long telephoto lens. As they will be close to the water’s surface – and sometimes beneath it – you also need to position yourself low down, and maybe close to the edge, for the best perspective. In this case, the tripod needs to be put to one side and a beanbag used to support your lens as you stretch out on the ground.
Some photographers recommend camouflage clothing, but more important is that your clothing is waterproof as chances are you will get wet. Dippers and kingfishers prefer rapid, sometimes torrential, watercourses. And that means constant spray and splashes. Fortunately, most modern cameras are better protected from the outside elements with o-rings and other seals in their construction to keep out dust and moisture. Even so, if you’re working particularly close to a turbulent stretch of water then protecting your camera with a plastic housing or rain cape is advisable.
It’s not just the wildlife that outdoor photographers can enjoy down by the riverside in spring. Water itself can present a great variety of possibilities depending on its guise. For instance, in many photographs running water is often depicted as a misty blur, broken only by the river’s edge or rocks rising above the flow. Such an effect is achieved by the use of very slow shutter speeds. By contrast, stopping the action of moving water so that droplets and spray are sharply captured requires settings at the other end of the shutter speed range. Ultimately, this is a question of personal preference. Because a fast-moving river or waterfall is a fixture in the landscape you can easily try both effects. At this time of year, when waterfalls are likely to be in full spout and boulder-strewn rivers flowing and bending briskly, the results can be dramatic.
Of course, shutter speed selection is the key to achieving the desired effect. In this respect, the technical requirements are simple: shooting from a fixed position the photographer can use the full range of shutter speeds available. Basically, the longer the shutter is kept open the more the water will blur. An exposure of around two or three seconds will capture fast-moving water such as a waterfall as a frothing white rush, while longer exposure times, say 30 seconds or more, will render the water as a soft, fine smudge of wispy white. It pays to experiment, so run through a range of speeds from your set position and study the results on the camera LCD monitor to find your preferred shutter speed.
Photographing by the edge of a river or stream means the subject-to-camera distance can be quite close, with the photographer perched on the edge of a riverbank. By contrast, photographing a waterfall is likely to be done at distance – depending on the height of the drop and focal length of the lens in use.
A standard or wide-angle zoom is the ideal lens for most waterfalls. Choose a focal length that allows you to include the full height of the fall in the frame. A vertical framing might seem like the obvious choice, but a horizontal frame will add more of the surroundings to the composition, as well as give a sense of place and scale. Wide-angle lenses are ideal as they have greater depth of field. Choose a focal point (and accompanying aperture setting) that will result in an image with front-to-back and edge-to-edge sharpness.
Of course, water is highly reflective so metering accurately for the ‘correct’ exposure cannot be taken lightly. Contrast levels are likely to be high if the sun is overhead and there is no cloud cover. Instead, choose an overcast day as cloud cover acts like a diffuser to the sun’s rays, eliminating shadows and casting an even, low contrast light over your scene.
Even in overcast light, the water’s surface is likely to be the brightest point in the scene. Therefore, avoid metering directly from the water when using one of the camera’s automatic exposure modes. This is because a meter reading off a bright reflective surface will lead to underexposure in other areas.
Instead, spot meter from a neutral tone, such as a rock, tree trunk, bracken or ferns, and use this value to set your exposure manually. For comparison, bracket this exposure value by around ⅓ or ½ stop either side of the camera meter’s ‘correct’ reading to see if these options deliver a better result.
Being so reflective, water will naturally magnify highlights from a bright sky, but this can be tempered by adding a polarising filter to your lens. A polariser helps cut down the amount of polarised light reaching the image sensor, thereby reducing the impact of bright points of light that ‘blow out’ image detail on the picture. Don’t forget that a polarising filter blocks out the equivalent of two stops of light from your camera sensor, thereby requiring an exposure time two stops greater to compensate.
Whether shooting a tumbling waterfall, rapid river, or even a placid lake, there is a basic equipment list that applies to each situation when taking a photograph by the water’s edge. A solid, well-built tripod designed to withstand vibrations is vital, especially if you want to stand the tripod in moving water. The tripod is also vital for making the long exposures that render running water as a soft misty blur, as well as ensuring your camera and lens remain perfectly still during each exposure.
A mid-range zoom, covering wide-angle viewpoints to short telephoto, will allow a wide range of options for framing your scene, without having to change lenses. Longer telephotos are only of use if focusing on a detail within the general scene, or for photographing dippers and other wildlife from a distance that won’t disturb the subject. Your basic kit should also include a polarising filter for controlling the level of highlights reflected off the water and a lens hood to block out direct sunlight.
Of course, where there’s water there’s a risk of getting wet, especially on a muddy riverbank, so wear proper water-resistant walking boots and waterproof trousers, and keep your camera gear packed away in a backpack when not in use. A backpack is better than a shoulder bag as it ensures the weight of your gear stays in a fixed position and leaves both your arms and hands free to get a grip or aid balance on slippery stones and edges.
Experiment with shutter speeds when photographing fast running water. By playing back your images on the LCD monitor you can decide how much blurring or ‘freezing’ of movement is most pleasing to you.
Use binoculars and approach the river quietly if you want to spot river birds like dippers and kingfishers. Once spotted, crouch down and spend time observing their behaviour and favoured perches.
Use a tripod for photographing water using slow shutter speeds and use a beanbag instead when photographing dippers and other river wildlife. Lie on the ground and place your telephoto lens on a beanbag for support.
Take your meter reading directly off the water’s surface. This will be the brightest part of the composition, and lead to underexposure on your images if not overridden.
Venture too close to bird nests. Dippers breed in early spring and kingfishers nest in riverbank burrows just above the waterline. Disturbing wild birds at nest is punishable by a £5,000 fine and/or six months imprisonment.
Walk near the water’s edge with your camera in hand. If you lose your footing, you risk irreparable damage to your camera kit. Also, wear proper walking boots.
Bag option: Custom-made backpack
The aptly-named Manfrotto Off Road Hiker (£170) has been well designed with quick side access to your camera. It converts into a total hiking pack by unzipping the internal divider and removing the camera bag. A strap on the front allows the camera to be kept secure on the chest when carried, avoiding neck strain.
Accessory option: Camera rain cape
The C-Z100 rain cape (£135) is made to fit all SLR cameras and telezoom lenses, giving protection against water. The cape is made of double laminated PVC and has an integrated optical glass front port. The camera is fixed directly into the front port, which means the cape will always remain properly positioned.
Lens option: Wide-angle zoom
Wide-angles are popular for many reasons: they’re compact, fast, include a lot of a scene within the frame and give great depth of field. Favourite focal lengths are 24mm, 28mm and 35mm, so imagine getting all three in one lens. The new Sigma 24-35mm f/2 DG HSM Art zoom (£600) does exactly that, and it even retains that fast f/2 maximum aperture throughout its zooming range.
Water, by Berhard Edmaier; Prestel; £45 (hardback)
The Art of Photographing Water, by Cub Kahn; Amherst Media; £21.99 (softback)
A Portrait of the Severn, by Chris Morris; Tanners Yard Press; £17.99 (hardback)
This was published in the April 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.