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....

How To: Photograph the Aurora

After yesterday's post about our first Aurora sighting, I got questions via Facebook and email asking how to take the shot. In this case, the mechanics of the camera are much easier than the execution!

First, let's discuss the challenges:

  • It's -20*F outside. To get the shots I posted yesterday involved 2 hours of sitting on an frozen lake where I was exposed to the wind.
     
  • It's -20*F outside, so I'm dressed like the Michelin Man! I am wearing a base layer, a mid layer, fleece vests, ski pants, down jackets, scarves, multiple hats, a balaclava and most importantly, two pairs of gloves. The gloves consist of a finger base glove liner with a thick mitten on top. Why bring this up? Go put some oven mitts on your hands and try and work your camera.
     
  • It's -20*F outside, so anytime you get near the camera, you create ice. Just getting the camera into position, my breath from a few feet away as I worked with the camera was enough to create a sheet of ice on the back of the camera. Looking through the viewfinder means you must hold your breath - and don't you dare go near the front of the lens!
     
  • It's pitch black outside, so the camera cannot focus. Try as it might, when it's total darkness, you have to think for the camera. Everything is manual - the aperture, shutter, and focus. I set the lens to focus at infinity and hope to get lucky. Several times I did not, and the photo was a total blur.
     
  • It's -20*F outside, and the batteries are pissed. I knew keeping the camera batteries warm was going to be a full time charge, but you really don't appreciate how much the cold kills a battery until you are here. In the walk from our room down to the lake and into the shooting position, which took less than 10 minutes and in which I never used the camera, the battery went from fully charged do down one bar. I actually took the battery out of the camera for most of the waiting and only popped it in once the aurora was out. Where did I put it? The batteries for the D800 and GoPro were safely stored in the "titty pocket" inside the jacket.

Scene should be set for you now..... it's cold, you can't go near the camera without creating ice from your breath, the camera has to focus and be set manually and you're wearing oven mitts.

Actually taking the photo, once you get past all those things, is fairly easy! I obviously used a tripod that I pushed several feet down into the snow for stability. The camera is my trusty Nikon D800 + 14-24mm wide angle f/2.8 lens. I wanted the widest field of view possible, so set the lens at 14mm for all the shots. Aperture was f/2.8 and ISO 200. Shutter speed ranges from 15-30 seconds.

Since I'm pretty clumsy once I have my oven mitts on, I used a cable shutter release to trigger the camera. Thankfully I was smart enough to realize I couldn't use my wireless releases due to the batteries, so I purchased a cheap cable release a few days before we left.

I didn't bother to carry any fancy accessories or extra lenses. It's too cold to change the lens anyway! The dryness also creates so much static charge that my sensor could immediately become a dust magnet if I exposed it to the open air.

Like everything I shoot, I took the aurora photographs in RAW and edited them in Adobe Photoshop. 

That's not the sun in the corner - its the moon!

Reader Question: How Do I Setup Flash for Macro Photography?

Hey folks! I got a question earlier today from Chuck, who asked me about the flash bracket system I have been using in some of my YouTube videos and to take my macro photographs. So let's talk about flash!

I use flash for all macro photography. It's the only way I can avoid using a tripod for every shot, which is good, because I really hate using tripods with macro photography. Tripods are a pain anywhere and are even worse when I'm trying to photograph something that might be moving (like a bug). Because I use the flash, I can get a fast enough shutter speed to hand hold the camera while still getting an aperture that works (I often shoot macro subjects at f/22-f/45).

The problem with using a flash is that it does almost no good mounted in the hot shoe on top of the camera. I can't point it at the subject and it can cast a shadow over the top of the lens onto my subject. The only way to solve the problem is to take the flash off the camera, but that introduces new problems. 

If I don't use a TTL cable, I would have to use a wireless trigger (expensive) or manually set the flash between every shot (I'm too lazy and forgetful for that!). So if I want the flash off the camera, but still attached via a cable...... that means I've gotta mount it to the camera somehow.

The solution I use is not an aftermarket accessory you can purchase and be done with.... I built it by going to my camera shop and fiddling with parts until I found something I liked. However, because it's all built from random parts, it's fairly inexpensive.

The base: The starting point is at the camera. I always have a Really Right Stuff L bracket mounted onto my camera body; it's compatible with my tripod, monopod, flash accessories, etc. It also is a nice solid piece of metal to help protect the camera when I accidentally ding it into something...... The L brackets are specific to your camera model and you may need a different version if you use an external battery pack, so shop carefully.

The arm: The arm assembly is three different parts. The first is a clamp that attaches to the L bracket and has a screw-tight knob to hold the rest of the arm on ("Mini Screw Knob Clamp" on the shopping list). I can position it anywhere I'd like on the L bracket. The second part is a modular arm kit with a knob ("Rotolight Magic Arm"). I can orient the arm in a bazillion ways and once satisfied with the orientation, I clamp down the knob until it's rock solid. It can hold the weight of the flash without problem, but it's not strong enough that I could carry the camera by that arm without it sagging. Finally, I have a plastic piece that mounted to the top of the arm that accepts the flash cable or the flash hot shoe ("Frio Universal Cold Shoe"). Because none of this was designed to go together, I had to use Loctite on the clamp and hot shoe clip to make sure it all stayed together nice and solid. 

Flash: I use a Nikon SB-700 flash and have a 3rd party TTL cable for the flash. Buy a short TTL cable so that you don't have to drag a few extra feet of cabling around with you! I usually put a white diffuser on the front of the flash to soften the light slightly when doing macro photography.

Shopping List:

PS- sorry for the quality of the photos. When I take pictures of the camera I usually end up using the iPhone, which certainly doesn't compare to the D800!

Have a question you'd like me to answer in the blog? Feel free to contact me and I'll see what I can do!

The arm assembly with TTL flash cable attached. From right to left are the mini clamp, flexible magic arm, hot shoe connector and TTL cable.

The arm assembly with TTL flash cable attached. From right to left are the mini clamp, flexible magic arm, hot shoe connector and TTL cable.

Another view of the clamp and flexible arm

Another view of the clamp and flexible arm

The hot shoe connector thingy. I have no idea what this is actually called, but the thing cost only a few bucks.

The hot shoe connector thingy. I have no idea what this is actually called, but the thing cost only a few bucks.

The Really Right Stuff L bracket on the side of the camera. Because I use the extra battery pack, I had to order the correct bracket.

The Really Right Stuff L bracket on the side of the camera. Because I use the extra battery pack, I had to order the correct bracket.

The TTL cable attached in the camera's hot shoe

The TTL cable attached in the camera's hot shoe

The flash is attached to the TTL cable, which then slides into the blue hot shoe connector. This only works if your TTL cable has an attachment to be mounted into a hot shoe on the bottom of it....... Most do.

The flash is attached to the TTL cable, which then slides into the blue hot shoe connector. This only works if your TTL cable has an attachment to be mounted into a hot shoe on the bottom of it....... Most do.

The entire contraption assembled and ready to shoot. This setup also has the LCD on the flash facing me, which makes it easy to make adjustments on the flash between photos.

The entire contraption assembled and ready to shoot. This setup also has the LCD on the flash facing me, which makes it easy to make adjustments on the flash between photos.