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....

The Power of the Darkroom

Since I've started working with enlarging my film negatives in a darkroom, I keep getting the same series of questions.......

  1. Darkrooms still are a thing?
  2. Isn't it expensive?
  3. Why not just scan and print your negative?

All fair questions. Let's break down the power of the darkroom.....

1. Yes, darkrooms are still a thing, but increasingly rare. Where I live outside Cambridge, the closest public use darkroom is a little more than an hour drive away, but it's worth the drive. While I could (and will eventually) build a darkroom in my house, that will have to wait until I am not living abroad, so a public darkroom is the way to go. There are several websites dedicated to helping you find a darkroom, such as http://www.localdarkroom.com

2. Name something in photography that is not expensive and you win a prize. For me, darkroom printing is no more expensive than my inkjet work. My consumables are the light sensitive papers and chemicals. In my case, I don't pay for chemicals because I have instead opted for a membership at a darkroom (The Photo Parlour), so my chemical cost is really my membership cost. Factoring in the cost of paper and assuming I make around 50 prints a year, my cost per print is around $3 - and that's good and large paper (8x10 or bigger). In digital printing, my costs are ink and again paper. The paper I was using, which is again a high quality paper, cost $2.75/sheet and my ink costs were about $2 per print. In fact, all factors considered, I once calculated that my "startup" cost for inkjet printing was almost $1000! 

Let's assume I make 50 prints at 11x14 per year. My cost per print in the darkroom, including my membership fees, is about $4/print (also assuming some margin for mistakes and re-prints/ test strips, etc). The cost for the same 50 prints done at home on my inkjet printer is $5/print (I probably have less "waste" since a printer is a very.... mechanical..... object!). 

Bottom line - it's always cheaper to mail order print, but that removes the "art" from a lot of the work. I enjoy watching my prints appear before my eyes, so for me, the costs of personally printing are worthwhile. And, in my current situation, the darkroom doesn't cost more than inkjet!

3. I really didn't appreciate the true magic of the darkroom until I began using it. This sounds stupid to say, but I always thought about my prints as having one single proper exposure. I thought there was one version that was the "proper" version (as conceived by the artist, not technically proper) and you print that version. I was blown away when I watched prints that were dramatically different come from the same negative...... slightly longer exposures in the enlarger made some prints darker and moody, while the same negative with less exposure time was light and bright. I was blown away. I can make two different prints with two different moods from the same negative? I know, it sounds stupid, but I never really considered this.

Suddenly a new world was unlocked. I now visualize an image thinking "is this a dark and moody photo, or a light and cheery photo?" ---> I am thinking about the development and enlargement before I take the picture. With digital photography I would think about the end product, sure, but I didn't think in the same tonalities and with the same possibilities that film has stretched me to consider.

The best example of how to get the different tonalities is best seen in a test strip. Check these photos below - the different slices are the same photo, but different lengths of time in the enlarger. Each has a different look and feel and none of them is "more correct" than the other.

Let's revisit a recent negative - one of a boat on the beach of Dungeness. I scanned and posted it several days ago, but let's review the original negative....... looking at it below, it's fairly dark and the image we see is a digital machine's (scanner) literal interpretation of the negative. There isn't much creative interpretation - the scanner is just trying to represent the negative in a series of shades of grey - really simplifying my image into a series of 1's and 0's. How sad.

Obviously, this is a lovely photograph! But it's not the print I imagined when I clicked the shutter. The print in my head was much lighter. MUCH lighter. It was almost white sky and the boat was very light, as though it was drawn in pencil. It was a happy photograph, while this is a little dark and moody. Off to the darkroom!

I did a test print and decided that my first print would be at an exposure of 10 seconds with no dodging or burning - just a straight print. Here's what that looks like:

This is certainly lighter than the scanned "literal interpretation" from the negative, but the sky is still too dark for my liking. I ran another print at  5 seconds, but that was too washed out - needed more contrast. To boost contrast in a black and white print, we add magenta filters, so I went crazy and added 50 magenta to the filtration (for scale, 15 is more "normal"). I ran another test strip and determined I liked the look of the print at 9 seconds. I realize this almost the same exposure as the previous print, but the magenta filtration requires more time to compensate, hence the minor change in image time. Here's the print at 9 seconds with 50 magenta in the filter (I also burned the bottom right part of the rail a little more.

Perfect! This is actually my final print - there are several others that I used to tweak the dodging and burning and show slight differences in the foreground, but this was my final version. 

So why bother with the darkroom - that's why! Look at what an incredibly diverse set of prints I got from a negative that, to the scanner, looked very dark. The darkroom has unlocked my creative potential and has me visualizing my artwork in a whole new way.

Quick Shot: Venice Canals

Gondolas and canals - what two things could be more quintessential to Venice, Italy? The first time I went to Venice was about 10 years ago and during the summer, so it was hot and packed with tourists. This recent trip was much more pleasant - the summer heat makes the canals a little stinky, but the cooler weather meant it was nice to explore Venice without ode de canal in the air. This photograph isn't scratch-and-sniff, so you'll just have to trust me on the smells!

I shared with you earlier my favorite gondola photo, so it's time to share one of my many canal photographs. Like so many of the pictures taken during this trip, I snagged this one while walking - it wasn't really a planned shot. I knew I wanted a canal photograph, but I was going to wait for the canal to speak to me.... there is only so much homework you can do with regards to planning the boats, building colors and sunlight! I got lucky with this one because all of those elements fell into place as I walked past - all I had to do was click.

Quick Shot: Bridge of Sighs

No, I didn't loose my camera or fall off a cliff... I just haven't had internet access since we moved out of our temporary accommodations and into our permanent UK residence, which makes it challenging to post a quick shot. But since I missed you, I have crammed myself into the one corner of this house that has access to a free wifi hot spot so I can share this photograph of the Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge.

The Bridge of Sighs is part of the St. John's College and crosses the River Cam in downtown Cambridge. It got it's name for the sighs that students would give as they crossed from dorms into the exam rooms on the other side of the bridge.

I got this photograph while we were punting on the river..... a punt being the name of the boat available for hire on the river. I'm sitting in the same kind of boat you can see in the photograph and took the picture looking up at the bridge before we passed underneath. Thankfully our punt driver was kind enough to give me a good angle and it wasn't too crowded in the waterway.

Punting on a beautiful day in Cambridge allowed me to get this dramatic photograph of the Bridge of Sighs.


Quick Shot: WWI Memorial

Last weekend I had a chance to explore the World War I Memorial in Kansas City. The memorial was built in the 1920s to commemorate those Americans who served and features a large monument and a wonderful museum.  

The weather for this trip was perfect - although a little hot, there was a nice breeze and some light clouds in the sky. I knew the weather would be perfect for Black and White photography and used my polarizer filter to ensure I gave the sky as much contrast as possible.

I'll be posting a variety of Quick Shots from the World War I Memorial in the news few days. Today's shot is an overview of the memorial from the top (directly over the museum), but stay tuned to see a bunch of other cool shots soon! 

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