23 Mar 2008

How to photograph moving water - part 1

I had a great day yesterday with Yvonne and Phil who came all the way up from London for a day’s tuition here in Scotland. We spent most of the morning going through some basics on their cameras – with Yvonne keen to understand more about white balance and how to use the manual exposure mode on her Nikon D40.

The weather was good and after lunch we had the choice of either photographing one of the many coves just along the coast, or another of my favourite locations – a beautiful and delicately intricate waterfall that drops out of the Galloway hills not far from my base here in Kirkcudbright.

As Yvonne was keen to try out her skills with moving water – we donned our wellie boots and headed to the waterfall.

You can hear the roar of the waterfall well before I can see it. It’s very well hidden – a real fairy dell. The water drops about 40 feet down a sheer face, it’s stream splitting into several channels which tumble over blackened, mossy rocks. The fall was once used for industrial purposes, and some cast iron pipes still mar the pristine quality of the scene. These can be used as subjects in their own right, or, with careful framing be cut out altogether.

I suggested a simple shooting plan to give the shoot a sense of purpose. We did not rush in to get shots of the water right away, but stood well back and took a good look at the whole scene before me. There is no need to rush in these situations. Waterfalls do not run away, nothing is going to change except the light, and on an overcast day that is unlikely to change much, so take your time and consider each shot. I prefer an overcast day because it helps reduces contrast between the white water and black rock, and if the sun does shine through the trees it can soon create over-exposed hot spots.

We started by taking pictures that included lots of foreground. The green mosses made a startling foreground, so too did the branches of the dead trees.

A good solid tripod is essential if, like me, you prefer to create that mystical, fairy-like, movement in the falling water. You need very slow shutter speeds to do that, about 1sec for maximum effect with a small waterfall, and here overcast weather helps again. The less daylight there is, the slower the shutter speed you will be able to use.

In my DVd on Light and Composition (available from my website), I showed you how to look at the world in rectangles, and introduced you to an imaginary ‘Rectangle Monkey’ who always helps you think and see in rectangles – that’s the way the camera sees. Photographing a waterfall like this is a good time to adopt that way of thinking, because the actually face of the waterfall as it drops down the cliff is really quite two-dimensional, and it is a simple matter to divide the waterfall up into interesting rectangles – starting with the overall view and then framing different interesting areas in both horizontal and vertical rectangles.

To find the exposure using Manual (M) exposure mode is simple. Knowing I need a slow shutter speed, I just set a very small aperture, f22 and point the camera at the subject (I prefer centre-weighted metering for this type of subject). Then I slow the shutter speed down until the exposure scale in the viewfinder tells me I have the correct exposure. At ISO 100 this gave me a shutter speed of around 1sec; perfect for the moving water effect I was looking for. You do not need fast ISO settings when the camera is on a tripod and you want to use a slow shutter speed… keep it low for best results and better quality.

The pictures here were taken by me on a previous visit to the waterfall – yesterday, I was far too busy helping Yvonne and Phil to get their photographs.

Lower photograph of the waterfall
I started with a simple wide angle shot of the scene, taking in lots of that wonderful green moss in the foreground with the waterfall away in the distance. One of the less appealing aspects of this view can be seen – the end of an old water pipe, just off centre in the picture. There was no way of avoiding this from this angle. A couple of clicks with the cloning tool in Photoshop will soon sort it.
Top photograph
I used the rushing water in the stream beneath the fall to make a lively, moving foreground that injected a real feeling of depth – the third dimension – to the composition. With the wide-angle lens I was able to stand right in the middle of the stream. Here’s when those wellie boots really come in handy
Also pictured above are Yvonne and Phil, my students for the day - they came up from London for their photography tuition
In part 2 I'll explain more about composition - and white balance

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