Howdy filterphiles and welcome to PPT. My name is Josh Cripps and you can find me online at the Nature Photography Academy. In the first part of this video we learned all about the different characteristics of grad ND filters and which particular filters I find most useful. In the second part of the vid I showed you how to actually put one to use. And in this segment I’m going to show you some best practices to get the most out of your grad filters.
First off, it’s vital that you have a safe and secure spot to keep your filters when you’re not using them. Filter pouches and sleeves like this are cumbersome and clunky and you have to stuff them somewhere insecure like a jacket pocket or lay them down somewhere potentially unsafe, wet, or dirty. Instead, I highly recommend you invest in a filter wallet. This can velcro to a strap or waist belt on your camera pack or clip around your tripod. That gives you hands free access to your filters and keeps them up out of the water, dirt, sand, or snow.
Cleaning / Rain / Scratches
Now this probably goes without saying but it’s incredibly important that you keep your filters clean and scratch free, otherwise you can end up with photos that look like crap. Storing your filters in a wallet will go a long way towards keeping them clean, but inevitably you’ll run into a situation in the field where things get messy, like when you’re shooting at the beach near crashing waves, in blowing dust, or when it’s raining. For these kinds of situations I recommend you add a few things to your kit. First off, a big rocket blower will remove any loose debris or particles from your filters. For fingerprints or salt spray, I avoid microfiber wipes, as I’ve found they tend to cause smears and streaks. Instead I love these big paper wipes called KimWipes. Even when they’re dry they do a great job of cleaning, especially when it comes to salt spray at the ocean. And if you run into anything really stubborn you can use a few drops of Residual Oil Residual or Eclipse cleaning fluid to help.
For rain, there’s a simple solution: umbrella
And for scratches, using a filter wallet will help immensely, as will using a filter holder to keep your filter from grinding against the lens. If you get into a situation with blowing sand or dust, clean your filters before putting them away and make sure your filter wallet is closed up tight to prevent grit from getting inside.
Dealing with grad lines
One of the biggest problems with grad filters is that they can leave noticeable lines across your photo where they transition from dark to light. The best way to deal with this issue is to be very careful about where you place the filter transition within your image. If you place it across the middle of a mountain of course it’s going to be obvious. But if you move the transition lower down then the whole mountain will be uniform in brightness and the transition less obvious.
The other main technique to deal with obvious grad lines is to use a softer filter. Human eyes have a hard time recognizing gradual change, so the more gradual your transition is the less obvious it will be.
You can also use post processing. A local adjustment brush tuned to darken just the highlights or brighten just the shadows can do wonders to smooth out your grad lines.
This should take care of about 95% of your grad line issues. And if you get into a situation where you just can’t get rid of that grad line, then you should probably learn how to blend exposures instead because it often leads to a cleaner result.
Dealing with color casts
A number of grad filters also have color casts, even though they are supposed to be neutral. The easiest way to see if your filters have color casts is to take two shots of the exact same scene, one with and one without the filter, using a specific white balance color temperature, like 5000K. Don’t use auto white balance because your camera will try to compensate for any color shifts it sees. And since exposure affects color saturation you’ll also need to make sure that the exposure in the filtered part of your photo is the same as it is in the unfiltered shot. This will prevent you from seeing a false positive color change between the photos due to a change in brightness.
If you do see a noticeable color shift from the filter, you have three options for dealing with it. The first is simply to not care and live with it. But to actually fix it you can try to “reverse engineer” the color shift using your white balance. For example, if your filter has a warmish tint you can dial in a cooler white balance to compensate. Of course, changing white balance will affect the whole photo, not just the filtered part. So the cleanest solution is to use post processing. Create a graduated filter adjustment or an adjustment layer to counteract the color shift, and apply it only to the filtered area of the image.
Vignetting and wide angles
If you are using a wide or ultra wide lens it’s possible that your filters, filter holder, or adapter ring will cause vignetting in your photos, meaning the corners get darker. With some extreme wide lenses you might actually see the physical adapter ring or holder in your shot!
The first line of defense against this is to make sure you are buying the correct size adapter ring for your lens, and make sure to buy a “wide angle” version of that adapter ring if the company you’re buying from makes one. These sit farther back from the front of your lens, making them less likely to appear in a photo. Also, you want to make sure that your adapter ring is the first thing screwed onto your lens. Don’t screw it on over any UV filters or polarizers, because that puts the adapter ring too far forward in front of the lens.
If your filter holder has an adjustable number of slots for filters then I recommend reducing that as well. For example, this filter holder came with slots for three filters, but that puts the front of the clip so far out that it easily shows up in shots. But by reducing it to only two slots the problem goes away. If you’re still getting some filter doodads in your shot, you may simply have to zoom in a little bit or clone out those problem areas in post.
And to solve the vignetting issue with the darkened corners, try stopping down a little bit as this is a well known cure for vignetting.
Working with other filters
Now let’s say you want to use your grad filters with another filter, like a 10-stop filter or a polarizer. For the 10-stop or 6-stop NDs you first need to put your Grad ND in the outer slot of your filter holder and line it up to get a good exposure and aesthetic. Then slide the solid ND in behind the grad, in the position closest to the lens. This allows you to minimize light leaks while still making sure your grad is in the right spot.
Using a polarizer is a little trickier, but there are a couple of solutions. First, of course you can screw your adapter ring onto the CPL, and then screw the CPL onto your lens. But like I mentioned a minute ago that makes it much more likely you’re going to get vignetting or black corners in your shot, depending on your focal length. Plus it’s kinda clunky to use that way. So to defeat the issue you can either buy a polarizer that screws onto the front of your filter holder, but those are enormous, expensive, and require another adapter ring. Or you can buy a filter holder like this one from NiSi that has a polarizer integrated already. Either way it’s more equipment and more bucks.
Which filters should I get?
Ok, finally we get to the million dollar question, which filters and filter systems should you buy? First, a caveat. This is not an exhaustive or comprehensive list. It’s based entirely on my personal experience with the half dozen filter companies I’ve used over the years and should not be taken as gospel. That being said, the graduated neutral density filters I’ve found to be the highest quality, clearest, most consistent, and most color neutral are Lee, NiSi, and ProGrey. For filter holders I’ve long used Lee and find them to be probably the simplest and most straightforward. Holders like the NiSi have a few more bells and whistles, like the integrated polarizer, but are a little more complicated to use initially. But in the end the holders are less important than the filters themselves.
Have you ever wanted to crack open a working photographer’s head to understand what thoughts are running around inside during a shoot? Well this tutorial does exactly that. Filmed on location in New Zealand, this tutorial will walk you through an entire waterfall shoot I did and narrate my exact decision-making process, from why I chose the settings I did to how I narrowed down my composition. I’ll show you all the shots that didn’t make the cut and explain why not. And then I wrap it up with my complete post-processing workflow. This is truly a one-of-a-kind, start-to-finish look inside the creation of a landscape photo.
This is my first live action tutorial, as well as my first with a dedicated emphasis on in-field photography, composition, technique, and approach. It’s a totally unique style of video course, and I haven’t seen anything else like it out there. There’s an analysis of 42 landscape photos, of what works and what doesn’t for each, and how every step in the process leads to the end result. It’s an insanely jam-packed tutorial, worth a rewatch or 10 just to absorb everything I go over. Even if you don’t shoot waterfalls you’ll learn lots of great lessons on composition, technique, and approach.
Greetings, homenuggets and welcome to Pro Photo Tips. Josh Cripps here and you can find me online at the Nature Photography Academy. In the first part of this video we learned that grad filters come in as many shapes and styles as there are lobsters in the ocean. I also told you that my filter of choice is the 100mm-wide, 3-stop soft grad. But we didn’t learn how to actually put this thing to use! Well stick around cuz that’s what we’re going do right now.
The key to using a grad filter effectively is timing. This filter is designed to tame a bright sky and bring it in line with a darker foreground. And this specific situation is most likely to happen at sunrise and sunset. If you look at your histogram during those times you’re likely to see a U-shaped histogram. This means you have a lot of highlights and a lot of shadows in your image and they are separated by a vast tonal gulf. And a grad filter is exactly what lets you bridge that gap.
Could you use a grad filter during the middle of the day? Sure, but it’s probably unnecessary since the sun is likely illuminating the ground and the sky fairly evenly.
So once you’re in the position of needing to use a grad next you need to know how strong of a grad to use. Generally speaking the sky during magic hour is anywhere between 3 and 5 stops brighter than the ground. Which makes a 3-stop filter an ideal candidate to start with. If the sky is supernova bright you might want to layer on a 2-stop filter as well.
You also want to think about whether to use a soft, hard, or reverse grad. Hard grads are good for when you have very well defined horizons or are using mid range or telephoto lenses. Reverse grads help when the horizon is the brightest part of the scene, like shooting toward the sun at sunrise/sunset. And soft grads are the big catch all for pretty much every other situation, like when you have an uneven horizon, or the transition between bright and dark isn’t well defined in your scene. If you’re not sure about which filter to use, start with a soft one.
As far as attaching the filters to your lens you can hand hold them, in which case I recommend you pinch them in the corner and splat them flat up against your lens so that you don’t get any reflections or light leaking in.
And hand holding is a perfectly cromulent method which I personally used for years, but for consistency, as well as to minimize the scratches you put on your filters, you should use a filter holder. These typically attach to your lens via an adapter ring which screws onto the front of the lens. The filter holder then clips into that and allows you to easily stack multiple filters, be totally consistent from shot to shot, and it gives you a free hand during shooting.
As I mentioned in the previous part of this video, these big square grads can be slid up and down in the holder, so the best way to know they’re in the right spot is to either take a test shot, or go into Live View on your camera. This will give you a preview of the photo you’re about to shoot so you can tell if your grad is in the right location. Canon users, take note that you might need to hit your DOF preview button in order to get an accurate display of your image.
Another cool thing about grad filters is that they can be rotated to suit your scene. If one corner of your sky is brighter than the other, angle the grad down in that spot to help tame those highlights.
Now that your grads are in place be sure to double check your exposure. Because you’ve darkened the sky relative to an already dark foreground, don’t be surprised if your whole image looks, well, dark (especially if you’re shooting in manual mode)! So really pay attention to your histogram to make sure you’re getting a good exposure.
At this point your photo should be looking pretty great, but I recommend sliding your filters around slightly to see if you get a different look you like better.
So to recap, here’s our checklist for using a grad filter effectively. First, shoot around sunrise and sunset. Next, start with a 3-stop grad and decide if you need a hard, soft, or reverse grad. Put your filter in the holder then either use live view or a test shot to see if you grad is positioned well. Also see if the image fits your aesthetic preferences: for example, if the sky still too bright compared to the f/g add another filter. And of course, constantly check you histogram, highlights, and exposure.
This should give you a great starting point for working with grads, but of course this list is not meant to be prescriptive because in art you should always salt to your own personal tastes. The best thing to do once you have the basics down is simply to shoot A TON till you figure out what you like and don’t like and develop your own instincts about which filters to use and when.
In the next part of this video you’re going to learn a few best practices for getting the most out of your grad filters.
One of the fundamental problems in photography is that the sky is often way way way wayyyyy brighter than the ground. Enter the Graduated Neutral Density filter. Graduated means it transitions from dark to clear. Neutral means it doesn’t affect the colors of your photo. And density, well we’ll get into that. Really what it all means is you now have a way to darken the sky relative to the foreground, so that you can take a decent photo.
Now, many people will say that GND filters are no longer necessary both because of the increased dynamic range of modern cameras, as well as the ability to blend multiple exposures in Photoshop. And while that is true to a large extent, grad NDs are great for folks who want to capture the whole dynamic range in a single exposure, people who don’t have PS or don’t know how to blend exposures, or anytime you’re shooting something moving, like crashing waves or fast moving clouds, where taking multiple frames would lead to really tricky blending.
The concept behind GNDs is very simple, but knowing which filter to use and how best to apply it isn’t, because it turns out these filters vary in size, density, and something called hardness. So let’s take a look at what each of those characteristics means.
The density, or strength, of a filter refers to how many stops of light a filter blocks at its darkest part. There’s a 3-stop, so it blocks three stops of light before it fades out, which makes it perfect for knocking down the brightness of a vivid sky.
There are also 2-stop filters, which you can use by themselves for when the sky isn’t quite as bright, or you can stack it with the 3-stop for when the sky is really nuclear. In fact, you can get these filters in densities from 1 stop all the way up to 4 or 5 stops, but personally, I find the 3 and 2 stops to be the most useful.
Another thing to note is that filter companies use a weird nomenclature and instead of “3 stop” you’ll often see something like this: 0.9 GND Filter. In this geek speak, every 0.3 represents one stop, so a 0.6 is a 2 stop filter, and a 1.2 GND would be a four stop filter. Super goofy, right??? But that’s how filter strengths are labeled so it helps to be aware of that.
Grad filters are generally referred to as Hard or Soft, which has nothing to do with the physical material of the filter, but rather the abruptness of the transition from dark to clear. Hard filters transition very quickly, whereas soft filters transition much more gradually.
Which means you want to use a Hard filter wherever you have a very clear, well-defined horizon, or where a bright sky transitions very abruptly into a dark foreground. A soft filter by contrast, is a much better choice for scenes with uneven horizons, or when the transition from light to dark occurs more gradually, like when shooting an ocean or a lake where the water reflects the brightness of the sky. Generally speaking, I find the soft filters to be more forgiving and versatile.
It’s also important to note that the more you zoom in with your lens, or the smaller your actual lens is, the harder the filter you need to use. As your field of view gets narrower and narrower, that harder edged filter is going to do a much better job of delineating the break between light and dark. So in general, soft edge filters are good for wide angle shots and hard filters are good for mid-range and telephoto shots.
The other kind of filter you might come across is a Reverse grad. This means that instead of the darkest part of the filter being at the top and fading downward, the darkest part of the filter is in the middle, and it fades upward. This is useful for golden hour photography when the brightest part of the sky is right on the horizon.
Size and Shape
The final characteristic is the actual size and shape of the filter. They do make circular screw-on grad filters but I wouldn’t touch those with a 10 foot pole, simply because you can’t adjust the up and down position of where the graduation is.
A much better style is the rectangular drop-in filter. These let you quickly add or remove filters, rotate the position of the filter, and slide the transition point of your filters up and down to better match your composition. You can even push these filters down low like this to have them serve as solid ND filters so you can increase your shutter speed.
As for the size, I recommend buying a single set of filters that fits the largest lens you have, because you can always use them on a smaller lens, but you can’t use a small filter on a bigger lens. For most people that means getting filters that are 100mm, or 4″ wide, though some of you with super wide angle lenses might need the 150mm ones.
Ughh, I didn’t want to talk about this, but I know the question will come up at some point. Some companies manufacture colored grad filters so that you can juice up your sky a little bit. My response is: you don’t need that crap! Coral and tobacco filters, pfffft. Just chase the light and you’ll ultimately see colors way more beautiful than those put in by cheesy effects.
Ok, so now you have the lowdown on all the different kinds of grads. Which ones should you get? Personally I think the 100mm wide 3-stop soft GND is the most useful from the get go, so if you can only afford one, get one of those.
The sun is pretty awesome. But you know how you can make it even more awesomer? Turn it into a sweet starburst. One of the coolest things you can do when you have the sun in your picture is to turn it into a starburst.
It gives it some character, makes it so much more than simply a blown out spot in your photo,[fade out poppies.jpg] and the process is easier than you think, so let me show you the four simple things you need to start making radical sunstars.
First and most importantly, you need to use a high f-number to create a small aperture; the smaller your aperture, the more the sun’s rays will diffract and cause the burst. Generally speaking f/16-f/22 is a good range to use.
Next, the starburst effect is best when the sun is as tiny as possible. The more pinpoint the light source the better. So while you can make great sunbursts when the sun is high in the sky, try shooting it just as it [whitney.jpg] comes up over a mountain, or just as it begins to pass behind another object in your frame, like a tree branch.
Also, it’s important that the air be clear when you try to do this. Any haze in the sky or clouds blocking the sun will significantly reduce the burst effect.
In my Death Valley Flowers photo you can see the sun is being filtered by the clouds and while the light rays still show up a little bit, they’re nowhere near as prominent as they would be if the sun was unobstructed, like in this photo when the sun dropped into a clear slot in the clouds.
Because you’re putting the insanely bright sun in your frame you have to pay close attention to your exposure otherwise you’re likely to end up with a pure white photo.
I find that underexposing by two stops is a good place to start, just pay attention to your histogram to make sure you don’t clip your shadows while trying to tame an untamably bright sun. [fade in trees2.jpg] Then use a program like Lightroom to recover the darker parts of the photo.
If you have the previous four things nailed then I can just about guarantee you’ll see a sunburst in your photos. But it’s also important to note that your lens itself plays a big part in the process. The number of aperture blades your lens has, as well as the shape of those blades, makes a huge different in how your sunburst will appear, and there’s a lot variation between different lenses. So experiment with the lenses in your line up to see what works best for you.
In the first part of this video we learned what a stop is, and how to use shutter speed to adjust our exposure by an arbitrary number of stops. In the second part we learned how to use aperture and ISO to do the same.
We also learned that no matter which setting you’re changing, a stop is a stop is a stop. Which means that if you use your shutter speed to darken your photo by one stop you can then use your aperture to brighten your photo by one stop and those two photos will have the exact same exposure. However, they’ll have completely different settings.
And this is incredibly cool because it allows you to make creative decisions about your photography. Say you’re shooting a waterfall at ISO100, f/8, and 1/4 second. Now the water looks ok, but say you want it to become even silkier, well then you need to increase your shutter speed.
If you double that quarter second, and then double it again to get to one second, you’ve got a much longer shutter. But you’ve also increased your exposure by two stops. So in order to not blow out your photo, you’ve got to take away those two stops somewhere else, either in ISO or aperture.
And most likely you’re going to want to use your aperture. In order to darken things by two stops we need to go from f/8 to f/11 (one stop) to f/16 (two stops). And now you can see our exposure is exactly the same as it was before, but we’ve got a much longer shutter, and silkier water to show for it.
Let’s take a look at another example, of some flowers and mountains. If I shoot at 1/100 sec and f/8 it will put most of the scene in sharp focus. But say I wanted to use a shallow depth of field to draw more attention to the flowers. Well then I could open up my aperture to f/4, which gives me a nice shallow DOF, but also increases my exposure by two stops.
So then to compensate for that, I need to decrease my shutter speed by two stops, from 1/100 to 1/200 to 1/400. Again, I get the exact same exposure, but with a completely different creative result.
And of course you can throw ISO in there as well to give you one more variable to play with so you can get the exact aperture and shutter speed you want. No get out there and practice because when you really understand how to do this, that’s when photography becomes so much fun because it lets you inject your creative vision into your photos.
In the first part of this video we learned what a stop is in relation to exposure, so if you don’t know what that means go back and watch that first. We also learned how to use shutter speed to adjust our exposure by an arbitrary number of stops,
But since stops are simply a measure of the relative brightness of your photos, they aren’t limited to just shutter speed. Because we can also adjust our exposure by changing our aperture or our ISO.
In these cases, the principle is exactly the same as before: double the brightness of our photo, and that’s an exposure increase of one stop. Half the brightness of a photo and you’ve reduced exposure by a stop.
With ISO, this is easy and intuitive. Increase your ISO from 100 to 200 and you’ve made your camera twice as sensitive to light. Therefore your photo will be twice as bright, and voila, a change of one stop. The same is true if you go from 200 to 400, 800 to 1600, or even the other way to reduce exposure, for example, ISO 400 to ISO 200 is a loss of one stop.
Aperture is a little more complicated, thanks to our old friend Geometry. As you know, your aperture is a roughly circular opening in your lens, and the amount of light it lets in is a function of the area of that opening. But since the area of a circle increases proportionally to its radius squared, it means that when you change your f-number by a factor of 2, you’ve changed the area of your aperture by a factor of 4. And if you’re letting in four times as much or as little light, that’s a difference of two stops.
For example, let’s start with an aperture of f/8. If you double that to f/16, you’ve changed the radius of your aperture by a factor of 2, but you’ve changed the area of your aperture and the amount of light entering your camera by a factor of 2 times 2, or 4, because of this guy (pi r2), so that means you’ve changed your exposure by two full stops.
The other thing you have to keep in mind with aperture is that the bigger your f-number is the smaller your actual aperture becomes. So when you change from f/8 to f/16 you’ve actually made your photo darker by those two stops.
I know it’s a bit confusing, but in the end don’t worry if you don’t want to do this math, because most cameras are set up by default so that any three clicks of a dial is equal to one stop, whether you’re talking about shutter speed, ISO, or aperture.
Let’s go back to that f/8 and say you want to decrease exposure by a stop, well then all you have to do is click your aperture dial three times to make that happen, which incidentally puts you at f/11. Another stop would be another 3 clicks, putting us at a final aperture of f/16, which agrees with the theory before, phew! 🙂
So now we know what a stop is, and how to use our shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to change our exposure by any number of stops. And we’ve seen that no matter which setting we adjust, a stop is a stop is a stop, whether it’s shutter, aperture, or ISO. In the final video of this series you’ll learn why that is such a cool thing when it comes to making creative choices for your photography.
Be sure to check out part 3 where you’ll learn about the awesome creative things you can do when you adjust each setting independently, and how to use your knowledge of stops to balance your exposure.
You hear the word “STOP” a lot in photography….But when someone is talking about exposure and they say “a stop” what does that mean?
If you’ve been confused by stops when you’re taking pictures, don’t worry, you’re not the only one. The word stop appears in two main places in photography: when talking about F-stops, and when talking about stops of light. The first use, f-stop, has to do entirely with aperture, and I talk about that in a separate lesson.
In a very basic sense, a stop is a measure of how bright your photo is. Just like a kilometer is used to measure distance, a stop is used to measure brightness. And just like I can say this tree is a kilometer away from me, and this tree is a kilometer past that, I can say that this photo is a stop brighter than this one, and this photo is a stop brighter still. But what does that mean? How much is a stop?
Well here’s where things get interesting. Because a stop is not a constant amount. Rather, it’s a relative measure that tells you the difference in brightness between two things. So while I can’t say “this photo is two stops bright” I can say “this photo is two stops brighter than this one, or this one is one stop darker than this one.”
So what is the value of a stop? Well, whenever you multiply or divide the amount of light you’re dealing with by a factor of 2, whether that’s in a photo, or comparing the brightness of two objects, that is one stop. In other words, if you increase the exposure of your photo by one stop, you’ve made it twice as bright. Or an even better way to think about it, you’ve let twice as much light into your camera.
And the converse is true as well: if you decrease your exposure by one stop, you’re letting in half as much light.
Now, here’s how all of this relates to actually taking pictures: say you’ve got a shutter speed of 1? and your photos are coming out too dark. You can try increasing your exposure by one stop to see if you get a better result.
We know that increasing exposure by a stop is the same as letting twice as much light enter the camera and a really easy way to do that is to double your shutter speed, right? Because when the shutter’s open twice as long, it lets twice as much light in. So in this case, doubling our shutter speed from 1? to 2? has the effect of increasing exposure by exactly one stop.
Now what if you wanted to increase your exposure by another stop? Again, all you’d have to do is double the shutter speed again, this time from 2? to 4?. Another stop we’d double it again to 8?, then 16? and so on. Even though the shutter speed is getting exponentially longer each time, those changes all represent exactly a 1 stop difference.
Going the other way from original 1? shutter speed, say the photo was already too bright and we wanted to decrease exposure by one stop. Well we’d just want to let half as much light in, and we could do that by cutting the shutter speed in half to 1/2? a second. Another stop down would be 1/4?, then 1/8? and so on.
If you’re actually doing this in real time you’ll notice your photos got either way too bright, or way too dark. And actually, that’s ok, because it turns out you can also adjust exposure by changing your aperture or ISO in order to compensate. Be sure to check out Part 2 of this video about how aperture and ISO fit in with stops.
Then in Part 3 you’ll learn about the awesome creative things you can do when you adjust each setting independently, and how to use your knowledge of stops to balance your exposure.
The ocean is a wonderful place to photograph. Its constant moving and grooving makes it an endless playground to experiment with all kinds of long exposure effects. And it’s obvious why so many photographers love turning these crashing waves into silky ribbons of water, because it totally rocks! So wave hello to a new era in your photography, as we sea how it’s done.
First, you want to use a shutter speed roughly in the 1/4 – 2 second range. With faster shutter speeds than that you won’t see enough motion in the water, and with slower shutter speeds you risk your water starting to enter “The Oatmeal Zone,” where it becomes an undefined, gloopy mess. That sweet spot between 1/4 and 2 seconds gives you a good amount of motion while still retaining detail and coherency in the water, which is vital for see strong streaks.
In order to achieve those desired shutter speeds you’ll either need to use an ND filter during the day, or shoot during sunrise and sunset when the light levels are low. In any case, be sure to use a tripod for sharp results.
Next, the timing of when you actually trigger the shot is critical. Personally I find I get the best results when a wave has come up the beach, paused at the top, and is starting to flow back out. That’s when I trip the shutter for silky goodness. And definitely make sure you’re using a remote so that you can trigger the shot at just the right time without having to touch your camera.
You’ll see the strongest possible streaks when the water your photographing is being funneled in some way. Whether it’s flowing around a rock, through a chute, or even around your own legs, when water is channeled in this way it gives the most dynamic look.
You may notice that your tripod has a tendency to sink when you’re shooting in the sand. In order to prevent this push your tripod legs 4-8 inches down into the wet sand and this will give you an amazingly stable platform for those long exposures.
And there you have it, the three simple steps you need to take to create those beautiful streaky wave shots, now get out there and practice!
Monkey Creek, New Zealand. f/11, 1/2 sec, ISO64, 23 mm
In April of 2015 when I was photographing the sunrise at Monkey Creek in Fiordland National Park in New Zealand I found myself in a tricky situation that’s very common in landscape photography: the sky was lighting up brightly with vibrant colors, but the surrounding mountains were still in deep shadow, creating a massive range of bright and dark tones in the scene. And not only was I trying capture this huge dynamic range but I was also intent on photographing the movement of the creek rushing by my feet. I knew I wanted everything in focus as well. So this meant that in my exposure I had to solve four major problems: capturing all the details in the shadows, capturing all the details in the highlights, obtaining sufficient depth of field, and targeting my shutter speed to capture the motion I wanted in the creek. It was a lot of variables to juggle, but by applying some fundamental principles of photography I was able to solve all four problems to create this shot. Here’s my process:
1) Compose and Dial In Initial Camera Settings
Using my wide angle lens to capture a good chunk of the sky, the mountains, and the creek, I found that I got the most pleasing balance to the composition and minimized some distracting elements by zooming in to 23mm. Next, because I knew I’d need as much dynamic range as I could squeeze out of my camera I set my ISO to its lowest setting, 64 in this case. Then, because I had somewhat zoomed in my wide lens and was fairly close to my foreground I guessed I’d need an f-stop of around f/16 to get sufficient depth of field. I dialed that in, set my focus roughly 1/3 into the frame, and used Live View to check my sharpness. I needed to fine tune the focus position a little bit but after a minor tweak everything was indeed sharp from front to back, great!
2) Compress Dynamic Range of the Scene
Because the shadows were quite dark and the highlights so bright I knew my camera would have a tough time capturing the details in both tonal ranges. So I used a graduated neutral density filter to help compress the dynamic range of the scene. Placing the dark part of the filter over the top half of my frame I was able to darken the sky with respect to my foreground. Of course, this had the unwanted side effect of further darkening the already-dark mountains in the top half of the frame. However, digital cameras have incredible abilities when it comes to capturing shadow detail, so I knew that I was better off darkening the highlights to a capture-able level. Even though this meant the shadowy mountains got darker, it was very unlikely they’d get so dark I couldn’t recover their details in post. Whenever I’m faced with a situation like this my mantra is: expose for the highlights, recover the shadows.
3) Test Exposure and Salt to Taste
With my dynamic range compressed, and my f-stop and ISO set, the next step was to find a shutter speed that would give me a good exposure. I used the exposure simulation histogram on my Live View to dial in an initial shutter speed of 1.3″ and hit the button. Since this preview histogram is just a guess made by the camera I couldn’t be sure my exposure was correct until I checked the “real” histogram (along with the Highlight Warning) displayed via image playback. In this case, both showed some slight overexposure and blown highlights, although the histogram showed my shadow details were all intact. So I reduced my shutter speed to 1″ and tried again. This time the playback histogram showed no blown highlights and no clipped shadows. Yes! A perfect exposure!
However, there was still a problem: at a 1″ shutter the water in the creek was too smooth for my tastes: a soft, silky blur. While I often love that creamy look, in this case I wanted to capture a little more action in the lively movement of the stream. I couldn’t simply shorten my shutter speed to freeze the water, because then I would start to severely underexpose the image. So to shorten my shutter I needed to compromise somewhere else. The easiest place to start was aperture; if I opened it up at the same time as I shortened my shutter my exposure would stay the same. However, I didn’t want to risk losing depth of field, so I took baby steps. From f/16 I moved to f/14 and found everything was still sharp. Then f/13, and even f/11 were still good. But below that the foreground and distant mountains began softening. So I stayed at f/11, which allowed me to change my shutter speed from 1″ to 1/2″, resulting in a dramatic change in the way the water looked. It kept the smooth parts of the creek silky and sinuous, but that shorter shutter froze more of the action in the bubbling and rollicking parts of the stream. It was a perfect sweet spot in my mind. So then I fired off a final shot, again checking my histogram and highlight warning to make sure I’d nailed the exposure.
Side note: If you aren’t sure how to use the histogram to perfect your exposures and create an in-field workflow like the one I just described, please check out this great video course, Histograms Exposed, from my friends Varina and Jay Patel. In the course they discuss what a histogram is and what it represents. They tell you how to view it on your camera along with the highlight exposure warning. They break down the different kinds of histograms and which is best to use. Varina and Jay also fully explain the most important part of a histogram: what it’s telling you about the exposure and contrast of your photo so you can get great exposures. And they also provide their in-field workflow to give you a system to analyze a scene and to use your histogram to get a good exposure every time.
4) Bonus: Post Processing
Left: Straight Out of Camera; Right: After Processing in Adobe Camera Raw
Of course, the raw file that my camera produced was very flat and boring. It had all the shadow and highlight detail, but it lacked the color, the punch, and the drama I felt while photographing the scene. So the next step was to bring the image to life in Adobe Camera Raw. And while the before and after results may look dramatically different, the processing was fairly straightforward. I boosted the exposure and shadows, then reduced the highlights. I warmed up the white balance and added a kiss of magenta. I added some clarity for local contrast and made increases to the saturation and vibrance. I then used the tone curve to increase the global contrast of the photo, along with a graduated filter to further brighten the foreground and add contrast and punch. Et voila! The final image.
Another side note: If that last paragraph sounded like Greek to you, check out my 2-hr video course, The Complete Guide to Adobe Camera Raw. I teach you how to do everything I just said and lots more in super easy, bite-sized chunks.
And there you have it, a step-by-step explanation to the thought processes behind this image. Let me know your thoughts or questions in the comments below!
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