Welcome back to another installment of my monthly Behind the Camera feature. In this feature, I try to give a little insight into my photography by answering a question that has popped up during the previous month. This month's topic comes from Beth Reed through Facebook. The question she posed is: How do I get that look with my waterfalls, where the water looks "thick" and blurry? That effect has also been called "milky" in several of the comments I've seen with my waterfall pictures.
This question came at a really good time since I have recently been to two different locations for waterfalls. Big Creek and Roaring Fork Falls are some of my favorite places to go for moving water photography. I had also done a couple of videos specifically dealing with how I captured moving water. So, thank you Beth for suggesting this topic.
There is a huge division out there on how best to photograph moving water. In one camp, you will find a group that likes a fast shutter speed which freezes the motion in the water and shows the detail down to the droplets as they move over the obstacles. In the other camp, you will find those which prefer to slow the shutter down and create a motion blur with the moving water that results in the silky look. For those of you who have viewed my White Water Gallery Room here, you will know without a doubt which camp I fall in. Yes, I like milk spilling over my rocks, and I don't cry about it either.
|What a Rush|
In this shot, I set the camera for a proper exposure without any filters on the front of the lens. I set it up as I would with a filter with the exception of the shutter speed. F/18 was plenty for the depth of field that I wanted here, and the meter ended up suggesting a shutter speed of 0.4 seconds which was not enough to really blur the water like I would want, but more importantly, there is a lot of glare on the surface of the water, as well as the wet rocks. It is not a bad image, but the water looked a little too chaotic for my tastes.
When I added the Color Combo Polarizer, my exposure immediately darkened due to the reduced light entering into the lens. I kept all of my settings the same with the exception of the shutter speed. Allowing for a proper exposure based on the meter and histogram, I slowed the shutter to 2 full seconds still at f/18. That is a huge difference with just a single filter being added. You can see the that the glare is removed, which yields a darker scene overall. The rocks near the white water are now rendered dark without the glare from the spray. Even the greens are saturated now as the glare was removed from the leaves. Keep in mind that both of these images are straight out of the camera with no editing except for the resizing for posting here. These are the RAW images that I captured.
There are instances where I need a slower shutter speed than I can achieve with a polarizer alone. In these situations, I will add a Neutral Density Filter which has a sole purpose of reducing the light that enters the lens. If it is a good quality filter, there will be no color shift once it is added. I find that when shooting on very overcast days an ND filter is not needed.
The key settings here are to shoot the image with your lowest ISO, which in my case is 100. I could go down to 50, but that actually degrades the quality of the image slightly and introduces a bit of noise as it is a product of internal manipulation on the part of the camera. You can only access this by unlocking the feature in a menu. To maintain the highest quality image, I leave it at the native low ISO of 100. I also keep the lens stopped down a good bit for depth of field when shooting any landscape, but for waterfalls, the narrower the aperture the better. I try not to go all the way to the narrowest aperture as diffraction becomes an issue. In these images, f/18 works well (f/22 is the highest aperture for the lens). Diffraction is a byproduct of a very narrow aperture where you actually start to lose sharpness throughout your image while maintaining a wide depth of field. Some images can handle diffraction better than others, and lens quality has a lot to do with the degree of diffraction.
The idea behind all of this is to reduce the light that enters the lens to allow for a slower shutter speed. In the case of the aperture, it is a double benefit since you get more depth of field with the narrower aperture as well as the ability to use a slower shutter speed. The only negative to a very narrow aperture is that you will absolutely have to use a tripod for your waterfall photography. There is no way to hand hold a camera at 2 seconds and keep the image sharp. A tripod will also allow you to repeat the composition with different shutter speeds to see what you like the best. Of course, I recommend a tripod for all of your landscape shots because you are assured to get a stable and sharp image the vast majority of the time. You just have to be careful not to bump the tripod with your feet. To take full advantage of a tripod, I would also recommend using the mirror lock up feature and either using a remote release, or using the self timer (2-seconds) so that your image doesn't suffer from the mirror flipping up and causing a slight vibration.
|Cascades of Summer|
|Dreaming in Black and White|
Don't get me wrong, I don't dislike those freeze frame water shots. I have seen several that were absolutely beautiful. I just don't look at them for long at all. Almost as quick as the camera was exposed, my eyes lose interest because there are no patterns to pick out. I look, I appreciate, I move on. When I look at a long exposure waterfall, I will stop and look at it much longer. I start to really look "into" the photograph. I become emotionally connected. It is no longer a shot of a specific waterfall, it is a piece of art that is to be appreciated.
There is one major pitfall that we haven't discussed yet when it comes to these long exposure shots. We have the camera set up on the tripod, we have our polarizer and maybe a neutral density filter attached. Using our remote and the mirror lock up we are all set for a great long exposure of moving water at 3.2 seconds. But wait, if we are using a long exposure to capture motion, would it not stand to reason that the breeze blowing around might cause motion in the greenery? Yep, when you are shooting a long exposure, you will capture any movement as a blur, and that includes branches and leaves. There is no cure for this (outside of a multiple shot that blends elements) other than waiting for the wind to die down a bit. I have stood patiently for 15 minutes or more waiting for a lull in the wind before releasing the shutter. It also pays to take several shots of the same thing on breezy days because you will then have several to choose from to see what blur you are willing to live with.
|Into the Gorge|
Now that you are comfortable shooting waterfalls, you can use some of the same concepts with other landscape shots that include moving water. take for example, this shot from the top of Upper Creek Falls in the Pisgah National Forest. The main focus here is the sky and the landscape in general. The visual anchor is the small cascade, less than a foot tall in the foreground. Had I shot this at a normal shutter speed (a fraction of a second), I would have lost a lot of the visual impact of the small cascade and it would not have worked nearly as well as an anchor. By slowing the shutter speed using a polarizer, and a couple of ND grads (5 total stops of light loss), I was able to get the exposure to around 1 second. It wasn't much, but it was enough to get the effect I was after.
|Enter the Basin|
|High Shoals Falls|
These are just some considerations while shooting waterfalls, and you can always allow more might into the camera by opening up the lens (lower f/number), or changing the ISO to make it higher. You do still want to use a polarizer as the removal of glare is very important for this type of photography. After your exposure, check the image on the LCD review and zoom in. While it won't be an exact representation of the captured image, it will give you an idea if you got the effect right. As with everything in photography, season to taste. there might be a time when you want just a touch of glare to make a rock stand out, maybe you want things to be a bit darker than they actually are. You are the photographer, you make the decisions on how your images are captured and then presented.
Thanks for the topic Beth! Remember if there is ever anything that you would like to know more about with my photography, just ask. Your question might just be the next Behind the Camera topic!