Silky water images take a lot of flak for being overused and unnatural. Sure, long exposures that blur a rushing creek into a white stripe, or smooth crashing surf into to a gauzy haze, can be trite (no judgement—these effects can also be beautiful). But the argument that motion blur in a water image is always invalid because it’s not “natural” just doesn’t hold wat…, uhhh…, up to scrutiny.
Think about it—there really are only two ways to capture moving water in a still photo: you can freeze water in place, or blur it. And a water droplet suspended in midair is no more representative of the human experience of that scene than silky water. That’s because the world unfolds to us like a seamless movie of continuous instants, while a camera accumulates light throughout its exposure to conflate those instants into a single frame.
Your options for expressing motion in a still frame aren’t binary—either frozen or blurred—they’re a continuum of choices ranging from discrete airborne droplets to blur completely devoid of detail. The key to capturing flowing water in a still photograph is conveying a sense of motion—how you do it is your creative choice (and blurring water simply because you can, and it looks “cool,” maybe isn’t the best approach).
Not only does your choice for handling water’s motion determine the effect’s visual appeal, it also affects the image’s mood. I find stopped water action in an image to be more stimulating, and blurred water more soothing.
And all motion blurs aren’t alike. There’s a big difference between slight blur that expresses a wave’s movement while retaining its overall size and shape, and extreme blur that purees every detail into a homogenized soup. Whether your goal is to freeze in midair the airborne droplets of a waterfall, smooth wind-whipped chop in a mountain lake, or reveal flow patterns in waves washing over a rocky shore, the key to controlling your point on the water motion continuum is understanding the reciprocal relationship between ISO, f-stop, and shutter speed.
I usually start with a general idea of the amount of blur I want, and try to determine the shutter speed that will get me there. Unfortunately, there is no one-to-one relationship between shutter speed and blur because shutter speed isn’t the only variable. You also need to consider the speed of the water, its distance, your focal length, and whether it’s moving toward/away from you, or across your frame. So I start by guessing the shutter speed (the more you do it, the better you’ll get), then figuring out the ISO/f-stop combination that gets me there. And if I can’t do it with ISO and f-stop, I reach for my neutral density filter.
After my first click I evaluate my blur effect on my in my mirrorless view finder or on my LCD screen and adjust accordingly. I usually take a range of frames at a variety of shutter speeds to have more options later, when I’m viewing my images on my big screen. This is especially true with crashing surf—often I’ll take multiple frames at the same shutter speed because there’s so much variation from wave to wave.
Golden Sunrise, Puna Coast, Hawaii Big Island (September, 2019)
My flight to Hawaii departed on a Friday, and my new Sony a7RIV was scheduled to arrive Monday. But the arrival of a new camera is to a photographer what Christmas morning is to a 5-year-old (do you know any 5-year-olds who would delay Christmas by a week?)—so I had Sony ship the camera to my hotel in Hawaii. So far so good—until Hawaiian Airlines lost my suitcase. In addition to having no change of clothes or toiletry items, I was suddenly without a tripod. The clothing and toiletry essentials were handled with a trip to the Hilo Target, but a camera with no tripod? In my world that’s not much different than that 5-year-old unwrapping the remote-control helicopter he asked for and learning Santa didn’t think to include batteries. Fortunately, after lots of hand wringing and panicked pleas for help, the good folks at Breakthrough Filters overnighted one of their new carbon fiber tripods and I was whole again (Hawaiian got the bill for the $178 FedEx overnight charge as well).
Or so I thought. But using a tripod requires a way to mount the camera to the tripod, and my tripods require a camera-specific mount plate (for the photographers in the audience, that would be an Arca-Swiss-compatible L-Plate from Really Right Stuff). But the a7RIV was so new, RRS didn’t have its L-plate ready. Damn. Just about the time my internal 5-year-old was about to melt down in line at the grocery store, I figured that with a little creative engineering, my Sony a7RIII L-plate could (kind of) attach to my a7RIV—not an ideal arrangement, but enough to get by. I was in business.
A couple of days into the workshop I took the group out to one of my favorite Puna Coast spots for sunrise. As you can see from this picture, the Puna beaches aren’t great for swimming, but its rugged volcanic rock and black sand, along with very violent surf, make the photography here off the charts. I’ve photographed the California Coast from Big Sur to Mendocino, and the Oregon Coast from Bandon to Cannon Beach, but I like the Puna Coast south of Hilo just as much.
Every rock down here is lava. And being just down the mountain from Kilauea (one of the most active volcanoes in the world), all of the Puna lava is relatively new. In fact, the age of most of the Puna rock is measured in decades—during this workshop we did a Milky Way shoot on lava flows that were just one year old.
You’ll primarily find only two kinds of lava on Hawaii: aa and pahoehoe. Both are actually basalt, so the difference between aa and pahoehoe isn’t their composition, it the way the lava flows and cools. Rapidly flowing aa hardens into a jagged jumble, while slower flowing pahoehoe is a smoother, and often ropy, rock. (Pro Tip: I could never remember which lava type was which until I realized that “ah! ah!” is what I’d say if I were to walk barefoot on aa.) In this image, you can see both aa and pahoehoe: pahoehoe in the foreground and on the left (you can even see a little ropiness), and aa in the background on the right.
At any ocean scene, if you stand and watch the surf and rock interaction long enough, you become aware of patterns in the water’s flow. This scene in particular had some wonderful wave action that I very much wanted to convey. When we arrived it was so dark that motion blur impossible to avoid, but that changed as the sun approached the horizon (it always surprises me how quickly the light comes up at the lower latitudes).
By sunrise I’d become pretty familiar with the scene and knew I wanted to start my exposure as a wave large enough to sweep through the foreground was about to break, and that a shutter speed between 10 and 15 seconds would capture all of a single wave’s motion.
With the sun up, achieving a 10-15 second shutter speed is only possible with a neutral density filter. But there was a distracting sheen on the rocks that I wanted to minimize with a polarizer. In these situations in the past, I had to decide between an ND filter or a polarizer, or live with significant vignetting by stacking the two (or by using a Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo filter). But my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark CPL works as a polarizer, but it also cuts 6 stops of light. And because it’s no thicker than a standard polarizer, it does this without vignetting. (As you can see, I didn’t get rid of all the sheen on the rocks, but I was definitely able to reduce it to a manageable level.)
Since I’m not a big fan of Sony’s wired remote (an understatement), since switching to Sony I’ve almost exclusively used the 2-second timer, making timing waves kind of a pain. But my new Sony Bluetooth Wireless Remote Commander made timing the waves a piece of cake. Though I shot a number of frames with this composition, the action of the water made each frame different. I chose this image because it was the best combination of sunrise light and wave motion.
After a couple of days on the lamb, my suitcase eventually turned up—but it waited until after I’d purchased an entirely new Hawaii wardrobe, plus all the other essentials. Since I always pack my suitcase to within a couple of ounces of the maximum weight allowed anyway, all this extra stuff, not to mention the addition of a new camera and tripod, created a bit of a weight problem. I was able to get back under airline’s weight limit by filling a USPS large flat-rate box with all of my heaviest (non-camera) stuff and mailing it home. And to Hawaiian Airline’s credit, they reimbursed every penny of my extra expenses without blinking.
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