A Familiar Friend

Whenever I get a new camera, I spend a few weeks getting oriented to the unfamiliar controls and system before embarking on any challenging shoots. As I go through this orientation, I like to revisit sites that I know as good trial grounds.

One of those places is Great Falls, which is on the Washington, DC / Virginia border. The falls are a great place for some spectacular long exposure photography. And most nights, the sky will give some nice pastel colors to reward a trip to the falls.

I have made a number of images at Great Falls before, but this one is very different. First, it was taken with a different camera system than the others. Second, my other images have had spectacular sunsets which made the process very easy - but this time the sun didn't cooperate. I had to do a lot of work to pull the colors out of the sky while preserving the detail in the rocks. Thankfully, the dynamic range of the D850 made this easier than I expected. 

It may not be the most spectacular sunset, but those don't happen every day. It's important to capture the world as it exists, and I think this image does a great job of depicting the world as it was on that night.

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....

Summertime Sun

It is the 4th of July, which means summer is in full swing.

The warm weather and late evening sun can do some crazy things to the sky, as seen in this July photo of Great Falls National Park on the outskirts of Washington, DC. The late humidity, mist from the falls, and whispy clouds created a very dramatic and vibrant sunset. I have been to Great Falls dozens of times, but this is no doubt my favorite photograph of the falls to date. It is that summer magic! Taken with the Leica SL and 24-90mm lens. This is a five image panorama using a 32ND filter and stabilized with my favorite Gitzo tripod.

Quick Shot: Frozen Run

With much of the eastern United States covered in snow (including close to 7 inches at my house), it seems like a good time to pull out this quick shot of Difficult Run partially frozen. I took this a few weeks ago after cold temperatures and snow previously blanketed northern Virginia.

My first ever trip to Difficult Run left me with one of my favorite pictures from 2013, so I figured I should start 2014 with another visit to the site. This time, I was interested in shooting the scene with the ice and snow covering the rocks and falls.

This photograph was taken early in the morning, which is why I was able to get that soft yellow light on the rocks. I think the photograph has an interesting contrast of soft colors and features with harsh shapes and dark tones. 

Taken with my Nikon D800, Nikon 14-24mm lens, and WonderPana ND filter kit.

Frozen Difficult Run Falls WEB.jpg

Quick Shot: It's Electric!

Before I explain how I got this photo, let me explain what you're seeing.... this is a long exposure of some waves up against some river rocks on shore; the psycho effect in the photograph comes from the waves each leaving a unique "ripple" in the water. 

I took this photo along the banks of Difficult Run, which is next to Great Falls National Park. As seen in the Quick Shot from earlier this week, I was playing with a neutral density filter, which is a dark piece of plastic that I hold in front of the camera to get a longer exposure. In the course of taking landscapes, I decided to experiment with the edge of the river to see if I could get an interesting effect when I photographed the little waves.

The rocks in the bottom of the photo are those that were on "dry land" and where the water wasn't touching, which is why they are nice and sharp (not fuzzy). Although seeing the water line is tricky, you can see where the rocks start to look fuzzy, because the water was moving over them during the exposure. What looks like a bunch of lightening bolts are actually the waves coming into the shore.

To help explain the Quick Shot, check out the bottom photo, which was taken by my friend Tim while I took this image. 

_DSC6831 copy.jpg
IMG_3758.jpg

Quick Shot: Difficult Sunset

I am excited to present my first Quick Shot of 2014, which was one of the last pictures I took in 2013. 

Photographers are all about great lighting in a photograph - sometimes we seek out our most common light source (the sun) during sunrises and sets. On occasion, without pre-planning, we get really lucky and the sun just happens to be in the perfect spot at the perfect moment. Such is the case with today's Quick Shot.

I'd been out photographing Difficult Run, which is a stream that comes off of Great Falls National Park (located near downtown Washington, DC). The trip was designed for me to teach my friend Tim about using neutral density filters, but I was taking plenty of my own shots. With the neutral density filter, the goal was to shoot long exposures of the water to give a whispy and flowing effect, but as I setup for one shot, I realized I was going to get a whole lot more.

As I crouched down on a rock to photograph this section of the river, I noticed the sun was peaking through from behind some trees. It was several hours until sunset, but the timing and my camera position were just perfect to get this image without having the sun be super bright in my camera. I took a few exposures and crossed my fingers that they'd look as good on my computer as they looked in my mind!

I wasn't disappointed! The photo was just as colorful and dramatic as I thought it would be. Of course, this image was only possible for a few minutes while the sun was in precisely the right spot, which makes it even more special that I got this photograph.

It was my first trip to Difficult Run, and with the success of the first trip, I know I'll be back for more soon!

Difficult Run Sunset_WEB.jpg

Quick Shot: Great Falls Sunrise

The weather in the DC area abruptly went from pleasant fall days to blistering cold this weekend, but despite the weather, a few brave trees still cling to their fall colors. I decided to try and capture a last glimpse of fall this weekend with a trip to a favorite DC photo destination, Great Falls National Park.

Located on the border between Maryland, Virginia, and DC, Great Falls is a wonderful place to escape the urban sprawl. I've photographed the falls here several times, but never walked away with a photograph that I thought was particularly grand or truely captured the beauty of these falls. This time I woke up excruciatingly early to get to the falls for sunrise in the hope that the first rays of sun would cast a warm glow over the scene.

Although the sunrise wasn't spectacular, the location of the sun provided a brilliant golden light to the rocks in the middle of the river. To give the image some drama and depth, I used a long exposure to get the wispy effect on the falls. I wanted the resulting image to have lots of depth but to be very calm and inviting, and I think I hit the mark!

Shot with the Nikon D800 with Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens using a Gitzo tripod and ND8 neutral density filter. Minor adjustments made in photoshop. 

_DSC61062WEB.jpg