We are immediately drawn to what we can’t see, and that’s how we can make our photography interesting

Add this element you drink every day to your photos, and the possibilities are endless.

Tim Chuon
Tim Chuon
Jun 8, 2020 · 8 min read

The more I looked to find ideas for photography, the more I realized that there was one element I consistently integrated into my pictures because it made photography that much more fun for me, and that was water. Water is so dynamic and adaptable in pictures; it can change the subject, reflect light, absorb colors, add textures, and captivate your audience by adding a touch of uniqueness.

Regardless of your subject in photography, water adds an interesting perspective to landscapes, portraits, and especially product photography. However, in order to really take advantage of our cameras and the characteristics of water, we can push ourselves to capture perspectives that our eyes miss in a split second. How is this possible? Our cameras can stop time. Let this sink (pun intended) in your mind for a second. When you pass by a public fountain and water is gushing out from the source, do you take a second to see the hundreds of tiny droplets breaking apart? Probably not. Part of the reason why is because we’re instinctually drawn to larger details; the other reason is because those details escape us so quickly and the droplets splash off in a split second: we’re unable to follow that speed.

And this is where our cameras come into play. This is why water makes for stunning and unique images; we’re able to see what we normally can’t. When that mystery is resolved and what once escaped us is captured in a photo, we are instantly drawn to it. Here are five ways you can use water to add an interesting dynamic to your photos:

1) Reflections

Think of water as an adaptable mirror. A mirror has a solidified shape, a set depth, and a constant surface. With water, we can change all of that. If we want a darker reflection, we can add more water to the vessel it’s contained in and hide the bottom layer. If we want to change the color of the reflection, we can adjust our light sources or change the vessel that water is being held in. If we want unique shapes for our reflections, we can find so many different possibilities simply after it rains and puddles flood the streets. Take for instance the following photo of board game pieces from the game, Rising Sun.

The Dragonfly Clan from the Rising Sun board game

First off, I staged these board game miniatures here because they are known as the Dragonfly Clan, and dragonflies are known for hatching out of still water. I added blue smoke above them to give them a more grand entrance since they are known for mobilizing quickly into different regions within the game. To match the ominous, lurking tones characteristic of this particular clan, I used a shallow pool of water but included a black stone underneath to add in the dark reflection.

We often think of reflections as mirror images of the subject, but we can expand on that and make the reflection distinct to add both a layer of mystery and a layer of interest. Water makes this possible since we can colorize it from the depths. On top of that, the reflection isn’t a detailed replica of our subject; since the texture of water changes depending on how light hits the surface and from any kind of movement in the air, the reflection emanates those characteristics. Photographing a reflection of water makes for a completely malleable image in comparison to a static mirror. We generally get one type of reflection in a mirror but many different types from water.

2) Texture

Do you want a smooth surface? Do you want to add tension? Do you want to draw a curved line in the water? Each individual droplet you put into the pool of water will produce a completely different image depending on the height it was dropped at, the color of the droplet, the size of the droplet, even the shape of the droplet. In landscapes, you get tons of different kinds of textures from waterfalls, rivers, lakes, oceans, you name it. As water travels across a bed of rocks, it’ll adapt to the shape of each individual rock and create ripples with the wind. Even the height at which water is descending will affect the different textures you see as it cascades down.

A raging waterfall located in Banff, Canada
A raging waterfall located in Banff, Canada
A waterfall in Banff, Canada

In the photo above, we can depict water with rough and broken surfaces as it travels downstream. We even get different emotions showing water with these rough and jagged patterns because not only does it instill bellowing sounds from the harsh crashes, but it also connotates danger. If we simply change the settings on our cameras and adjust for a slower shutter speed, we now get this kind of image instead:

Franklin Falls in Washington, a smooth waterfall taken with long exposure
Franklin Falls in Washington, a smooth waterfall taken with long exposure
Franklin Falls, Washington

This is a perfect example of something we can’t see. We normally would visualize the individual breaks and streaks of water flying off as it crashes against the rocks as it did with the previous photo. However, setting our cameras to have a longer exposure time now lets us trace objects from different points, allowing us to see the path they traveled. What was once individual streaks of water are now beautifully combined streaks of smooth, long droplets. Even more interesting, we get to see faint patterns of the camera characterizing water droplets on the lens into octagons, reflecting the shape of the aperture blades; those kinds of patterns (aside from causing us to rub our eyes and blink in irritation) would dissolve into our eyes before we could take a second to appreciate them.

3) Color

We know water is colorless, but that aspect of it makes for a different way to see color since it is an empty canvas. If we’re taking a photo at sunset for instance, the blue hues we normally would see can nearly vanish as the sun gets lower and lower. In a photo that would normally be seen with all shades of blue and green, we now get the glowing auras of orange from the sun as shown here:

Character pieces from Barbarians: The Invasion rest on a log floating on a pool during sunset
Character pieces from Barbarians: The Invasion rest on a log floating on a pool during sunset
Character pieces from the board game, Barbarians: The Invasion

Incorporating reflections from the earlier discussion, we can even see the sun at an atypical angle, usually achievable from atop a cliffside. In this photo, I simply put a log in a pool of water and balanced the character pieces from the board game, Barbarians: The Invasion. I pointed my camera downwards and waited for three factors:

  1. The sun had to be low enough
  2. The wind had to stop for a moment to not push the log too far away from me
  3. The log to float at an angle synchronized with the sun and wind

Waiting for these factors to align allows us to visualize a soft, warm glow of an orange spectrum, hints of teal water where shade was blocking the sun, and clear droplets hanging from the banner. How exciting is it to know that one source allows us to achieve so many different colors?

4) Theme

Aside from characteristics, another way we can incorporate water in our photos is to accent it with the theme of our subject. You can shoot macro shots of athletes training, driving in heartfelt emotions when you can see the sweat dripping as they exercise. If you need to take photos to advertise a drink, adding condensation to the side of the glass insinuates how cold and delicious it looks. One way I incorporated water thematically into board games was to use this turtle miniature also from Rising Sun.

Turtle miniature from the Rising Sun board game

In this photo, I balanced the turtle on bamboo sticks as water was steadily flowing from the fountain above it. You see droplets flickering in all kinds of directions, but set the shutter at a rapid speed and you freeze droplets mid air and mid fall as it descends from the turtle. Immersing the turtle under a fountain gives so much more character to the photo since we associate turtles with water.

5) Property

More recently, I’ve been experimenting with water in a different setting. All of the above discussions talk about water in its liquid form. A whole new world of ideas opens up when you realize the fundamental idea that water can exist in different states: ice and steam.

A frost giant miniature monster piece from the Skytear board game is encased in a block of ice sitting on a mirror with smoke
A frost giant miniature monster piece from the Skytear board game is encased in a block of ice sitting on a mirror with smoke
The Frost Giant derived from the Skytear board game

This photo depicts a Frost Giant from a board game called Monumental. To encapsulate the theme, I froze the character in an ice tray and then melted different portions of the frozen block until its head, arm, and base was revealed. I also added in steam from a humidifier to texturize the background and to add to the foreboding tone instilled from the monster creeping in the darkness. You also see liquid water as it melts from the base of the monster, this time with a more replicated reflection from an actual mirror. Changing the property of water opens up completely new paths for creativity; light does not travel through liquid water in the same way it would through ice or waves of steam.

It is fascinating to know that something we easily overlook in our daily lives can be so impactful in photos. The way we adjust our camera settings impact how we perceive water. The vessel we choose to contain it in will give varying characteristics to its shape, reflection, and color. The actions we impose onto water, whether it be natural or not, personifies the emotions derived from the photos. And the kicker? We can manipulate all of those factors across three separate forms of water. Who knows, maybe the fourth property can make its debut in our everyday lives sooner than you think.

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Tim Chuon

Written by

Tim Chuon

Photographer & Videographer | Instagram + YouTube @timchuon | I write about photography concepts that help you improve. https://linktr.ee/Timchuon

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

Tim Chuon

Written by

Tim Chuon

Photographer & Videographer | Instagram + YouTube @timchuon | I write about photography concepts that help you improve. https://linktr.ee/Timchuon

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

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