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5 Great Ways to Create Abstract Wave Photography

In this article, you’ll learn how to use motion and long exposure photography to create abstract wave photography.

There’s something about water. It is mesmerizing. People flock to beaches and waterfalls to photograph water. We seem drawn to its fluid beauty.

5 Great Ways to Create Abstract Wave Photography

If you Google “waterfalls,” you’ll find millions of images. Beaches, sunsets and softly crashing waves also pepper Google searches. Given these two facts, why then do most of the images of water, waves, and waterfalls always look so similar? The same seems to be true of wave photography – all the photos seem to follow a particular recipe.

You find images either capture the violence and strength of water as the wave crashes or you see images of curling barrels of water, usually taken at sunset. Water has much versatility. Its fluidity makes it an intriguing subject matter.

Capturing the motion of water seems to be one of humanity’s favorite past times, but there’s more you can consider. How can playing with motion expand your efforts to capture waves and water? Perhaps by experimenting, you can find new angles and new ways to capture waves.

1. Using longer shutter speed to change the look and shape of waves

When photographing a waterfall there’s only one way that the water can flow, and that’s downward. Sure, the water may travel a little to the left or right over some rocks, but the reality is it’s headed in the direction gravity pulls it. So when we use a slow shutter speed, the look of the water is predictable. We know and love that white candy floss type of look.

When using a slow shutter speed with waves; however, the results are less predictable. The water may crash and spray against rocks and bubble. It may splash and break in endless patterns. Using a slow shutter speed to capture the breaking of a wave can yield some interesting effects and looks.

Let’s take a look at some of the following experiments.

Long Exposure

Shot using 1/8s, f32, ISO 100.

In the above example, I used a longer shutter speed to capture these unusual looking wave shapes. The first wave was rolling back into the oncoming wave, and the collision created these upward sprays. With a longer shutter speed, you can capture the wave and some light trails. If you look closely, you’ll also notice that the longer shutter speed seems to create a ghost-like transparent look to parts of the splashing wave. You can see through some of the water.

Perhaps this look doesn’t appeal to you, but it does break the traditional view of a wave.

2. Study the way the waves break and look for patterns you can photograph

You can also play with motion and study the way the wave breaks. Despite their fluidity, waves do tend to break in the same places along a beach. Of course, they vary in intensity and size depending on the day, but you can watch a storm and know that waves will hit a rock and create a lot of splashing or spray. Watching the waves and then using these patterns along with a long shutter speed, can also create some different looking images. Let’s take a look at the following example.


1/8s, F32, ISO 100

While I used the exact same shutter speed in this image as the first image, the look of the image has changed. This is due to it being shot at a different location along the beach. In this spot, the waves were smaller, and they rolled in slowly with less turmoil. The light trails have stretched out more, and you can discern the rolling nature of the wave as it meets the beach. The sand below the surface is also visible. Also, the incoming waves behind are more abstracted in this photograph.

Some people have told me they look like they’ve been painted rather than photographed.


1/13s, F32, ISO 100

For this image, I used a slightly different shutter speed. I searched for patterns and used a longer focal length revealing a different look to the waves. In this image, the light trails are much more important to the composition of the photograph. Less defined by the white water, the shape of the wave is revealed by the smooth lines of the wave.

3. Move the camera horizontally as you capture the waves

Of course, waves are in motion, but we can change the look, feel, and our perceptions of waves by including the motion of the camera while capturing the movement of the wave. In the image below, I used intentional camera movement (ICM) – the waves were moving right to left, while I dragged the camera across the wave from left to right.


1/13s, F32, ISO 100

The light trails are still a part of the capture, but the wider angle and the motion of the camera turn the waves into something different. Here the shape is more abstracted and becomes a white oval against the water and the sand which now streaks of different shades of beige. The waves are no longer defined. Instead, the motion of the camera abstracts the water a little bit.

4. Move the camera in a bouncing motion


1/10s, F32, ISO 100

Pushing the experiment further, I moved the camera in a sort of bouncing motion. The look of the rocks on the beach becomes important in this photograph. Also, the light trails also take on a different shape. The effect of the motion on the water seems to have less of an effect too.

Once again, experiment to see what you can create and how you can take a typical subject matter and make it different. I rather like the bouncy, playful feel to the rocks on the beach.

5: Get very close

In the following images, I used a much faster shutter speed, and I moved closer and closer to the subject matter to take the images.

It was about capturing something as I moved to see what the camera grabbed. It’s a fairly impulsive way to use your camera. The autofocus is unpredictable in this scenario, but the results are surprising. It’s also fun to see what you can get. This is less about planning but more about enjoying the moment and options available to you as you move your camera.

shallow depth motion

1/800s, F2.4, ISO 400

Image: 1/800s, F2.4, ISO 400

1/800s, F2.4, ISO 400

In both of these photographs, I used a very shallow depth of field with a very low perspective. I chose to lie down on my belly and inch my way towards the waves while holding down the shutter speed. To me, the resulting images feel as if you are falling into the water. There’s very little to focus on, and the water seems to be all around. Some may find the view unsettling, but love it or hate it; this is another way of looking at and capturing waves.

In Conclusion

Playing with motion to create some new perspectives in wave photography can be a fun experiment. Some images will work very well, while others may be hard to look at. Either way, it’s about finding ways to get creative with your camera. It’s about studying a subject and showing the world how much variation there is in the world. Using motion to capture water is a fun experiment that’s easy to complete with almost any type of camera.

What’s my next experiment? Who knows? Maybe it’s using motion and underwater photography with waves. We’ll have to see.

If you’ve tried some interesting angles or techniques for photographing waves, share them with us. Let’s see what types of abstract wave photography you create!



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Erin Fitzgibbon
Erin Fitzgibbon

is a freelance photographer, writer, and teacher, from Ontario, Canada. She specialises in portrait, sport, and fine art photography. In her free time, she escapes to the backcountry or the beach with her family.

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