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....

Revisiting a Memorable Moment

It is amazing what a difference a few years makes. Photography, like any craft or art, is a growth. Look at the works of any famous photographer, painter, or musician and you will see history remembers them in phases.

And while I don't dare compare myself to the greats, I can still see huge evolution in my own photography. I spend more time looking at the light, looking for 'moments' and waiting for something special than I did before. I have a better understanding of the capabilities of my cameras and how to generate incredible results from them. And I have a more refined understanding of light.

All of this translates in my photographs, and I recently revisited a place where I took a photograph that was very special to me and attempted to elevate it. 

The location? Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia. In 2013, I visited the park and made a photograph that would later win the honors for the 2014 Vincent Versace Award for Photographic Excellence. As a result, that location has been a special spot for me, but I had not been back since. I recently felt like I had grown enough as a photographer to revisit the location and wanted to see what sort of image I could create now. This is the result.

In a future blog post I'll break down this photograph and deconstruct making it - because it is actually a panorama of five images that took nearly 30 minutes of on-scene shooting with my Leica SL to create. Everything in the image is authentic - including the swirl of water - and required the full extent of my photographic know-how to accomplish. I'm very proud of the revised image, and hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed creating it.

Photoshop World Day 1 Recap & Vincent Versace Award Winner

Greetings! Today marked the official start to Photoshop World Atlanta 2014 and it was a busy and fun filled day! Let's recap some of the highlights.....

The show opens with an opening ceremony where Adobe announced the new Lightroom Mobile, but before we talk about that.....

..... Let's talk Vinnie!

As I mentioned last week, I was selected as a finalist for one of the Photoshop World Guru Awards for my photo of Elakala Falls. The winners were going to be announced at the opening ceremony, so I have been waiting with baited breath to find out if I won all week. The Guru Awards are presented at the end of the ceremony, so it was a long hour of fidgeting with anticipation to find out the results...... One of the last presentations in the opening ceremony is the Vincent Versace Award for Photographic Excellence - it's the "big prize" at the show and the winner gets lots of cool photo equipment. Vincent Versace, for whom this award is named, came in person to present it, so I sat eagerly hoping he'd call my name as the winner. Sure enough, he did! 

This was a very humbling experience - Vincent is an extremely well know photographer - to have him select my photograph was a huge honor. Being selected as a finalist for any of the awards was a great acknowledgment of my hard work, but actually winning the "Vinnie" - the big award at the show - was more than I could have ever hoped for. As part of winning this award, I was given a TON of photographic equipment, for which I am very grateful. Photography isn't a cheap hobby - I've always purchased all of my equipment at retail prices and have spent a significant amount of money on taking the photos you see on my website. Winning all this new equipment will open alot of new doors for me - it will give me opportunities to expand my photograph vision to entirely new levels. Winning this award not only represents an acknowledgment of the work I've put in to date, but also serves as a launching pad for me to continue to expand my photography and take it to places that yesterday, I could only dream about. 

So you're asking, what photo did I win for? It was this photograph of Elakala Falls, West Virginia. If you missed it before, be sure to read the whole story behind this image.....

Elakala Falls, West Virginia. Winner of the 2014 Vincent Versace Award for Photographic Excellence!

Elakala Falls, West Virginia. Winner of the 2014 Vincent Versace Award for Photographic Excellence!

On stage, receiving my award from Vincent Versace. Photo by Ed Buice.

On stage, receiving my award from Vincent Versace. Photo by Ed Buice.

Standing in front of the winning photograph in the Expo Hall. You can't blame me for the blurry photo - I obviously didn't take it! But you get the idea.... ;-)

Standing in front of the winning photograph in the Expo Hall. You can't blame me for the blurry photo - I obviously didn't take it! But you get the idea.... ;-)

Detour over - back to the show! Adobe kicked off the conference with a bang when they announced the new Lightroom Mobile app. Although they only spent a few minutes on the demo, it looks to be some really powerful software and will create more integration between mobile and desktop computers for users of the Adobe Creative Cloud. For instance, you can take a picture, edit it on your iPad, and then have that edited version automatically sync through the cloud with Lightroom on your Macbook. Sweet! If you already subscribe to Adobe Creative Cloud, then you've got Lightroom Mobile now - so go check it out!

With the opening ceremony complete, it was time to get my learning on! I started with a great light painting workshop by David Black, but the highlight of the day was the back-to-back flash workshops with Joe McNally. You might not know Joe by name, but I promise you've seen his work in National Geographic, Time Magazine, etc - he's the king of flash and lighting. In his workshops, he grabs someone from the audience and will light them in front of you. What's great is that you see everything as it happens - even the mistakes. It can be hard to deconstruct a finished photograph to figure out how the photographer took that photograph, but in these sessions, you watch Joe from start to finish as he selects his model and trouble shoots his way to getting that magazine shot. 

After lunch, the convention expo center opens and I spent the next few hours exploring the latest equipment and technology. Let's review some of my favorites from the day:

  • Tamron was there with the new Tamron 150-600mm lens that wildlife photographers have been eyeing. They only had it in the Canon mount (no delivery ETA on the Nikon one - I asked!) but I played around with it to get a sense of how well it was going to work. Initial thoughts were very positive - it was pretty smooth to focus at 600mm and didn't search for the focus. The weight wasn't too bad and the construction looked pretty sturdy. The lens did get confused sometimes with the focus because I was shooting in an expo center and there were LOTS of people walking around, but this isn't an easy environment for any lens to track a subject, so I won't hold that against the lens.
Tamron's new 150-600mm telephoto lens. This is the Canon mount (Nikon mount version delivery is TBD). I was pleasantly surprised with how well it shot!

Tamron's new 150-600mm telephoto lens. This is the Canon mount (Nikon mount version delivery is TBD). I was pleasantly surprised with how well it shot!

  • Epson has some groovy new canvas paper! I actually don't know how "new" it is, but is't new to me, so we'll go with it! The paper has a canvas feel and is available in matte, satin and glossy finishes. I was very impressed with how this looked and I think it'll be a great addition to my print offerings because of the durability and unique look. From a distance you can't tell it's canvas, but when you get close, the texture is great. I took a quick iPhone snap of the glossy version, which can be seen below. Best yet, Epson claims it doesn't use any more ink that normal papers!
The glossy canvas paper. It's a terrible iPhone pic, but you can see the texture in the paper. Very cool stuff!

The glossy canvas paper. It's a terrible iPhone pic, but you can see the texture in the paper. Very cool stuff!

  • The Westcott model shoot..... every year Westcott comes out with some different lights and brings some models for show attendees to photograph. I only took one photo today, and it was an el basic iPhone shot of the whole scene. Tomorrow I'll actually work on shooting the model - today I was busy drooling!
The Westcott model shoot. The theme for the show is pirates, so I think she's supposed to be some pirate wench, but don't hold me to that!

The Westcott model shoot. The theme for the show is pirates, so I think she's supposed to be some pirate wench, but don't hold me to that!

  • Other cool things that I saw, but haven't explored enough to speak to with any authority.... some cool quad copters and dSLR video stabilizer rigs, the Promote Control dSLR camera controller, new software called Flixel Cinemagraph Pro, and some new options in metal prints. 
Camera copter anyone? Or how about a bada$$ dSLR video rig that is super smooth? Both are being used in demos at the Adobe booth in Photoshop World Atlanta!

Camera copter anyone? Or how about a bada$$ dSLR video rig that is super smooth? Both are being used in demos at the Adobe booth in Photoshop World Atlanta!

The day concluded with an inspiring talk on aviation photography from Moose Peterson, who has been one of the most influential pro photographers on my career to date. Moose could put on a class about almost anything and I'd attend it - his passion is truly contagious. 

After almost 10 hours, day 1 of Photoshop World Atlanta has concluded, but it was an AWESOME day. I cannot wait for another busy day tomorrow! 

Once again, my thanks to Vincent Versace for the award and thank you to all of you who have sent me a note on Facebook or Twitter today about the award! I'm very humbled! 

Until tomorrow.... happy shooting from Atlanta!