Last month, I discussed the shutter speeds and filters that best create the beautiful blur characteristic of many photographs of running water. I explained that such photos require slow shutter speeds, which means shooting in low light, keeping the ISO as low as possible, and stopping down the aperture to F16, F22 or another small setting. Also remember that to capture the movement of water well, a tripod is usually required to steady the camera.
Not only do images of running water require low light, they are most beautiful when the contrast is low—together, these variables equalize the lighting throughout your image. Early morning and late evening work best because the light is soft, warm and directional. This light has less contrast and because the sun is low in the sky or not yet above the horizon, there is less light and we can use the slower shutter speeds we want. Overcast days yield similar effects, as there is both low light and little contrast. These conditions also, however, produce a cool blue cast; so if you’re not using your computer to alter your color temperature, you should change the white balance on your camera to “Cloudy” to remove any bluish hue. On the other end of the spectrum, if you shoot on a bright, sunny day, the contrast is high. Here, I’d suggest finding a place entirely in the shade or using something to block the sun such as an umbrella. In other words, you’ll have to create your own low-light, low-contrast conditions.
When shooting moving water, even on overcast days, there is often a wide range of contrast from the lightest to the darkest areas of the scene. (Rocks, for example, tend to be darker; sunlit water, on the other hand, is extremely light.) When there is too much contrast the result will either be washed-out white or pure black portions of the image. In these situations, you might have to wait for the light to soften — or follow some of the self-created-conditions tips above. Again, the goal is low, soft light and minimal contrast.
Depth of Field
Typically, images of running water show the entire scene in sharp focus. This means a great depth of field. To do this, we need a small F-stop such as F16 or F22. The potential, then, is that everything can be sharp—from the closest foreground to infinity. Otherwise, if it is impossible to get everything sharp, make the foreground sharp, as it generally takes up a relatively larger portion of the frame.
You can achieve a desirable depth of field by focusing one-third of the way into the frame, as this is typically where one positions their focal point. I’d additionally advise switching to manual focus so the camera doesn’t try to automatically re-focus when you press the shutter button. Remember also that a small aperture like F16 or F22 will force a slower shutter speed, which is what you want.
Exposure is a fascinating and complex aspect of photography that both new and veteran photographers struggle with. Becoming adept requires experience, time spent with good photography books, or—and I think best of all—a class or workshop. Fortunately, if we are shooting in soft, even lighting, there is a good chance our camera’s “smart” metering in aperture-priority exposure mode will produce an accurate exposure. If you know a fair amount about exposure, then I’d suggest switching to manual exposure and using your spot meter.
What I was taught about exposure by Ansel Adams in 1973 applies as much today as it did back then: take the reading off the brightest part of the water and then open up one to two stops to allow detail. Then, he said, take a spot reading off the darker part of the photograph to see how many stops darker this section is than the running water. If it is in the range of three to four stops, the contrast is fine. If it is more than that, it may be worth finding a lower contrast scene to shoot—you could also stay right there and wait for the light to soften. These types of exposure techniques are more advanced and may require guidance by someone who understands and practices these techniques. This is also referred to as Zone System.
NOTE: Remember, auto focus and auto exposure are not related to each other and your camera can be used with either of these on auto or manual without affecting the other.
When I see a fabulous landscape photograph, the aesthetic appeal is the result of several things done well. First, the light was right. Second, the photographer’s technical skills were strong. Third, the photographer knew his or her way around Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, or another photo editing program. (That said, I’ve seen a fair number of images that have been manipulated too much and look “too perfect”— i.e., unrealistic.) Fourth, a tripod or good support system kept the camera steady and image tack sharp. Finally, composition was well planned and executed. In an upcoming issue of “Neil’s Corner”, I will discuss some basic points of photographic composition.