Moving water is a common subject for many photographers. Landscape and travel photographers often encounter moving water, and portrait shooters may use it as a dynamic element in their shot. The question then becomes how to capture this moving element, and specifically what shutter speed is best? The best way to answer this question is by asking another question; what mood and concept are you trying to create? Tranquility, tension, drama, serenity, solitude, action…these concepts all require different approaches to photographing water.
Take a look at the image at the top of this post. With this image I wanted to capture the solitude and beauty of the Merced River in Yosemite National Park. I found an interesting composition of rocks, whitewater and forest along the river. To create this image I used a 14-24mm lens to get really close to my foreground rock and still capture the background forest. If I wanted to create a really tranquil image, I would have shot around 5-10 seconds to create white ‘cotton’ water with no sense of direction. But this image was a little different. The strong diagonal line created by the foreground rock added some tension to the shot. With this in mind, I decided to shoot around 1/3 of a second to make the water silky, but still have direction and wave action. Photographing the river at this speed kept the design elements harmonious in this image, which created a better photograph.
In the end the photographer makes the decision on what shutter speed and resulting effect looks best. But remember the bigger question of what are you really trying to create in your shot. Clarifying your concept directs your shooting technique and results in better images.