As a landscape photographer, I often joke that I don’t photograph anything that moves—no wildlife, no pets, no portraits, no sports. And don’t even think about asking me to do your wedding. I’ve always been a deliberate shooter who likes to anticipate and prepare my frame with the confidence my shot will still be there when I’m ready—landscape photography suits me just fine (thankyouverymuch).
But as much as I appreciate the comfortable pace of a static landscape, the reality is that nature is in constant motion. Earth’s rotation spins the moon and stars across our night sky, and continuously changes the direction, intensity, and color of the sunlight that rules our day. Rivers cascade toward sea level, clouds scoot and transform overhead, ocean waves curl and explode against sand and rock, then vanish and repeat. And even a moderate breeze can send the most firmly rooted plants into a dancing frenzy.
Photographing motion is frustrating because a still image can’t duplicate the human experience (not to mention the technical skill required to subdue it without compromising exposure and depth). But motion also presents a creative opportunity for the photographer who knows how to create a motion-implying illusion that conveys power, flow, pattern, and direction.
While a camera can’t do what the human eye/brain do, it can accumulate seconds, minutes, or hours of light, recording a scene’s complete history in a single image. Or, a camera can freeze an instant, an ephemeral splash of water or bolt of lightning that’s gone so fast it’s merely a memory by the time a viewer’s conscious mind processes it. This is powerful stuff—accumulating motion in a long frame reveals hidden patterns; freezing motion saves an instant for eternal scrutiny.
When I photograph the night sky, I have to decide how to handle the motion of the stars (yes, I know it’s not really the stars that are moving). Freezing celestial motion is a balancing act that combines a high ISO and large aperture with a shutter speed long enough to squeeze every possible photon from a dark sky, but that stops before discernible streaks form. Or, I can emphasize celestial motion by holding my shutter open for many minutes, stretching the stars into parallel arcs.
Lightning comes and goes faster than human reflexes can respond. At night, a long exposure can be initiated when and where lighting might strike, recording any bolt that occurs during the exposure. But in daylight I need a lightning sensing device like a Lightning Trigger, that detects the lightning and fires the shutter faster than I can. If I succeed, I can reveal intricate filaments of electricity my eyes missed.
Moving water is probably the most frequently photographed example of motion in nature, with options that range from suspended water droplets to an ethereal gauze. I’m always amused when I hear someone say they don’t like blurred water images because they’re not “natural.”
Ignoring the fact that it’s usually impossible to achieve a shutter speed fast enough to freeze airborne water in the best light for photographing it (shade or overcast), I don’t find blurred water any less natural than a water drop suspended in midair (when was the last time you saw that in the real world). Blurred water isn’t unnatural, it’s different.
Sometimes a long exposure can smooth distracting ripples to enhance a reflection. I often add a neutral density filter and employ this technique when I arrived at a lake or river hoping for a reflection, only to find my plan thwarted by a waves or a wind-whipped surface.
A long exposure can also reveal patterns of motion that are too slow to discern. Which brings me to today’s image from the penultimate night of last week’s Yosemite Fall Color photo workshop
I’d guided my group through the woods to bend in the Merced River that’s usually a glassy reflection in the still autumn flow. But just a week before the workshop, a 6-inch rainfall filled the waterfalls and accelerated the normally languid Merced into a more spring-like flow. Great conditions for most of our photography, but not so much for reflections.
This Half Dome view, known to photographers but just far enough off the beaten path to discourage most tourists, is always a highlight of my Yosemite workshops. I especially like it autumn, for the colorful cottonwood just upstream, and the (usually reliable) glassy surface. This year the cottonwood delivered, but the rapid flow disturbed the mirror reflection I’m accustomed to.
No problem. I suggested to my group that an ND filter would enable an exposure long enough to flatten the water—the result wouldn’t be a mirror reflection, but the gauzy effect would create an ethereal reflection that would be both striking and distinctive.
Working individually with photographers in my group, I soon noticed small patches of foam drifting by in the flow—not just occasionally, but pretty much continuously. I knew from experience that a long exposure would blur them into parallel streaks (like star trails), especially in the darker water, and got a few people started adding this effect to their images.
Then I noticed a collection of foam patches trapped in a small zone of sheltered, (apparently) static water just a few feet upstream. While helping one of the members of the group find a composition here, it soon became obvious that this water was in fact moving, albeit too slow to see.
Once I was confident that everyone was successfully engaged with the scene, I went upstream about 20 feet and looked downstream, searching for something different than the standard view here. I ended up having a blast photographing the slow motion swirl patterns in the foam (and occasional leaf) that clearly wasn’t static, using a few trees and their reflections downstream as my background.
Finally, after shooting that scene to within an inch of its life (each frame was completely different from the previous), I returned to the more conventional upstream composition to see if I could use these swirls to create something a little different.
This was probably 10 minutes after sunset, just possibly my favorite light for photography, and now dark enough to forego the ND filter. The biggest trick here was finding a position with a view of Half Dome, the fall color, the reflection, and with enough swirls to occupy a significant part of the frame.
First, I moved upstream as far as I could move without losing Half Dome and the golden cottonwood behind the nearby trees. Next, to maximize the foreground swirls, I dropped my tripod as near to the ground as I could.
But, from this new perspective, dialing my polarizer to maximize the reflection also enhanced the sky reflection enough to nearly obliterate the foam swirls. So, with my eye on the Half Dome reflection in my viewfinder, I dialed my polarizer just far enough for Half Dome to stand out, but not so much that the water with the swirling foam and leaves lost its blackness.
Setting my Sony a7RIV to ISO 50, and dialing my Sony 24-105 G lens to f/16, enable me to keep my shutter open for 20 seconds—plenty of time to reveal the patterns of motion. A bonus was the leaves and foam flowing much faster in the main river channel, creating linear streaks that I didn’t notice until I processed the image.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
One of my favorites
Beautiful Gary! And a very unique take on a highly photographed subject! I feel privileged to have been present at the creation of such a masterpiece!!
Thanks so much, Melanie.
What a beautiful photo this is! I appreciate the thought and foresight that went into acquiring these swirls as I recently tried to photograph leaf movement in water. They did not cooperate with a beautiful swirl, but had some crazy movement and hesitation that gave me a “throw away” photo. It’s all fun, though, and I WILL be trying again to get a “Gary Hart” swirl!
Thanks, Arlene. I find that when the movement is due to current, there tends to be a pattern (but sometimes it takes awhile to manifest), but when it’s caused by wind, it seems pretty random.
So, what I learned from reading your description of the amazing image with the foam swirls is… “Do what I do, not what I say…” Next time I’m on one of your workshops, I will be sticking close. 😉