Painting With Motion

Self Portrait on the American River : 4 seconds with a 6 stop ND filter - Photo by Michael Maloney

You’ve all seen those photographs, usually of a waterfall or a stream where the water becomes a beautiful ribbon of silky smoothness. Those images are created using long exposures. I like to call the process painting with motion because the combination of a slow shutter speed and moving water creates a flowing, painterly effect to the water.

If you are shooting on overcast days, in deep shade, in the evening, or even at night, you can easily get your shutter speeds down to produce that coveted silky look. Use the lowest ISO your camera will allow and stop your lens down to f22 or so and you’re set. But what do you do on those bright sunny days where you can’t get a shutter speed slower than 1/60th of a second?

This is where neutral density filters (ND) come in handy. They are basically sunglasses for your lens, reducing the amount of light that hits your film or sensor. The neutral refers to the lack of color shift. ND filters can also be used to reduce the depth of field in very bright light allowing you to shoot at wide open apertures such as f1.4 to turn your background into a creamy smoothness.

There are two types of ND filters, circular and square. Circular filters are quick and convenient, however if you have a variety of lenses each with a different filter diameter you need to purchase multiple filters or purchase the largest diameter filter and buy step up rings. The 4 x 4 inch square filters can be used on most lenses as wide as 16mm and you only need one. The disadvantage is that you need to buy a filter holder, plus an adapter ring for each different filter diameter lens you own.

Neutral density filters come in a variety of light blocking strengths from 1 stop up to 10 or even more. If you were to purchase just one, I recommend a 6 stop. With it, even on a bright sunny day, you can bring your shutter speed down to as slow as 1 second or less. I like to carry a 3 stop, 6 stop and a 10 stop filter which allows me more shutter/aperture control in all types of light.

Determining exposure is easy. If your camera can see through your filter to auto focus, then you just focus & meter as normal. But if your ND filter is so strong that you cannot auto focus then you need to compose your image, focus, and take a meter reading at your chosen aperture before putting your ND filter on. You then simply reduce the shutter speed by whatever strength nd filter you want to use, remembering of course to first turn off auto focus.

For example, if you determine the exposure of your scene to be 1/60 sec at f22 without a filter and you want to use a 6 stop ND, you simple slow the shutter down by a factor of 6 which puts the correct shutter speed at 1 second at the same aperture, f22.

You can also purchase apps for your smart phone that will factor all of this for you. My favorite is called LongTime Exposure Calculator: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/longtime-exposure-calculator/id362297743?mt=8  It is free, however works only on iOS 3.1 or later devices, but there are other apps available for android users. ND Calc looks to be a good one : http://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.briandorey.ndcalc&hl=en

Here at Camera West, we stock Heliopan, Rodenstock , Lee and Hitech filters and accessories. Stop by and we can help you pick the right filter for you.

Two second exposure with a 6 stop ND filter - American River - Photo by Michael Maloney

Two second exposure with a 6 stop ND filter - Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite - Photo by Michael Maloney

8 second exposure at dusk - Rodeo Beach - Photo by Michael Maloney

In a related blog post, see how I got rid of hundreds of cars and pedestrians on the Golden Gate Bridge in one very long exposure : http://www.camerawest.com/cwblog/2012/09/13/long-exposure-magic/

Also, note that I am leading a long exposure photo walk in February where we will photograph the waterfalls in Marin County. Details here : http://www.camerawest.com/cwblog/2014/12/05/february-photo-walk-cataract-falls-hike/

Michael Maloney is a sales associate, instructor and photo walk guide for Camera West Walnut Creek. After a 37 year career as a photojournalist, ( 30 years at the San Francisco Chronicle ) Michael still gets out to shoot most weekends concentrating primarily on landscapes.

Shooting Waterfalls

ISO 100, 0.25 seconds @ f16………..Cataract Creek photos by Michael Maloney

Just heard reports from friends that Cataract Creek near Mt Tamalpais in Marin County is flowing at near peak levels. If you are like me and enjoy shooting waterfalls, now is the time to go! The past two winters have been tough for shooting local waterfalls as there was little winter rain, but let’s keep our fingers crossed for plenty of rain this winter!

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.

ISO 100, 0.6 seconds @ f11

ISO 100, 4 minutess @ f20 with 1.8 B+W neutral density filter

ISO 100, 0.3 seconds @ f5.6

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 – that is if we have a normal rainfall winter. Waterfalls 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 in February to shoot the waterfalls. If you would like to join me, let me know. More details here.

ISO 100, 0.3 seconds @ f14

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.