Rather than attempting to reproduce a scene exactly as we see it, enduring photographs reveal unseen aspects of our world. Capturing this hidden world requires understanding and mastery of photography’s “creativity triad,” the three aspects of a scene that distinguish the camera’s vision from human vision: motion, light, and depth.
Motion: Autumn Spiral
The human experience of the world unfolds like a seamless movie of continuous instants, while a camera accumulates light throughout its exposure to conflates those instants into a single frame.
Last week in Yosemite I got an opportunity to play with motion while photographing autumn leaves blanketing nearly every exposed surface below Bridalveil Fall. Beneath the fall Bridalveil Creek splits into three branches I love to explore—up- or down-stream, it doesn’t matter—searching for more intimate scenes. Last week I stayed close to the trail—not by design, but because I found enough to occupy every available minute.
Most of the fallen leaves had come to rest on granite, but those that had landed on the creek had been instantly swept downstream until they came to rest in sheltered pools, pushing up against and accumulating the rocks that bounded the pool. I found some pools that were entirely covered with leaves of varying shades of yellow and (just a little) green.
This little scene was downstream from the third bridge. The leaves here had been accumulating in this pool for a few days, leaving it more than half covered on this my final day in Yosemite. More than the golden pool, what really drew my attention from the bridge was a small collection of leaves, soon to become part of the pool’s autumn mosaic, swirling in a slowly spiraling current.
I set up my tripod right on the bridge, pulled out my new Sony 100-400 GM lens, dialed my polarizer to minimize reflections, and went to work. Because so much was happening in the scene, I started toward the lens’s wide end, but quickly found myself tightening each composition until I got down to a version of what you see here.
Once I had my composition, it became all about the motion in the leaves. When photographing landscape subjects in motion, each click can render a completely different image, so I’ve learned to never stop at one (or two, or three…). Whether it’s ocean waves, churning whitewater, or spinning leaves, I always make sure I have a variety of motion effects from which to choose. In this case, while the leaves were spiraling in a fairly consistent current, it seemed that with each rotation at least one leaf would go rogue, either slowing, accelerating, or making a break for the perimeter. The result was a distinctly different spiral with each capture.
I experimented with shutter speeds between ten and thirty seconds. Sometimes I’ll use a neutral density filter to stretch my shutter speed, but for this scene I was using a polarizer (minus two stops), it was quite early (shortly after sunrise) in an always densely shaded location, and darkened even further by the dense clouds of an approaching storm. In other words, the scene was dark enough that I could get the shutter speed all the way out to thirty seconds with my f-stop and ISO settings. When I was done, I had about 20 frames to choose from (one more argument for the tripod), identical except for a little different swirl.
While a still camera can’t capture motion as humans view it, in the right hands the camera absolutely does capture motion in ways that I’d argue can be even more appealing than being there. In this case, the spiral nature of this pool’s motion is much more apparent in this image than it was witnessing it firsthand.
Because there always has to be a moral…
The moral of this story is the importance of being able to manage your exposure variables: You can’t control motion, depth, and light without knowing how to achieve the shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO that serves your creative objective with minimal image quality compromise. That means retaining full control of your exposure settings by shooting in manual, aperture priority, or shutter priority modes. (And if you choose aperture or shutter priority, you must be able to manage your camera’s exposure compensation dial.)
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