Upper Truckee Falls Panorama

Upper Truckee Falls Panorama

How To Take This Shot 3

Long exposure photography is something that almost all of my workshop participants inquire about. They don't exactly know what it is, but they want to know how to make moving water look "silky". Well, this can be done whether you are shooting film or digital. As a general rule with moving subjects, like the water fall in this image, anything over 1/4 second will begin to show motion as a softening of detail. This is, of course, relative to how fast that subject is moving. There are several factors to consider when envisioning one of these ethereal images:

  • How fast is the subject moving?
  • What are the lighting conditions?
  • How much of a softening effect do I want to show?
  • Can I use a filter to control the length of exposure?
  • When do I need to be in this location for the ideal lighting conditions to make the shot work?
  • Do I have a composition that works?

When I scouted this waterfall, I was very aware that it was located in a canyon. This would enable me to be here, in completely shaded conditions, with strong ambient light. That would enable me to capture an image, without harsh contrast, in a relatively short amount of time. I would be able to use a relatively short exposure, say 1/4 to 1/2 second, showing motion, yet retaining some detail in the moving water. That, however, was not what I was moved toward capturing. I wanted much more mood in the scene.

I chose to compose this image at the extreme end of light. I came here, not only near sunset when the ambient light was minimized, but also on an overcast day, further subduing the light. Using black & white film rated to 100 speed (slow), and a green contrast filter holding back 2 stops of light, I was able to build the necessity for a 3 minute and 20 second exposure. This long exposure minimized all detail in the water, leaving me with wisps of silk flowing over the dark, wet, ice covered granite and log. This was a conscious decision to have the final image match the mood and emotion I wanted to evoke. If shooting digital, and knowing that anything above 2 minutes would become very noisy, I would have set my exposure for 2 minutes and worked my way backward with my ISO setting as well as the aperture setting in order to end up with a correct exposure at 2 minutes.

Another approach would have been to visit the location when there was more ambient light. At that point you can use a polarizing filter and/or a dark neutral density filter to decrease the amount of light entering your lens and reaching your sensor. This will enable you to control the exposure time, and thus, the amount of silkiness displayed in the moving water. More or less motion blur will give a different feeling to the scene. When shooting digital, you can experiment and choose the exposure time that renders the best result for the image you are envisioning.

Finally, remember that you are composing a photograph. The moving water (or clouds, stars, cars, etc.) is not the entire composition. First, set your camera on your tripod and thoughtfully compose the scene as you would with any landscape. Once you have a pleasing, balanced composition, then consider the exposure time, the degree to which you'd like the water to blur, whether you need to darken the scene using filters to accomplish this, etc. We use this "effect" to add interest to an otherwise interesting scene. Now that you have everything set, capture a correct exposure. And remember, before leaving, record details about the lighting, how fast the water was moving, filters you used at that time of day in those lighting conditions. This will give you a starting point for your next attempt!

I hope you found this addition of How To Take This Shot both helpful and motivational. If you'd like hands on assistance, please inquire about one of my one-on-one workshops. I'd love to help you take your photography to the next level!

Enjoy the View!

Jon Paul