A Matter of Seconds

When shooting moving water, the most important decision is the choice of shutter speed (or exposure time).  Most photographers prefer to use a long exposure time to convey a sense of movement of the water.  However, how long is long enough?  Half a second? Two seconds? Ten seconds?  It is a matter of personal taste.

I took these photos at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on a foggy spring morning. Generally speaking, when taking images of waterfalls and creeks, I almost always try to avoid direct sunshine hitting the water, since it will cause ugly blown out highlight areas.  I much prefer to shoot during a cloudy day or when the scene is in the shade. A drizzling day works ever better!

One of the most useful accessories when shooting water is a polarizer filter. The filter serves two purposes: (1) it eliminates the glare from wet rocks and foliage, and, (2) it acts as a 1.3-1.7 stop neutral density filter to slow the shutter speed by reducing the amount of light entering the lens.

For the first photo, I used a Cokin Z-164 CPL on a Cokin-Z Pro holder mounted in front of my Canon 16-35mm F2.8L lens.  I set the ISO to 100 and my aperture to F13. The CPL effectively reduces the shutter speed to 0.5 second, which is perfect to capture the sense of movement of the water in the creek.  I also used a Lee 2-stop soft GND to prevent the sky from over-exposure.

Enchanted Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 16-35mm F2.8L @ 16mm, ISO 100, 0.5 second, F13, Cokin Z-164 CPL, Lee 4×6 2-stop soft GND.
Enchanted Creek

On my second try, I added a Lee 4-stop ND (Neutral Density) filter  in front of the above setup, resulting in a much longer exposure time (8 seconds).  The slower shutter speed completely blurred the water flow, creating a dream-like mood that matches well with the surrounding fog.

Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 16-35mm F2.8L @ 16mm, ISO 100, 8 seconds, F13, Cokin Z-164 CPL, Lee 4×6 2-stop soft GND, Lee 4×4 4-stop  ND.
Enchanted Creek

The different shutter speeds created very different feels.  Which version is “better”? It is in the eyes of beholders and I have heard different opinions from my fellow photographer friends.  The first version is more dynamic and the texture of the foreground is lovely.  The longer-exposure one is soft and moody. When you are in the field shooting, choose a shutter speed that works best for your personal style. If you cannot make up your mind, just try different speeds!


Emerald Blue

Pyteo Lake

Canon 5D Mark II, 17-40mm F4 L, Singh-Ray 4-stop hard GND.

Pyteo Lake in Banff National Park is one of the most beautiful lakes in the Canadian Rockies and is popular with photographers.  Most photos of this location were taken in daytime, particularly around noon, because by that time the entire valley and the lake are nicely illuminated by sunshine. The place is also very crowed.

We landscape photographers are obsessed with capturing our own vision, even in such an iconic location. It is not very often to see a panorama picture from this spot, so I decided to create one.  Moreover, I wanted to avoid another daytime rendition of this icon.  I wanted something less commonly done. Finally I decided to shoot early in the morning when the first ray of sunshine hits the nearby peaks.

So I got up around 4:00am on a chilly July morning (No joking here. The temperate was below the freezing point and you could see a thin layer of ice on the lake) and drove to here.  The parking lot was empty so I thought I would be the only one to witness the sunrise. To my surprise, there were already three brave young ladies, who camped in nearby Waterfowl Lake the previous night, waiting there. Other than them, for the next hour or so there were no other people around.  Not a single tripod visible, except mine.

Boy, I was not disappointed! The show was epic.  The warm early morning sunshine lit up these peaks. The glacial lake, still in the deep shadow and reflecting the colors of the sky, showed very rich and pleasant blue, green and purple tones. The contrast between the warm and cool colors was simply striking.

This panorama picture is a stitch of five single-exposure photos. One of the technical challenges with this kind of early morning shot is the extreme contrast between the very bright sky and the deep shadowed valley.  Most digital sensors and films cannot hold the tone values for both areas.  Many digital shooters nowadays prefer to use exposure-blending to address this issue — you shoot two frames, one exposes for the sky and the other for the valley, and blend them together in post-processing.  However, blending is a very tedious and time consuming job. While I do use this method often, I still prefer the old way whenever possible — using a Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filter. I would rather get it right in field than spend time doing post-processing in front of my computer. Besides, for a panorama like this, I would have to shoot five more exposures and manually blend them in the computer five times! More work and more storage overhead.  By using a GND and shoot five correctly exposed frames, all I needed to do in the post was to open them into Photoshop, and the program automatically stitched them together.

Eternal Curves

Eternal Curves

Canon 5D Mark II,  Canon 16-35mm F2.8 II L @ 28mm, RRS L-plate, Gitzo 3541 Tripod, Markins M-20 Ballhead, RAW files.

Sandstone slot canyons are such an iconic symbol of American southwest and their images can easily become a visual cliché. However, every photographer can still have his/her own unique vision and personal interpretation of the beauty of this wonderful landscape.

I visited Lower Antelope Canyon during a family vacation last Christmas. Although this was my first visit, but I had already seen too many images from this location and I decided to create my unique version. It was not an easy mission. The place is small and there are hundreds of photographers come to here each and every day.

I received a “photographer’s pass”, which meant that I could wondering around the place by myself for up to two hours, without the need of joining a guided tour with other tourists. I explored different locations and angles, until I saw an opening on the top of canyon, showing blue sky. The opening looks like a window and the surrounding curves and colors are simply gorgeous. I knew that I’d found my shot. I setup my tripod and carefully composed the image.

There were some technique challenges here, though.  The brightness difference between the inside and outside of the canyon is extreme. While our human eyes can see details on the sky and inside the canyon at the same time, the contrast far exceeds the capability of most cameras.  We landscape photographers have to deal with such problems all the time — for example, the bright sky and dark ground during sunrise or sunset. Normally we use our trusted Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filters to control the contrast.  However in this situation the shape of the “window” is irregular so I could not possibly use GND. I decided to use another commonly used method — exposure blending — which is popular among digital shooters.

I waited until I saw some thin clouds on the sky, since they added lots of interests to the otherwise plain blue sky. I then made two consecutive exposures. The camera was set to manual mode. The first exposure was taken at ISO 100, F11, 1/50 second.  The sky was properly exposed, but the rocks were severely underexposed.  The second exposure was taken at ISO 100, F11, 0.5 second. Now the canyon walls were beautifully rendered, but the sky was completely blown out.  The two shots are then exposure-blended together in post-processing.

I am very happy with the outcome. Although this was my first visit to this popular location and I spent less than two hours there, this work quickly became one of my most popular images. Apple Inc.  recently has licensed this image to showcase the vibrant colors and stunning details of the Retina display of their new MacBook Pro on Apple.com:




Always try to approach your subject from a different angle and be willing to experiment.  Even in an iconic location that has been photographed to death, you may still find a fresh perspective.

Milky Way

The location is Cathedral Valley, Capital Reef National Park, Utah, USA. This very remote location requires about 1.5 hour off-road driving in good weather and the road can be quite challenging. This is supposedly one of the least polluted areas in the US. Its clean air, its remoteness, and its relatively high elevation mean the night sky is spectacular. When I saw these imposing colorful sandstone monoliths, I immediately told myself that I had to make a Milky Way shot with these monoliths as the foreground. That night we camped in a primitive campsite nearby, so we had the chance to execute my plan.

To clearly see our galaxy in its best, one needs a moonless night. However that means correctly exposing the foreground becomes a very difficult task because the environment will be very dark. If the foreground objects are relatively close and small (e.g. a tree or a house), I prefer to use an off-camera flash or a flashlight to light-paint the foreground. The light-paint method is easy to use, and it gives me very precise control on the brightness of the foreground.

For “grand” night-time landscape showing here, however, the best and the most realistic solution is to use the double exposure technique described below, unless you have some super-bright light equipment at your disposal. If you light-paint the grand-scale landscape, you may also need to use a high ISO and a wide-open aperture, which decrease the image quality. The results may be OK for a small size magazine picture, but are not adequate for fine-art large prints.

The first exposure was taken at night when I could clearly see the Galaxy. I carefully positioned the camera such at the direction and location of the Milky Way was ideal, then I made my first exposure. The exposure parameters were ISO 4000, F4, 30 seconds, and focus length was 17mm. The very high ISO is needed here to reduce the shutter speed. Because the earth is rotating, any extended exposure period will the stars to become mini star-trails. For wide-angle focus lengths such as 17mm, the 30-second exposure is the up limit. Longer lens requires even shorter shutter time.

Depending on your situation, you can (1) stay with your camera for hours, waiting for the daybreak and take the next exposure, (2) leave your camera on the spot for the night and come back later ; and (3) mark the location, pack your gears and go to sleep, and come back the next morning. In the last case, you must make sure the composition of the second exposure is identical to the first one.

For this picture, the second exposure was taken in the next early morning, before sunrise, using ISO 100 and F11 to ensure optimal image quality. I chose this time period because I did not want direct sunlight hits the foreground, otherwise the final result will look very strange and fake. Personally I think the key to make this type of shots somewhat believable is to make the foreground dark enough but still showing enough details, although I know other people might prefer more drama by choosing a brighter foreground with directional light. It?s a matter of personal taste.

The two exposures were captured in RAW format. They were opened in Adobe Lightroom. I chose the fluorescent white balance so the night sky and stars have a cool blue tone. I then exported the two images to TIFF files.

The TIFF files were opened in Photoshop and copied into two layers of a single file. The bottom layer contains the night shot (the first exposure). The top layer contains the second exposure taken at dawn. I then selected the sky of the second exposure, deleted the sky, and merged the two layers.

The spectacular starry sky can always evoke our deep feelings of awe and wonder, and the wilderness and scale of these monoliths further enhance such emotions.