Behind-the-Photo: Elakala Falls

Photography is more than just the 'click' - there is a lot of planning and editing required to make a spectacular photograph. I recently posted about my revisit to Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia, where I photographed Elakala Falls. This photograph was particularly difficult to create, so I wanted to deconstruct the image into its raw parts and share the creation process with you. It's like a chef showing you the recipe...

PS - this technique is *exactly* the same as the technique I used to create this waterfall photograph at Great Falls. Once you know the technique, you can apply it anywhere!

The Equipment

Obviously the first step to taking a photograph like this is having the correct equipment. The basis of this image is a long exposure at the base of a waterfall, which requires two fundamental pieces of gear: a tripod and neutral density filter.

In this case, I was using my Leica SL and Leica 24-90mm lens. I use a Really Right Stuff L-bracket on the Leica SL and mounted that via an Acratech GP bullhead with leveling base to my Gitzo tripod. I use a funny combination of filters and mounts for my neutral density filter - it is greatly oversized for this lens, but that results in no vignetting, which can be a problem with filters. Here's a quick iPhone photo of me with my gear for the day (note the boots so I can stand in the water):

So, to recap, we have the following equipment in use on this photograph:

The Secret Sauce

There are two secrets to this photograph: 1) the neutral density filter and 2) the leveling base. Let's explore why...

To create the flowing water effect and the swirl in the bottom of the image, I need to take a long photograph. That long image exposure will allow the sensor to see things - like the swirls - that are not really perceptible with the human eye. It takes some practice to spot things like the pools of water that will swirl in a long exposure, but it is doable with the naked eye. Anyway, in daylight, the only way to get the camera to take a long photograph and not have the image washed out is by putting a pair of sunglasses on the camera - known as a neutral density filter. Like sunglasses, this darkens what the camera sensor sees, and thereby makes the exposure time required to get a properly exposed image longer. I stacked two filters to give a really dark effect - resulting in exposures of over a minute.

Not all tripods are created equal, and this photograph is a great example for why investing in good gear matters. I knew this was going to be a panorama, and the only way to ensure a level plane as you rotate the camera is with a leveling base. Let's explore.... Set up your tripod in your house and purposefully make it a little uneven by putting a book under one leg of the tripod. You can remove that un-level-ness by making the ball head level. But now if you loosen the rotation on the tripod head and move the head left to right, you'll see that the head doesn't stay level.

A levelling base sits below the ball head on the tripod. Once you level that, you can rotate the ball head portion and the whole things stays flat. Compared to the price of a great tripod and head, the leveling base is cheap, and it's a must have if you plan to shoot panoramas.

Planning the Shot

The goal was to get a swirl of water at the base of the waterfall - the trick was how. I walked around the falls taking some test shots for a few minutes before eying this pool of water. I knew it'd be prefer to make my swirl, so I setup my tripod. 

Unfortunately, there was no way I could get the image I had in my head in a single capture. The 24mm focal length of my lens meant I'd have to aim down toward the pool of water, and I wanted the image to feel more straight on. Thankfully there is a solution to this problem - shoot the image as a vertical panorama.

When most people think of making a panorama, they mistakenly orient their camera horizontally because they want the final image to be wide. But you actually get a better final product by taking vertically oriented images and stitching those together to get a wide final image (see photos below to illustrate this point).

The five photographs that were stitched together to make the final image. They are intentionally underexposed to preserve shadow detail.

The five photographs that were stitched together to make the final image. They are intentionally underexposed to preserve shadow detail.

The next challenge was lighting. It was a cloudy day, and the sun would pop out of the clouds to create a harsh light, then would duck behind a cloud and generate a soft diffuse light. I wanted the later. So I waited.... a lot. Every time the cloud went in front of the sun, I triggered the shutter and waited for the 60 second exposure to complete. Unfortunately this process isn't scientific, so the end result was that there were some images that were just brighter than others. 

In the images below, you can see how the rocks in the foreground are brighter in one shot and darker in the next. I knew I could resolve this in post production, so I didn't stress over this - as long as the waterfall was evenly lit between images, I knew I could adjust the foreground.

Two images showing a big change in the lighting as I shot the panorama

Two images showing a big change in the lighting as I shot the panorama

Post Production

I don't do a lot of 'chimping' (aka looking at the back LCD screen), but I gave a quick scroll through my results and determined they were satisfactory for my final product. The rest of the image would wait until I got home.

Back in my studio, I downloaded the original RAW files to my backup and primary hard drive and imported them into Adobe Lightroom. Before creating the panorama, I did some minor adjustments on the individual files to make them uniform in the lighting. In other words, I reduced the highlights and exposure values for the 2nd image slightly.

I then asked Lightroom to turn the five images into a panorama, and this was the result:

The panorama resulting from the five images - notice there is some distortion, which I resolve by cropping.

The panorama resulting from the five images - notice there is some distortion, which I resolve by cropping.

I cropped the image to remove the distortion and to crop out the branches in the foreground. Next was to go in with the spot removal tool and clean up that sensor dust (I am very anal about sensor dust!). 

Finally, it's the fun part! I used the sliders to adjust the image to bring it back to what I had in my mind's eye. Remember, I intentionally underexposed the images as I shot them so that I could revive some of the shadow detail, so the final product was always going to look more vibrant than the RAW files. That is why we shoot in RAW, so we can have all that dynamic range to play with!

The biggest adjustment I made was a selective whitening on the pool in the foreground to really enhance the swirl.

And there we have it - the final product. I exported it in several sizes - one suitable for printing, another suitable for the internet, and a third suitable for mobile devices.

This technique is a process I use all the time - including with this other waterfall photograph. There are dozens of images on my website shot like this, so I hope this little tutorial helps! Ask questions below....

Intro to Film: Small, Medium, & Large Formats

Congratulations! You have decided to embark on a journey that will inevitably leave you frustrated, confused, but most of all, excited to take more photographs. This journey is a travel back a few decades to the era where film reigned supreme and taking a photograph involved more thought and art than reaching for the iPhone.

Now what? You are probably digging in your basement, your parents basement, or friends basement looking for a camera to start shooting with and you'll most likely find a 35mm film camera. Then you'll hit up Google and ask for some film photography advice and start reading words like "medium and large format." Googling "medium format" returns an image search for all sorts of interesting cameras and suddenly you're left wondering what all of this means.

So let's get a primer in film, why you might want to shoot film, and the pros/cons of each film format.

In the beginning....

Before we discuss the formats, lets take a quick primer in film photography. Film is a plastic covered in silver and light-sensitive chemicals. Prior to developing, any exposure to light results in  either an image or damage of the film. A film camera holds the unexposed film in a dark sleeve or roll and when you click the shutter, a portion of that film is exposed to light, rendering an image. Most photographers start with negative film (and that's what we'll discuss here). Negative film results in an inverse image- the darkest parts of the image appear lightest on the film and vice versa.

After you have exposed an image, the next step is to develop the film. Development happens either in a lab (which are dwindling in numbers) or can be done at home with some equipment and chemicals. With the right equipment, black and white film can be processed in broad daylight in about 15 minutes with three chemicals, so it's not terribly difficult.

Once the development has occurred, you have two choices. The first is to use the traditional printing method of using an enlarger to project the negative onto light sensitive paper. The more modern (and cheaper) method is to invest in a high quality scanner (I use the Epson V700) that can hold and scan negatives of all sizes, resulting in digital images that can be sent to a lab or your home printer.

Why are we doing this?

Right, that process sounded hard and cumbersome, but the end product is much more gratifying. I am left holding real images and the quality of these images is totally on me - from exposure to developing and scanning - the camera made no decisions. I find every film image far more gratifying than a digital image for that reason. There is also something very beautiful about film that digital cannot reproduce - and the quality of a nice film image is hard to replicate with digital.

Ok, what do I need?

Some film, a lens, and a camera. But we have decisions here...... what kind of subjects do you plan to shoot? Are you a color or black and white shooter? Do you want something compact, or are you okay hauling lots of equipment for a truly magnificent image? Finally, what size do you want your images to be? All of these factors make a big difference when selecting the gear and format to shoot. Let's look at the formats....

35mm (small) format film

This is the one you are probably most familiar with. It's what I saw my dad using and I briefly used as a kid. At one point there were even drive through film processing centers for 35mm! This size most closely matches the size of the digital camera sensor in a dSLR. The resulting image is about the size of a postage stamp, and is the smallest size most commonly used with photography.  

Virtually every company has made a 35mm camera at some point - Nikon, Canon, Kodak, Minolta, Leica, etc etc etc. Many 35mm cameras also accept their modern lenses - I have a Nikon 35mm body that takes my "digital" lenses, meaning less gear to buy. If you need a body, eBay is flush with options. I paid $12 for my Nikon film body.....

The pros of 35mm are that it's the most readily available, it's the cheapest, there is an abundance of 35mm equipment on the market, and they are very compact and easy to carry. There are also tons of film choices in this category! The cons? It's smaller than the other formats, so the resulting image cannot be enlarged as much and "everyone does it." The larger formats certainly have a uniqueness and lure to them based on the rarer sizing....

Loading and unloading film can be done in the daylight with both 120mm and 35mm films - large format film cannot be loaded into the slides without being in a dark environment.

Loading and unloading film can be done in the daylight with both 120mm and 35mm films - large format film cannot be loaded into the slides without being in a dark environment.

Medium format film

If you guessed that this is larger than 35mm film, then congrats on the obvious! Medium format is a huge category - there are lots of sizes in this genre, but we'll talk about 120mm, which is the most common medium format film. Based on the numbers alone, you can tell that 120mm is almost 4x larger than 35mm. Unlike 35mm, which shoots a rectangular image, 120mm film is square. Yep, square. 

There are many choices of cameras for medium format, but they are less abundant than 35mm. Common brands are Rollei, Hasselblad, etc. In a future blog post I'll discuss my choice in medium format, which is a twin lens Rolleiflex T. Most medium format cameras are larger than 35mm, but still small enough to tuck into a small camera bag (my Rollei is about the size of a facial tissue box). 

The pros of 120mm are the image size is larger, resulting in bigger prints that can be made from the negatives without introducing grain. The film is harder to find than 35mm, but it is still relatively economical. We'll talk about large format in a minute, but for me, medium format was a good "compromise" between the small size of 35mm and the high costs of large format. For the films I use, it's about $0.10 per image on 35mm, $0.50 per image on 120mm film, and $2 per image on large format! I can afford to make mistakes on $0.50 an image film and the economics and cost benefit made this my preferred "larger than 35mm" format.

Unlike my large format camera, which cannot be loaded or unloaded in the daylight, I can load and unload the 120mm camera in light, making it better for travel. 

The cons of 120mm are the availability of film and camera equipment. There are many specialty film stores in the UK and the USA that sell these films for competitive prices and free shipping. The films are available in both color and black and white, but the price differences start to become more apparent between color and black and white at this size. 35mm film is almost equally priced, but color 120mm film runs about $1-2 more per roll (each roll is 12 images). There is a nice range of films made in this size too. 

Shooting 120mm medium format film in my Rolleiflex T camera

Shooting 120mm medium format film in my Rolleiflex T camera

Large format film

This category, like medium format, encompasses many film sizes, with the most common being 4x5, 5x7 and 8x10. Those units are in inches..... that's right.... a piece of film that is 4 inches by 5 inches in size. That's incredible! The resulting negative is the size of my hand! The quality is unreal - I've scanned some of these on the highest resolution and been left with the equivalent of an 800 megapixel photograph. Think about that for a second..... with my 36megapixel D800 I would need to stitch 22 images together to get 800 megapixels of resolution. Wow.

You have probably never heard of any companies that make these cameras - they are specialized and not the sort of item you find just anywhere! I have a Zone VI camera that was made about 20 years ago, but there are many great choices on the market. 

The cameras for this are often called "view cameras" and are great for architecture and landscape photography because the lens and film planes can be aligned to a different geometry. The camera consists of two parts connected by a bellows between them - the film side and lens side. Moving knobs allows the lens and film sides to be adjusted until a sharp image is rendered on the focusing screen. This sounds very complicated and it is, compared to the point and shoot 35mm, but it also offers more creative possibilities and opportunities! Most large format photography is done from a tripod, so it's not the best camera to carry around a busy city center.

The pros of large format are the huge film size and quality compared to the other formats. The camera designs also offer more creative freedom compared to some of the smaller formats, but at the cost of having to haul more gear! 

The cons of large format is the cost of the film (in color it can run almost $7 an image!), the bulky equipment, and availability of cameras and film. Film for large format is also pre-loaded in a dark environment into slides that are inserted into the camera to create an exposure. Unfortunately, these slides must be loaded in total darkness (I use a dark bag that I insert my arms into and load "blind"), which means you can't pull out more film if you run out on a trip without needing even more equipment handy. I normally only pack a few sheets of film in slides and hope that I don't see something terrific to photograph the moment I'm out of film!

My large format Zone VI camera accepts 4x5 inch sheet film

My large format Zone VI camera accepts 4x5 inch sheet film

So what do I use?

All three! Seriously, for me there is a time and place to shoot each of these formats. 35mm is the camera that can be tossed into a small purse and carried through London on a date night or for street photography. Medium format is perfect for a "photo mission" but where I still want to be more mobile than large format. For me, large format is best for scenes I have already scouted and am going with the intention of taking 1-2 pre-determined photographs. My trips with large format are usually very dedicated.

I will be posting more about each of these formats, cameras and photos taken with each in the coming weeks.... stay tuned!