How to Create a Silky Water Effect in Post-Processing without Using Filters or a Tripod

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Affiniy-photo-mean-stack-mode

Smooth water effect edited in Affinity Photo using the Live Stacks feature.

Even if you don’t shoot landscape photography, photos of waterfalls with the smooth water and glassy appearance are awesome. The gist to achieving this, and I do stand corrected if I have this wrong, is as follows:

  • Slow shutter speeds – the need for a tripod
  • A remote shutter release or your camera’s timer
  • Wide angle lens and the camera settings using a small aperture of f/22, ISO 100
  • Neutral Density and/or polarizer filters, as you’ll be shooting long exposures during the day
  • Of course the scene and by all accounts patience too

However, I personally don’t own ND or polarizer filters. These type of filters are required for long exposures during the day, so that your shutter speeds are slow enough, possibly one minute or more to get that misty look. On top of which, you have to get the exposure right, which requires a bit of math and experimentation. ND filters block out the light in terms of stops.

So taking long exposures during the day is an involved process, especially if you want to create that smooth, silky water effect in-camera. But, is there a way to simulate this effect in Photoshop or other post-processing software? Yes there is! It does require that you take multiple shots. I’m not advocating that this technique in post editing is a replacement to going out and achieving long exposures out in the field, far from it. But, I hope this technique may serve as a stepping stone or inspiration to go out and capture silky waters, clouds etc., in-camera.

This article will demonstrate how you can achieve a similar result by taking a bunch of photos in continuous mode without using any filters or a tripod. Although, I would recommend you use a tripod.

First, I’ll demonstrate this effect using a manual method in Photoshop CS6 (standard version). There is an automated way to do this with the Stack Mode feature, which I believe is in Photoshop CC. If you have previous versions of Photoshop, the Stack Mode feature is only available in extended versions, not standard, unfortunately. However, Gimp has this Stack Mode feature and it’s free. Then, I will compare the manual method in Photoshop with Affinity Photo, using Live Stacks. I was really impressed with this feature.

Photoshop manual method

Let’s begin. On the day I took these images, I was pressed for time. So I took a series of shots in continuous mode, and handheld the camera while I focused on this part of a small river. I would recommend that you use a tripod and give yourself some time. It will be easier to align the images later.

small-river-handheld

I took a bunch of images in continuous mode of this small river, close-up deliberately for this article.

You will need to load your images as layers into one document in Photoshop, as follows:

file-scripts-load-files-into-stack

Loading multiple images into one document in Photoshop. File>Scripts>Load Files into Stack

Go up to the Menu Bar > File > Scripts > Load Files into Stack. As I didn’t use a tripod, I selected all the layers to align them. Go to Auto-Align under Edit. As you can see, Photoshop had its work cut out trying to align the images.

images-after-auto-align-photoshop

I handheld my camera when I took a bunch of shots in continuous mode. As you can see from this screenshot, I needed to use Auto-Align Layers in Photoshop. If you use a tripod the alignment will be much easier.

Now that the layers are stacked on top of each other. Start at the bottom and leave this layer at 100%, go to second layer above and reduce the opacity by 50%(100÷2=50). Continue with the next layer and reduce the opacity by 33%(100÷3=33).

percentages-opacity-reduced

Reducing the opacity of each layer by dividing the number of the layer into 100%. The bottom layer remains at 100%. The second layer is 50% and so on.

Therefore, depending on the amount of layers you have, and where they come in the stack, divide this number into 100. So if you had 30 images, the opacity for the top layer in the stack will be 3% (100÷30=3). Remember the bottom layer is always 1=100%. What this is doing is averaging out the layers. This may sound complicated, but in practice, it’s more straightforward. Although it is a bit more tedious than the automated way.

This is the effect of averaging out the layers in Photoshop - reducing the stacked layer's opacity by X amount. I also had to crop this image, whereas the same image when edited in Affinity Photo kept more of the image. See below.

This is the effect of averaging out the layers in Photoshop – reducing the stacked layer’s opacity by X amount. I also had to crop this image, whereas the same image when edited in Affinity Photo kept more of the image. See below.

I have been keeping a close eye on Serif’s Affinity Photo. So I took the plunge and purchased it for (€39) $44 USD. That was a discounted offer. At such an affordable price, I was curious to see how this software performs and what it can do.

In Affinity Photo, there is a Live Stacks feature which is similar to Stack Mode in Photoshop. It was easy and simple to use, and the process was fast.

Affiniy-photo-mean-stack-mode

Affinity-photo-new-stack

The equivalent Stack Mode feature in Photoshop is called Live Stacks in Affinity Photo.

Go to File > New Stack. The pop up dialog box appears where you select your images. Make sure Automatically Align Images box is ticked. Click Ok. This takes a couple of seconds. It defaults to Median in the Live Stack Group, but scroll up to the next one and this is Mean. That’s the one you want.

Affinity-photo-auto-align-images

images-selected-after-new-stack

When you create a New Stack, the pop up dialog box appears. Select your images on your computer and click Open.

Affinity-photo-live-stacks-mean

The stacked images are grouped into a folder called Live Stack Group. The different stack options are located by clicking on the small icon, circled in blue. It defaults to Median but I changed it to Mean.

The cool thing about this feature is when you scroll through each of the different stack modes, it shows the different results live.

Affinity-photo-live-stacks-maximum

Different stack options can be scrolled through one by one, and the results can be seen live, which is impressive.

When I compared the two results from Photoshop and Affinity Photo, I could see no obvious difference, with the exception that I had to crop the image of the river more in Photoshop, whereas the auto alignment in Affinity Photo meant I didn’t lose much of the image at all.

second-river-original

Here is another example of moving water.

The same image as above edited in Affinity Photo using Mean in Live Stacks. I got the same result using the manual method in Photoshop.

The same image as above edited in Affinity Photo using Mean in Live Stacks. I got the same result using the manual method in Photoshop.

Take away tip:

In my examples, I didn’t use a tripod. I would recommend using one. I also took only a series of 8-10 shots. I would recommend taking at least 15 or more.

I found this technique interesting and fun, and I am now inspired to go out and take images of waterfalls. The good thing about this technique is if you don’t have ND or polarizing filters, it doesn’t prevent you from going out and taking shots of waterfalls. Then when you get back to your computer, you can create your own silky, smooth effect.

Let’s see some of your examples below.

Read more from our Post Production category

Sarah Hipwell is an independent professional photographer based in Dublin. She specialises in high-quality corporate, stock and portraiture photography. Her background is in Design. She received her BA in Hons Design from the University of Ulster, Belfast. She has many years commercial design experience working as a designer and as a trainer for large multimedia companies. See more of her work at SarahHipwell.com or at 500px.

  • Pete Mueller

    Is it just me, or does this method vs. using ND filters just “fail?” I’m not seeing a 1 to 1 comparison…

  • Gary

    I think I will stick with traditional methods. Your first example could mostly be recreated by not focusing.

  • Dave Williams

    ND filters aren’t expensive or cumbersome – why not just … get some?

  • Charles G. Haacker

    With profound respect for what you have achieved, I’ve been thinking for some time that all these soft-water shots are becoming cliched. I have a personal preference for your original pictures in both cases. I love to shoot landscape and get deep in the woods or whatever, and my experience is that often if I come across moving water it is in relative shade, so a slightly longer shutter may be required. I think 1/25 sec is perfectly adequate in most cases. A tripod is extremely helpful, but bracing my camera on my hiking staff or up against a friendly tree will often steady me sufficiently. If the water is moving fast enough (waterfall) it will blur nicely at 1/25th or so without looking as if it were made with a view camera with a ten minute exposure in 1848. I like to see some definition in the water. It is a purely personal preference, but honestly if I wanted the long-exposure look I’d drag a tripod along and make a long exposure. Dave Williams pointed out that a wallet of ND filters is neither prohibitively expensive nor heavy. ?

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Hi Pete, Thanks for taking the time to comment. However, my article was a ‘How-to’ technique to mimic the result that landscape photographers achieve using ND filters et al. As I said in my article, this technique is a great way to get a similar effect if you don’t own NF filters. The beauty of photography is the myriad ways and effects to achieve the end result, is it not?

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Hi Charles, many thanks for your comment. Indeed I went out recently to take photos of a waterfall to test out my own article:-) Even with an aperture of f/22, my shutter speed was 1/25th. This isn’t low enough to get that silky smooth look. See image below. So I took a good 15 plus extra shots in continuous mode, using a cable shutter release on a tripod. When I got home, I brought the images into Photoshop and averaged out the layers as described in my article. The end result produced a much smoother silky effect to the water. See image below. With regards to ND filters being expensive…I couldn’t honestly answer this without opening a hot debate on what is ‘expensive’? It’s relative to your income and which brand of filters you choose?:-)

  • Charles G. Haacker

    Hi Sarah! I think this is purely an esthetic thing. I think the results you have achieved are excellent, particularly with these latest two. I’m not at all quarreling with what you did. The fact is that I find both of this most recent pair to be excellent, but I also express a slight preference for the “before” shot. I think the amount of “silkiness” in it is perfectly adequate as a record of what I think we see (or that I see at any rate) when we look on moving water. My quarrel is with all the (often excessive) silkiness in the first place. I mentioned that I think it has become cliched, “trendy.” I suspect some people think you cannot shoot moving water at all unless you smooth out all the detail. The result you got with your method is not at all overdone (and I like the crisp, glowing highlights), but I also think your straight 1/25th sec. shot, especially given that the waterfall is in full sun, looks plenty “silky” enough. Water going that fast doesn’t need an awfully slow shutter to smear a little, and a little is all I think it needs. All of that is my personal opinion of course, and worth whatever it’s worth. ?

    I looked on Amazon and found that ND filters can range from a walletful for $15 U.S. to a single variable filter for over $100 U.S., and probably more from there. I have no clue as to the optical quality but that’s another area where I feel some photographers like to argue the angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin thing. I don’t often use filters of any kind (feeling that digital has made most of them obsolete), but I carry a frankly cheap Tiffen circular polarizer which the Angels Dancing crowd considers to be akin to putting Vaseline on my lens. I respectfully disagree, but I rarely use it anyway (that’s what the graduated filter in LR and PS is for). ?

    Here’s one I like that I made last year in Canada, Rainbow Fall in Ontario. It’s called that because of the colors of the rocks, actually. It was made at 1/320 @ f/4, of necessity hand held. I like the vigor and splash of this rollicking little stream. I personally think the picture is good, and would not be anywhere near as good if it were “silked out” (as it were). When I look at this picture I can hear the roar of the water. It’s purely an aesthetic, personal thing. ?

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Hi Charles, You are quite right this ‘silky smooth’ effect is subjective and it may not be to everyone’s taste. To achieve this effect in camera, using ND filters is a different ball game altogether. Who knows, I may even go and get some filters…I see a potential article here:-)

  • Mark

    There is a sense that the soft water scene is becoming a little over done but occasionally you come across people like this who combine it with black and white to great effect…

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/38181284@N06/

  • Charles G. Haacker

    That’s very, very good stuff, and to my thinking not cliched. That kind of long exposure harks back to the early 19th century, when long exposure was the only exposure. People tended to disappear unless they were not moving. Water became totally flat. Waving flags disappeared. The scenes were unrealistic, yet strangely compelling. I love looking them. Thanks for the link to the modern versions!

  • Charles G. Haacker

    That’s very, very good stuff, and to my thinking not cliched. That kind of long exposure harks back to the early 19th century, when long exposure was the only exposure. People tended to disappear unless they were not moving. Water became totally flat. Waving flags disappeared. The scenes were unrealistic, yet strangely compelling. I love looking them. Thanks for the link to the modern versions!

    Here’s one from George Brainerd, made of the Brooklyn Bridge under construction about 1880.

  • Mark

    I’ve been following the photographer on Flickr for over a year now since seeing one of their shots pop up in a photo group. As you say, there is something really quite compelling about the shot they achieve.

  • majeed

    I own pentax 15-30 lens which is huge lens that I can’t install filter on it, so this way is amazing

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Thank you Majeed.

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