On a recent outing on the Wisconsin river I experimented with shutter speeds. Often photographers automatically go for the long exposure when it comes to flowing water. Once you’ve mastered the technique, it’s a gimme and for the most part produces very striking effects.
But is it always the best or most appropriate? I suppose it depends on what you’re going for. Artistically it can be a great way to contrast motion and stillness and expose patterns that you can’t see the same way with the naked eye. I love it, but sometimes I want to convey the power, noise and sheer presence of a mighty flow. The smoothly swirling patterns, while lovely to look at just don’t showcase those qualities. So I tried my hand at much faster exposures and found those can also produce some striking photos.
Look at the difference in these two images. How does each one make you feel? What does each one tell you about what it was like to be there? What does each one hide from you about what it was like to be there?
These next shots are more traditional waterscapes and are from different positions on the same section of the river, but the emotions they convey are quite contrary.
The snow in that second image helps bolster the drama of a river in full roar that in the long-exposure image isn’t all that apparent (it had stopped snowing by then). But in terms of how each shot makes you feel, take a few minutes to absorb that. The first for me is a bit timeless and hasn’t much in the sense of power that the second does. Without looking at the EXIF data, there’s no way to tell how long it took the water to flow that much. Even if there was snow still flying, it would be blurred and difficult to see. It’s a more restful and possibly a more artistic presentation of the river and the second you could categorize as documentary in nature. It has an immediacy the first doesn’t have.
Depending on how much surface variation there is to a brook or river, I usually time my long exposures between 5 and 15 seconds. Sometimes I go longer, but not often. There is cool stuff below that range though and just leaving the shutter open a fraction of a second can produce some surprising results. Here’s an example of what I mean. This is a slice of the Wisconsin I liked the look of when I was out on some rocks in the midst of the roar. The water is tannic and so naturally the color of tea or root beer. It’s not polluted! Tons of fish, insects, reptiles, birds and mammals depend on this river and it’s hugely popular with two-legged fishermen as well.
I started out with just a bare lens, no filters, working mostly hand held with high shutter speeds. I had my tripod with me though so I did use it for these next shots –
It’s not bad. It has some appeal and visual interest. Could the water action be more interesting? Sure, but that’s really hard to predict and so you’d end up shooting bursts of images hoping for the best. If you’re looking for this stop-action, frozen quality, I’ve found that’s really the only way since the water’s shape is so random. First look for a dynamic part of the water and properly compose and frame. Using live view you can see if the results produce the visual attraction you want. If not, find another section of water and give it another go.
What appealed to me with this little slice was the rocks on the banks; the frame they provide. With the frozen water image, I just didn’t get the contrast I wanted. The rocks are cold, implacable and they seem like river could never affect them (though it does in the end; water always wins). The Wisconsin is active, alive, unpredictable and relentless. So I put a neutral density filter on and tried a long exposure –
OK, so we’re partly there. The rocks are steady as ever and boy do they look like they’d break your bones. All well and good, but look at the water.
Yeah, not too interesting. It’s just one big, featureless blur of a root beer float. To me it’s boring and lacks any sort of quality that would make you look twice at it. Lucky for me, I removed my neutral density filter and added a polarizer only. Using live view I found a shutter speed that would blur the water somewhat, but reveal the deep bronze color. Patterns emerged!
Now we’re talkin’!
The water still conveys force, power and speed, but now there’s something to snag the eye. By having some blurred action the contrast with the granite boulders is apparent, but it’s not so slow that the water loses all character. An in between shutter speed reveals the light and dark of the water as it moves and this gave me what I wanted when I was making this image.
So why did I use two different filters? Well, it was a bright, but overcast day and no matter how low I set my ISO the camera couldn’t get me a very long exposure. I also don’t like to crank the aperture all the way down on any of my lenses. Doing this almost always puts you out of the lens’s sweet spot (usually between f 4 and 11) and images can be comparatively soft. Using a ND filter will get you the longest exposures depending on how dark the filter is (and subsequently how much light it blocks; think of it as sunglasses for your camera). Using a polarizer is a step between a naked lens and a ND filter. My particular polarizer is a B&W and only reduces the exposure by 1 stop. Some will be darker so your results will vary, but for this particular day it worked perfect.
My take-away lesson from this experimentation is a better understanding of how shutter speed helps to create the mood for a moving water image. Whether I want something soft and peaceful, showing lines and highlights that can’t be seen with the naked eye, or something sharp and arresting, showing water frozen in action. But I can’t forget that the extremes don’t always serve my intentions; I need to be ready and flexible in my approach in order to produce the photo I want. Hopefully you get a chance to experiment, too. If you do, give me a shout and show me what you did!
Spring, spring, glorious spring.
Yeah, I’m a bad blogger, I know. Honestly though, I hardly shot a thing all winter. Zero photos from March.
So I’m making up for it.
This is Chesterfield Gorge which is way the frig out in western NH…nearly Vermont. I’d been there in the mid-90s, but not since, but I think I got my timing right as Jeff Newcomer told me the gorge had a big clean up recently. Lots of debris was removed from the waterway and I thank those folks profusely!
There are many interesting sections to this gorge and I did my best to find them. For this shot, I had the tripod in the water, weighted by my backpack. I haven’t had the ability to do this with my previous tripods and I think it’s going to prove helpful with the stronger currents to reduce vibration and make for sharper images. Here’s a shot of how it looks – Click here.
Because you can get to the edge of the precipice in a lot of places, I went for the opposite approach with this shot and the next one. I wish there was a bit more sense of scale, but what can you do? The sun came out now and then and I tried to work with it and I think it adds some depth by lighting up branches. I’m a big fan of that anyway. I know not all photographers are, but I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t fight the light. You have to work with it and figure out how to make it enhance your photos. Make it work for you.
I didn’t mind that it rained a bit at times either. It was part of being there. The experience. One thing I try to do is to soak up a location as much as I can. Sometimes I think I rush too much to shoot and I don’t really absorb the location. The way the breeze moves through the rocks or trees. The sound of the water. The shape of the rocks. It’s all part of why I’m there and I need to be mindful of it.
I’m sure the people who walked by me thought I was a little crazy to be just standing in the brook with the tripod, but I needed to see.
You never know what you will notice when you take the time to be still.
After Hurricane Sandy blew into the area and filled up our smaller streams and rivers again, it was a perfect time to get out and see them. Some of them I’d just been to (Purgatory) and WOW, what a difference a storm makes. At the time it didn’t seem like we got that much rain, but I guess we did. Because showers could catch me at any time, I went to a couple places that were easy and quick to get in and out of. As a result, it didn’t rain. My first stop was Tucker brook/falls, a popular spot but oh so rich in photographic possibilities. This time I got some views I’ve never tried before including going down into a sort of wide gorge. It was magical.
A few other photographers I know had been to Tucker falls the week before and the flow looked like a garden hose was on tap compared to after the storm. Wow.
Phew. Feel like a couple monochromes now? I swear I couldn’t stop shooting. I was telling myself that it was repetitive, derivative and had been done a million times, but it’s so hard to stop.
Phew. Enough already, right? The trouble is, I went to Purgatory Falls just after this. You can practically throw a rock from one location to the other so it’s kind of compulsory that if you have a good day for it, you hit both back to back.
Check out those rocks in the foreground. Just weeks ago I’d stood on them with the tripod to take a shot of the same little cascade. Amazing what some rain will do. While I didn’t spend as much time at Purgatory brook as I did at Tucker, I did finally manage to shoot a small, but intense cascade I’d never done successfully before. It’s rocky and kind of a PITA to set up for, but those bubbly-swirls…well, you know what a sucker for those I am.
And of course the falls themselves. Probably the most over-exposed waterfall in southern NH. Could be that’s Tucker falls, but it would be close. I’ve shot them before, but have never gotten up onto the little cliff next to them. I actually didn’t climb up, but down. There’s a little ledge hemmed in by trees about 18″ wide and so that’s where I perched. It’s only about 12 feet higher than the normal position for this shot, but it made me feel adventurous, so it was all good.
Crazy huh? I just can’t resist an overcast day, especially one threatening rain. It’s the perfect time to do this kind of photography. Bright, but even light and no direct sun. I hope you’re not sick of it, cause there might be more.
Crazy, huh? Spring is so…springy. The two Ws are just irresistible – wildflowers and waterfalls. I’ve shot these particular falls before, but after a big storm knocked branches and whole trees down so the cascades were a mess. When I saw fellow photographer Jeff Newcomer’s recent post about Garwin falls, I saw they were clear and that I’d have to copy his composition. I didn’t copy his processing though; sepia is something I don’t often do, but this time it seemed a great choice. There was color in the shot, but not like the side view and so I processed it differently. Ditto with the long view. I wanted to see if I could warm it up some and still make it believable. If I were presenting these as a set, I’d process them all the same, but since I’m not I didn’t. These are my rules, I make ’em up. : )
This is the part of the falls you can’t see in the shot up there. It’s behind the ledge on the left. The brook sort of curves around it, making it damn hard to photograph. I brought my knee-high muck boots and got in the water just once since it was deeper and faster than I remembered.
And now for the wildflowers part of our show. First up, painted trillium. I’ve shot them before, but just look at ’em. Could you resist? Just before I put this shot together I made a couple images in a standard sort of way and liked them well enough, but thought they were kinda repetitive. So I took the camera off the tripod and set it on a nearby stump and lo, this composition came together. I just love the intimacy of it and those drops off the leaves are such a bonus. Ah the forest after rain.
Look what else is blooming – wild geranium! There were scads of it nearer the coast in a couple of spots and even though it was hanging out with tons of poison ivy, I had to try for some images. The one I had in my catalog was sheer crap so I braved the ivy and got one that doesn’t suck.
These are challenging to shoot in a couple ways. First is that like a lot of other flowers, the least little breeze makes them wave around like they’re doing some mad dance. Waiting for the lull is the worst part of shooting them. I swear that poison ivy was inching toward me angling for a pounce. The second thing is getting the color right. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite get it right in camera with a white balance setting. They were too blue or too orange. So I set it close and then processed by memory. These next ones had a similar problem although they are a different shade of pink. I’d never seen them before and found out that they’re an introduced species from Europe. Pretty little things though. They were in a river flood plain and I took a zillion shots to get one that worked. Oh that wind! It conspires against me. LOL.
Anyway, that’s it for now. I have a few more flower shots, but I haven’t processed them yet so they’ll have to hang fire for a bit. Hope you all can get out and enjoy the bounty of spring, too.
The Piscataquog is my favorite river. I know, weird, huh? It’s an important waterway not only for people, but for many animals and plants that thrive in the ancient glacial habitats along its course. It has 3 branches (north, middle and south), runs for 57 miles with little interruption and its name translates from a local Indian dialect as The Great Deer Place or The Place for Many Deer.
Over the last couple hundred years, many local towns have sprung up on its banks using its regular and forceful flow to power mills, one of which is said to have been the very first shoe factory in the United States. Only remnants remain and much of the land around the 3 branches is officially protected. Each branch has unique geological features which I’m exploring as a project of sorts.
This is the only gorge so far as I can tell and unfortunately most of it is covered in no trespassing signs so I didn’t explore where it was prohibited. I hope someday easements can be granted to allow hikers and of course, photographers. : ) It is on the south branch and is on the border of two towns – Lyndeborough and New Boston.
The bridge in this shot used to connect the two ends of High Bridge road, but is now unsafe as the decking has rotted and there are many holes and the iron supports have rusted to lace in some spots. When a horse put its foot through in the mid 1990s, the bridge closed and has remained so. There is a project underway to raise funds for its restoration, but they have a long way to go. Further downstream is another set of gentle falls as well –
Over the coming months I hope to continue to explore different branches of the Piscataquog. I already have a few scouted and am waiting for some ferns to grow in, etc. There are some flood areas called eskers I want to try to locate as well, so hopefully you will like what’s to come as I explore.
Because the forecast called for overcast skies with a minimal chance of rain, I decided to take a ride over to one of my favorite little conservation areas to see if the brook was flowing and if there might be any wildflowers about. Pulpit Rock is about 20 minutes away and, while small, gave me 6 hours of solitude and connection with nature. It’s not as remote as I usually get, but that’s part of the appeal. If I don’t feel like driving forever, it’s a terrific option.
This time I “found” a trail I hadn’t noticed before. I’d been almost right on it, but somehow missed the markers. Yesterday was my lucky day. I got to a vantage point that I’d wished for before. The other side of these falls is the only way I’d approached them and the angle is all wrong. This is the way to see them –
I was worried the sun might have been too high for this shot, but I was able to manage the highlights and retain detail in the shadows, which I think add some depth and drama to this shot. And just look at those trees!! Yellow birch I’m pretty sure. I love how the trunk to the far right looks like it is flexing its muscles. I ventured as close to the slippery, sloping side of the rock ledge I was on to frame them around the waterfall itself. It was loud, yet relaxing and very rewarding to photograph it since I’d never seen it this way before.
So downstream I went. I passed the small waterfall where I shot my most viewed photograph and tried recreating it, but I’m not sure I like the result so I kept going. The brook wends its way through gorges and crevasses, sometimes flattening out and meandering wildly off its original course which has left its mark on enormous boulders and ledges.
For all the shots I used a tripod, a 4/5 stop neutral density filter and a polarizer. I fiddled with that last one quite a bit to get just a slight reflection on the water so it wouldn’t blend with the banks so much, and to manage the reflection on the greenery. Shooting in the woods after the rain makes the colors pop all by itself so sometimes too much polarizer makes everything kind of flat in terms of intensity. So as part of my post processing work I turned up the luminance in the green channel just a bit. It made that moss really pop which I think frames the water well and gives the image more depth and vigor.
Finding a higher vantage point for a view that isn’t blocked by trees is tough here. As you can see, there’s a lot of growth, but I found a nice boulder to work from. There’s actually a biggish tree just out of frame to the right, almost right up against the camera itself. I had to hold one of its branches out of the way for this shot, but I think it was worth the effort. The way the brook snakes away out of sight in the trees is pretty great.
Another thing I did on this shoot was to set the camera to ISO 100 which is something I don’t do often since it doesn’t make much difference to image quality. I did this time because even though I was using a neutral density filter and a polarizer, I wanted to be sure I could get longish exposures – 3 to 8 seconds or so. A lot of people would simply stop their lenses down further, but I find that at extremely small apertures most lenses lose their clarity a bit. Staying within the sweet spot on any lens will improve your overall sharpness and I don’t think I stopped down any further than 18 all day and mostly stayed between f7 and 16, which is my lens’s sweet spot for sure.
For more tips on how to use long exposure to make smooth, silky, smokey water, check out this post – Smoke on the Water.
Oh and as far as wildflowers go, I didn’t find many blooming, but I did find some bluebeard lily (aka clintonia) that will bloom in the next few weeks. You can spot it in the last shot there if you know what to look for. So…I shall return!
This year we’ve had so much rain that the waterfalls are still flowing mightily. Strange for this time of year when most streams, rivers and brooks are quite low. Makes for some fantastic photography though and of course I was out there.
This is Mill Brook. Yeah, original huh? There is still a semi-active mill on this waterway, but most of them are gone (there are remnants of one just upstream and across the road from here). This section is just before an old reservoir where the dam has been breached. I wished I could have gotten into the water for this, but it was way too deep and fast for that. So I clung to the bank and did the best I could.
Farther downstream on Mill brook are the massive and difficult to photograph Garwin Falls. I’m by no means the first photographer down there and it has been photographed in a more classic way than I have here, but I was interested in trying to interpret the falls differently. They’re quite wide and actually curve, with tons of trees both upright and blown down by the Halloween Noreaster we got. Also, the far bank is private property. I could have trespassed, but I don’t ever want to be ‘that asshole’ if you know what I mean. This first shot is just before the water plunges down the ledge. I loved the little bridge I found. No way in hell was I going to step on it. Oh to be young again and indestructible.
Just after the first drop, it turns a bit and I stood the tripod on top of a huge boulder and aimed it down. The curvy log there I thought would make a great leading line and the angle is pretty trippy. I don’t think I’ve seen the falls shot from here.
A little further down the falls I found a big beech tree that had recently come down. I carefully walked partway down a big slab of granite and shot from the side. It’s another strange angle, but I like it. That bit of direct sunlight in the trees in the back is pretty sweet. I didn’t have much more time left though since the clouds were burning off and the sun was getting higher.
Now let’s leave New Hampshire and go to Massachusetts and Royalston falls; a very accessible and dramatic waterfall. The river itself winds through dense woods and has carved some very impressive gorges over the thousands of years its been flowing through here.
I wished I could have spent some more time exploring and looking for unique compositions, but with the daylight hours being so short this time of year, I went right onto the falls.
The gorge is amazing and almost as impressive as the water. I got to thinking about the thousands of years it took to carve the rocks and how the course of the water has changed. It is as close to eternal as I think it gets; it’s old and doesn’t care about us and what we do. We might dam it for a while, but when we’re gone it will flow on. Makes you feel so small and insignificant. In a good way though; minimalizing my own existence has never frightened me. What did frighten me a bit was the terrain and how treacherous would have been without a sturdy fence being there. It did somewhat limit compositional possibilities, but I didn’t mind. For this shot I put the tripod out beyond the fence though. It’s about a 50 foot drop down.
After seeing the Royalston Falls I wanted to check out two more, but only had enough light for one. It’s the massive, astonishing and incredibly difficult to photograph Spirit Falls. I’m pretty sure this is also on a branch of the Tully river and isn’t far from the Royalston Falls. It went for hundreds of feet through thick forest and dropped hundreds of feet as well. The roar was so constant and so loud it was all-enveloping. I poked around a bit, but I’d need hours and hours to find views and segments for photos. It went down much further into a very large floodplain that was gorgeous from the couple of vistas on the top of Jacob’s Hill.
Well, that’s it for now. I don’t have much planned in the way of shooting. Brown stick season is well and truly here and so nothing springs immediately to mind. Hopefully it won’t last long.
My eyes aren’t always turned downwards, finding tiny details to show to the rest of the world. No, sometimes I pretend I’m a landscape photographer. Here are a sunrise at the coast and a sunset at a lake. Unfortunately there were no clouds in the sky for the sunrise, but when I saw the clouds yesterday afternoon, I knew they’d light up well.
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.
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.
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.
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 –
- Use a tripod
- No direct sun
- Use filters – polarizer and/or neutral density
- Expose for the highlights (spot metering helps)
- Use the adjustment brush or similar tool in post processing
- 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.