Smoke On the Water

Often when I post photos of moving water looking all smooth, silky or smoky I get comments asking how I achieve that result.  So I decided to write this post using my latest batch of images to illustrate things (and give you a couple of Lightroom tips in the bargain).  Don’t say I never gave you anything.

First you’ll need a tripod.  If you don’t have one buy one.  If you don’t have money, borrow one and save up.  It’s a necessity not just for this, but for a lot of other types of pictures, too.  I’m not a wicked tripod snob, for these shots I used a small Slik model that only weighs a couple of pounds.  It is plenty stable for my camera and lens.  Sometimes I drag my ancient Bogen with me because it’s taller and more robust, but if I’m hiking I take the little Slik.  For some helpful ideas on buying a tripod, check out Marko’s latest podcast on Photography.ca.

Second stay out of the direct sun.  Get up before it does or go on an overcast day.  Chance the rain.  It’s the only way to get light that is even enough to keep you from blowing the highlights while keeping detail in the darker areas.  There’s enough dynamic range in fast flowing water as it is, don’t make it worse by going in bright sun.  Yes, recently I caught some sunlight in a waterfall, but it was early sun and angled very low to the ground so it worked.  Overhead sunlight is a real pain, so avoid if you can.  I walk away from waterfalls on a hike if it’s sunny; I know the results will be crap, so I don’t even bother.

Third use filters – a polarizer at least and a neutral density filter if you have one.  A polarizer filter helps to cut the glare and reflections on the water, but also on vegetation which really makes the colors pop (especially useful if the leaves are wet, which brings up the color, but also reflections).  A neutral density filter is like sunglasses for your camera.  It cuts the available light and allows for longer shutter speeds which is exactly what you need to give the water that smooth, silky look.  They come in different densities that reduce the exposure by a set number of stops.  I think I’ve got a 4 or 5 stop.  Combined with a polarizer it gets me good results.  A polarizer will generally cut 1-1 1/2 stops by itself.

Now, a lot of people think you need a long time, say 30 seconds or even more for shots like this, but I don’t go nearly that long.  I stay anywhere from 1 to 5 seconds generally at ISOs 100 and 200.  Here’s one from yesterday that’s 1.3 seconds at f10.

Lower Purgatory Falls

The big secret is to expose for the highlights!  It is REALLY easy to blow the whites in a waterfall.  That and the wrong white balance are my biggest pet peeves because both are easily avoided.  Watch your histogram or the high/low blinkies in your LCD screen…a little clipping is manageable, but a huge area is not.  Don’t worry that the rest of the shot is dark, you can correct for that in post processing.  Use spot metering if you have it and put it on the white water.

Another reason I don’t use very long exposure times is that I like being able to see the bottom of the stream and that often floating bubbles and debris will leave long trails in the photo as they pass by.  This shot was only 1.6 seconds at f9 and I love that you can see the rocks in the stream bed.  If I’d let it go longer, there’d be more distracting streaks.

Purgatory Brook and Mountain Laurel

As it is you get a sense of motion and of stillness.  I twisted the polarizer to full on to cut the glare on the leaves and bring up the richness of the green.  Ditto for the reflection of the sky in the water – it’s gone!

If you do blow more highlights than you intended, don’t worry too much.  You can use the adjustment brush in Lightroom (or similarly robust editing package) to correct those areas and bring the exposure down.  Providing you have some detail left and didn’t clip the water entirely, this can work and help give a more even exposure appearance.  I did that with this next shot because try as I might I just couldn’t get it right since the sun was almost overhead.

Looking down Purgatory brook

Just like I described in Black and White Photography 201, I used it here to bring down the exposure just a little.  For most of my work I turn the auto mask on so that it doesn’t leak the adjustment area out of the highlighted pass I make with the mouse.  Use an appropriate brush size (I always make mine a little on the large side) with a good amount of feather zone, flow and density.  It took me a lot of practice (do-overs) to get a feel for the tool, but now I use it a lot to manage the light and dark areas of my images.

Lastly, try to match your white balance to the scene.  If you go on an overcast day choose the cloudy or shade setting, they usually match pretty close (or a custom white balance if you’re feeling super techy) .  I’ve found that leaving it on auto often renders things much too cool and makes the water blue.  I hate that.  Sorry if you like it, that’s just me.  I’m kind of a realist when it comes to my nature photography and unless the water really was blue, it shouldn’t look like that in a picture.  Fix it in post if you don’t get it right in the camera.

Here’s a quick summary -

  1. Use a tripod
  2. No direct sun
  3. Use filters – polarizer and/or neutral density
  4. Expose for the highlights (spot metering helps)
  5. Use the adjustment brush or similar tool in post processing
  6. Use an appropriate white balance (no blue water!)

So that’s it.  After a while it becomes second nature, but at first you’ll probably have to practice a bit. Believe me, my first waterfall pictures are AWFUL.  I like to think I’ve improved.  At least a little.

8 responses

  1. Thanks for the waterfall checklist! I enjoyed your post and I’m sure I’ll find the checklist handy as I head out to the woods.

    April 28, 2011 at 11:27 am

  2. Pingback: 96 - Kick-ass tripods - Fine art photography forum

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  5. Adam

    This is a very helpful post!

    November 18, 2011 at 9:06 am

  6. Pingback: A morning in Purgatory « Wicked Dark Photography

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