Shooting Waterfalls

Canon 1DX with Zeiss ZE 100mm F2.0 Makro. Four minute exposure at f20 with B+W Neutral Density 1.8 filter (6 stops)

Just got back from Cataract Creek near Mt Tamalpais in Marin County where all the waterfalls were flowing at near peak levels. Was there to check out the area for a February photo walk.

Shooting moving water is fun because you can make the water come alive with just the right shutter speed. The water takes on a silky smooth look with a slow shutter speed. To get that look, a tripod is absolutely necessary. A remote shutter release is also handy although in a pinch, you can just set the shutter delay to 2 seconds. Another necessity is a neutral density filter if you are shooting on a sunny day. Shutter speeds from 1/30th a second and slower are where you want to be so ND filters of various strengths will get you there.

How do you determine what shutter speed you need? Read on.

Camera Set Up

  • Use either Live View mode or lock your mirror up. When your shutter speeds get slower than 1/30th a second, the mirror movement can blur your image.
  • Turn on the highlight overexposure warning. This helps you determine quickly if your highlights start to clip (blow out). Blown highlights cannot be recovered so you need to make sure you keep them under control. It’s ok however to have a few very small areas without detail. The goal is to have detail in the shadows without blown highlights. Checking your histogram is the only way to accurately tell if your exposure is good.
  • Make sure your camera is set for 1/3rd stop exposure increments. This will allow for finer control over your exposure.
  • Set your shutter release to a 2 second delay or better yet, use a remote shutter release. Pushing the shutter button causes the camera to move slightly even when on a tripod which can blur your image when shooting long exposures. A remote shutter release can allow you to use the Bulb mode to get your exposures longer than 30 seconds for some really interesting effects.

Determine Shutter Speed & Exposure

  • At all times, make sure your tripod legs are firmly locked and positioned. We don’t want any cameras falling into the water! Some tripods tips have aluminum spikes – use them if you have them. If you set your tripod in the creek to get that perfect angle, make sure the current is not moving as it can vibrate your tripod.
  • Watch closely for any unwanted movement in your scene during your long exposures. Things like ferns or other vegetation could move in the wind and be a distraction in your image.
  • Set camera exposure mode to shutter preferred (TV on Canon, S on Nikon and most other cameras) and run through shutter speeds from 1/30th second to as long as you like. Keep checking your meter however because you will exceed the exposure range and may have to adjust your ISO or use ND filters to get slower shutter speeds.
  • Now review your images on the LCD to determine which shutter speed gives you the look you are after. Take note of the aperture.
  • Make sure that the exposure is a good one by viewing your histogram. The correct exposure will be the one that maintains both shadow and highlight detail.

White Balance & Shoot

  • Set camera to manual mode and set your camera to the shutter speed and aperture you determined in the above steps. If you want a different aperture you can change it but you’ll need to change your ISO to maintain proper exposure.
  • Next, include a gray card in one of your images. This will allow you to set accurate white balance in post. Especially important if using ND filters as they tend to create some minor color shifts.
  • I usually like to bracket my exposures, keeping the shutter speed constant. I’ll go 1 stop over and 1 stop under in 1/3rd stop increments. If you are shooting film, bracketing is essential, including bracketing your shutter speeds.

Now through spring is the time to go out to shoot waterfalls. They can be found nearly everywhere and don’t have to be the classics like those in Yosemite. Out at Cataract Creek the tallest waterfall is just around 10 feet – most are much shorter, but all are spectacular to witness and a whole lot of fun to shoot.

I am leading a photo walk out to Cataract Creek next month to shoot the waterfalls. If you would like to join me, let me know. More details here.

This Photo Booth is for the Birds

Shooting birds can be difficult. You need patience, you need long expensive super telephotos, and of course you need to go out and find the birds.

No more! Let the birds come to you instead with a clever device called the Bird Photo Booth. This device is a bird feeder that remotely snaps close-up photos of your winged visitors.

The Bird Photo Booth is designed to look like a classic Polaroid Land camera from 1950s but open the front of this hardwood feeder, and there’s a spot to place an iPhone, iPod Touch or GoPro camera. Move away to a discreet location and you can monitor birds swooping in for a bite at the feeder in real time on an iPhone, iPad, and other mobile devices or computers via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

When you see a bird you want to photograph or capture video of, just hit the virtual button on the Bird Photo Booth’s companion app, and you’re done.

The device was invented by ornithologist Bryson Lovett. It will cost $149. and is expected to ship in March 2013.

A Unique Backpack from Mindshift Gear

The innovators at ThinkTank Photo have come up with another bag. No surprises here! But what is surprising is they have formed a new company called Mindshift Gear to develop and soon produce this new bag, a very unique backpack. It will be like no other ThinkTank bag in that it will be geared for the outdoor shooter, rather than the city shooter like all of ThinkTank’s other bags.

MindShift is dedicated to building carrying solutions for those who are passionate about experiencing the natural world. They were founded by the creators of Think Tank Photo and conservation photographer Daniel Beltra. Their slogan, “Engage with nature,” challenges people to not only become involved in outdoor activities, but to create a conversation about nature and our relationship to the environment.

The new backpack is called the Rotation 180º Professional featuring something that no other backpack does – an integrated camera waist pack that rotates out of the lower section to the front of the body, allowing instant access. Releasing and rotating the waist pack can be done in seconds, letting you quickly change lenses, filters, or other accessories.

Traditional backpacks have to be taken off and placed on the ground to fully access your gear. As a photographer this is a significant problem since you are regularly switching equipment during a shoot. Outdoor terrain does not always allow a pack to be put on the ground. At some point this process becomes cumbersome and inhibits your ability to stay in the creative “zone.” The rotation180º professional lets you maintain your creative momentum when working in the field. Since the backpack always stays on your back you can stand right in the river or continue walking, hiking, or climbing, and stay focused on taking pictures.

Mindshift Gear has turned to Kickstarter to help fund their ambitious project and with just a few days left, they have received over 400% of their $30,000. goal. The new backpack will be available this spring.

Continuous Shooting Mode : Not Just for Action

Hand held Canon 400mm f2.8 shot in burst mode with a 1DX. 1/60th of a second at f2.8, ISO 10,000. This is frame #2 of 7 frames. All soft except for this one. Note my focus was on the Carl Zeiss lettering. The extreme shallow depth of field of a 400mm f2.8 shot on a full frame sensor at nearly minimum focus caused the rest of the image to be out of focus. This is a straight jpg image from a RAW file - no post processing.

Continuous release mode is often thought only to be useful when shooting dynamic subjects that are in motion. A rapid burst of frames can help when you are looking for just the right moment in a fast sequence of events. There is a SF 49er game on right now as I type this. You can be certain that all those shooters on the sidelines have their cameras cranked to the highest continuous release mode they can, 10 -12 frames per second. Makes sense for them, but there is another, often forgotten or maybe unthought of use for continuous release mode.

Often the sharpest image, in a burst of frames is not the first or last image. This is because regardless of how softly you think you’ve pressed and released the shutter, there’s always some inherent motion induced that isn’t there when you’re just holding the shutter release down. That motion, ever so slight can ruin your fine image if you are shooting slow shutter speeds without a tripod or other type of support. Shooting in bursts of three or more counteracts the motion of pushing and releasing the shutter release. So often times, you’ll find your sharpest images are somewhere in the middle of your burst, not the first or last frame.

A short burst of frames, coupled with a good solid shooting stance (one foot ahead of the other, hips centered, elbows tucked to your sides) and image stabilization can be used to create amazingly sharp images of a static subject. Look at my image above. Shot with a 9 pound hand held Canon 1DX and 400mm 2.8 lens at 1/60th of a second. Only frame #2 was sharp – six others showed motion blur.

So next time you’re out shooting, and don’t have a tripod, give continuous release mode a try. The worst you can do is not get the shot, however you may be pleasantly surprised when you find one or two sharp keepers!

Btw, combining continuous release mode with back button focusing is the way to go, but more on that in another post…I’ve got a game to watch!