2013 Top Ten Countdown … #4

Arca Swiss rm3di with IQ180 back, Rodenstock 40mm HR
¼ sec at f/16, iso 35

Moving water is a dynamic force which varies immensely from small trickles of a bubbling mountain brook to streams and rivers of all sizes, some times moving gently and slowly through a picturesque area which then suddenly tumbling violently  through white water rapids. Don’t forget waterfalls, some so small we don’t even notice unless we look close, others magnificently falling hundreds of feet, cascading down a mountain side or cliff face, spraying mist in air which plays with the light in fascinating ways. Perhaps my favorite force of water are the waves at the ocean shore, which vary from soft gentle swishes on a sandy beach to those crashing violently into rocky shores. Watching and listening to moving water to me is one of the most relaxing activities there is.  Whether in a mountain canyon by a lovely stream or sitting on a rocky shore line while wave after wave comes crashing ashore, being there with a camera trying to capture some of that feeling is about as good as it gets for me.  I could do it every day and never tire. (OK maybe I would but I’d sure like to try it for a while 🙂 )

While on Kauai this year I explored a couple of new locations. I was having a hard time finding a spot to shoot at this particular location when I came upon an opening I could shoot down through.  It was a little different angle because I was probably 30-40 feet above the water (which was good because these waves were very big and very violent).  The higher angle seem to lend itself to a semi abstract shot which somewhat depicts the violence of the impending wave hitting the rock cliff.  I can almost hear the crash now as I look at this image.

Sometimes I see discussion criticizing slow shutter techniques when capturing images of moving water being unrealistic.  Lately I’ve seen the term “forensic landscape” photographer pop up a few times, a style which is to recreate that which we see as perfectly as possible … to the point of not cloning out a piece of trash left by some jerk on a lovely beach.    I’m not a photo journalist, nor a forensic photographer.  I’m trying to portray at least to some small degree an emotion I was feeling while taking a shot.  To do that requires interpretation on my part as well as techniques to make that possible.  Some of those techniques are when I take the shot, others are when I process it later.  That doesn’t mean doing anything I want in Photoshop, but it does mean doing things that are pretty straightforward (and have been done since the beginning of photography) to try and provide the viewer some sense of the emotional response I had when I was there. Using a slow shutter to blur moving water is simply one of those techniques.

As far as moving water, like most landscape photographers I’ve never been bothered using slow shutters to get this effect … I like it.  I distinctly remember trying it for the first time in Big Cottonwood Canyon by Salt Lake City, (In fact I even know the approximate day I did this -sometime between May 30 and June 2nd, 1975.  I was just married and on my honeymoon and up the canyon for a picnic).  When those slides came back I was really excited … it looked so cool!

The problem with moving water and trying to photograph it “realistically” is whether it is even possible.  The human mind can’t freeze the motion of water (or  anything else which is moving for that matter).  Take a shot of a waterfall at 1 /2000th of a second, and I promise it won’t look anything like what you see when standing there.  Even 1/60th of a second won’t do it.  The human vision system is great at seeing motion, but it cannot freeze motion.  To me, capturing an athlete or event with a fast shutter speed and tack sharp isn’t any different than water … we can’t see a moving event with that much clarity and detail.  I would never debate that being a bad thing, in fact it’s one of the appeals of photography … we can choose to freeze details which we normally can’t see, or we can choose to let the natural motion blur the details in varying degrees for effect.

My philosophy for water is pretty simple.  I have a standard “starting” point which to me will blur most water similarly to what I think it looks like when I see it in person … about 1/15th of a second.  Often the result is perfect.  But then I have no issue making it longer or shorter to accomplish my goal.  The wave at the top is a good example.  I have a few captures at faster speeds, but felt the slower speed offered the best depiction of the power and sounds I witnessed when I took the shot. (Another example is a couple of posts back where I used a 4 second shutter speed of waves to create a more abstract shot).

Disclaimer:  Of course all of this is just my opinion and everyone is entitled to one of those 🙂

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2 Responses to “2013 Top Ten Countdown … #4”

  1. Makes me seasick, in the best possible way!

  2. I never really thought about the “reality” of capturing moving water. A slow shutter is certainly closer to what we “see”… I personally like seeing images captured that are not perfectly frozen in time. Life is made up of moments… Most of them last more than a 1/500th of a second. 🙂