It’s All a Blur: Deer Creek Fall

Gary Hart Photography: On the Rocks, Deer Creek Fall, Grand Canyon

On the Rocks, Deer Creek Fall, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIII
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
Breakthrough 6-stop ND
5 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

Do I have a favorite place to in the Grand Canyon? Difficult to say, but I definitely have a shortlist, and Deer Creek Fall is on it. Of course this beautiful waterfall is right on the river and far from a secret, so it’s often overrun by other rafting trips (in general the bottom of the Grand Canyon is wonderfully not crowded, but people do tend to congregate at certain spots). Having done this trip six times now, I (with the help of my guides) have learned the timing to minimize or eliminate the people at these popular spots.

This year we found one other group enjoying Deer Creek Fall, but it wasn’t long before they pushed off and we had it to ourselves. In addition to many nice views at river level, there are some great scenes above the fall. The trail to the slot canyon that feeds the fall is steep, with a few spots that require a little non-technical climbing to get to the next level, but the payoff makes the effort worth it. The view of the river and Grand Canyon is (cliché alert) breathtaking, and from there a short trek through a beautiful slot canyon opens to an emerald oasis called “The Patio.” I’ve made the hike to the Patio once, but was kind of unnerved by a 20-foot stretch of 2-foot wide trail carved into a vertical wall and vowed not to do it again (give me something to hold onto and I could stand on top of Mt. Everest, but Alex Honnold I’m not).

Despite the threat of rain, I joined a handful of hikers in my group who followed a couple of our guides through the creek and up the trail. My plan was to stick with them to the view right before the slot canyon entrance, but after stopping briefly to photograph this scene, I climbed up nearby rocks to chase the group and immediately found more photo-worthy scenes overlooking the fall. The cloud cover created such wonderful light, I decided to forego the hike in favor of new photo opportunities.

After 30-minutes photographing Deer Creek Fall from a series of elevated ledges, I scrambled back down to my original river level scene. I’d rushed it earlier and wanted more quality time here. I worked it for another half hour before moving to other views of the fall. Here I used a 5-second exposure that blurred the water in the fall and nearby cascade, and which also captured a small swirl of foam near the rocks.

Full disclosure: My shutter speed options were limited by the fact that I’d departed for this trip thinking that my 82mm polarizer was in its normal place, affixed to my Sony 16-35 GM lens, but it turned out that what I thought was a polarizer was actually my Breakthrough 6-stop neutral density polarizing filter—the polarizer was in a pocket back home. Oops. So to get the polarization I wanted, I had no choice but to use the ND filter, which prevented me from capturing anything but extreme motion blur.

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Here’s my just-updated Photo Tips article on photographing motion


Motion

Fern Cascade, Russian Gulch Fall, Russian Gulch State Park (Mendocino), California

Fern Cascade, Russian Gulch Fall, Russian Gulch State Park (Mendocino), California

True story

I once had a photographer tell me that he didn’t like blurred water images because they’re “not natural.” The conversation continued something like this:

Me: “So how would you photograph that waterfall?”

Misguided Photographer: “I’d use a fast shutter speed to freeze the water.”

Me: “And you think that’s more natural than blurred water?”

Misguided Photographer: “Of course.”

Me: “And how many times have you seen water droplets frozen in midair?”

Misguided Photographer: “Uhhh….”

Photographic reality

The truth is, “natural” is a target that shifts with perspective. Humans experience the world as a 360 degree, three-dimentional, multi-sensory reel that unfolds in an infinite series of connected instants that our brain seamlessly processes as quickly as it comes in. But the camera discards 80 percent of the sensory input, limits the view to a rectangular box, and compresses those connected instants into a single, static frame. In other words, it’s impossible for a camera to duplicate human reality—the sooner photographers get that, the sooner they can get to work on expressing the world using their camera’s very different but quite compelling reality.

Despite the creative opportunities in their hands (or on their tripod), many photographers expend a great deal of effort trying to force their cameras closer to human reality (HDR, focus blending, and so on)—not inherently wrong, but in so doing they miss opportunities to reveal overlooked aspects of our complex natural world. Subtracting the distractions from the non-visual senses, controlling depth of focus, and banishing unwanted elements to the world outside the frame, a camera can distill a scene to its overlooked essentials, offering perspectives that are impossible in person.

Motion

A still image can’t display actual motion, but it can convey the illusion of motion that, among other things, frees the viewer’s imagination and establishes the scene’s mood. While nothing like our experience of the world, a camera can freeze the extreme chaos of a single instant, or combine a series of instants into a blur that conveys a pattern of motion.

Combining creative vision and technical skill, a photographer chooses where on the continuum that connects these extremes of motion will fall: The sudden drama of a crashing wave, or the soothing calm of soft surf; the explosive power of a plunging river, or the silky curves of tumbling cascades. Or perhaps someplace in the midrange of the motion continuum, stopping the action enough that discrete elements stand out, but not so much that a sense of flow is lost.

Blurred water

One question I’m quite frequently asked is, “How do I blur water?” And while there’s no magic formula, no shutter speed threshold beyond which all water blurs, blurring water isn’t that hard (as long as you use a tripod). In fact, when you photograph in the full shade or cloudy sky conditions I prefer, it’s usually more difficult to freeze moving water than it is to blur it (which is why I have very few images of water drops suspended in midair).

In addition to freezing motion or revealing a pattern of motion, an often overlooked opportunity is the smoothing effect a long exposure has on choppy water. I photograph at a lot of locations known for their reflections, but sometimes I arrive to find a wind has stirred the water into a disorganized, reflection-thwarting frenzy. In these situations a long exposure can smooth the chop, allowing the reflection to come through. Rather than the mirror reflection I came for, I get an ethereal, gauzy effect that still captures the reflection’s color and shape.

The amount of water motion blur you get depends on several variables:

  • The water’s speed—the faster the water, and (especially) the more whitewater (green water, no matter how fast it’s moving, doesn’t usually display a lot of motion blur), the greater the blur
  • Your focal length—the longer the focal length, the greater the blur
  • Your distance from the water—the closer the water, the greater the blur
  • And of course, the shutter speed—the longer your shutter is open, the greater the blur

Of these variables, it’s shutter speed that gets the most attention. That’s because focal length and subject distance are compositional considerations, and we usually don’t start thinking about blurring the water until after we have our composition. (This is as it should be—when composition doesn’t trump motion, the result is often a gimmicky image without much soul.)

You have several tools at your disposal for reducing the light reaching your sensor (and thereby lengthening your shutter speed), each with its advantages and disadvantages:

  • Don’t even think about any kind of subject blur without a sturdy tripod. For help selecting the right tripod, read the Tripod Selection article in my Photo Tips section.
  • Reducing ISO: Since you’re probably already at your camera’s native ISO (usually 100), this option often isn’t available. Some cameras allow you to expand the ISO below the native value, usually down to ISO 50. That extra stop of shutter duration you gain comes with a (very) slight decrease in image quality—most obvious to me as about 1/3 stop of dynamic range lost.
  • Shrinking your aperture (larger f-stop value): A smaller aperture also buys you more depth of field, but it also increases diffraction. Also, lenses tend to be less sharp at their most extreme apertures, so as a general rule, I resist going with an aperture smaller than f11 unless it’s necessary. That said, I often find myself shooting at f16 (and only very rarely smaller), but it’s always a conscious choice after eliminating all other options  for reducing light (or it’s a mistake, something I’m not immune to).
  • Adding a polarizing filter: In addition to reducing reflections, a polarizer will subtract 1 to 2 stops of light (depending on its orientation). When using a polarizer you need to be vigilant about orienting it each time you recompose (especially if you change your camera’s horizontal/vertical orientation), and monitoring its effect on the rest of your scene.
  • Adding a neutral density filter: A neutral density filter is, as its name implies, both neutral and dense. Neutral in that it doesn’t alter the color of your image; dense in that it cuts the amount of light reaching your sensor. While a dark enough ND filter might allow you to blur water on even the brightest of days, it does nothing for the other problems inherent to midday, full sunlight shooting. ND filters come in variable and fixed-stop versions—the flexibility of variable NDs (the ability to dial the amount of light up and down) means living with the vignetting they add to my wide angle images.
Gary Hart Photography: Before the Sun, South Tufa, Mono Lake

Before Sunrise, South Tufa, Mono Lake
Here a 3-second exposure smoothed a wind-induced chop and restored the reflection.

Because blurring water depends so much on the amount of light reaching your sensor, I can’t emphasize too much the importance of actually understanding metering and exposure, and how to manage the zero-sum relationship between shutter speed, aperture (f-stop), and ISO.

Read my Exposure basics Photo Tips article

Bracketing for motion

Back in the film days, we used to bracket (multiple clicks of the same scene with minor adjustments) for exposure. But in today’s world of improved dynamic range and pre- and post-capture histograms, exposure bracketing is (or at least should be) limited to photographers who blend multiple exposures. Today I only bracket for scene changes that will give me a variety of images to choose between later.

Often my scene bracketing is for depth of field, as I run a series of clicks with a range of f-stops, then decide later whether I want a little or a lot of DOF. But my most frequent use of scene bracketing is to capture a variety of water motion effects. I start by finding a composition I like, then adjust my shutter speed (compensating for the exposure change with ISO and/or f-stop changes) to get different motion blur.

River and stream whitewater is usually (but not always) fairly constant, so my adjustments are usually just to vary the amount of motion blur. But when I’m photographing waves, the timing of the waves is as important as the motion blur. It helps to stand back and observe the waves for a while to get a sense for any patterns. Watching the direction of the waves and the size of the approaching swells not only allows me to time my exposures more efficiently, it also keeps me safe (and dry).

Star motion

Few images validate the power of the camera’s unique vision better than a scene etched with the parallel arcs of rotating stars (yes, I know it’s not actually the stars that are rotating). Nothing like human reality, the camera’s view of the night sky is equal parts beautiful and revealing. (Can you think of a faster, more effective way to demonstrate Earth’s rotation than a star trail image?)

Here are the factors that determine the amount of stellar motion:

  • Exposure duration: The longer your shutter is open, the more motion your sensor captures.
  • Focal length: Just as it is with terrestrial subjects, a longer focal length shrinks the range of view and magnifies the stars that remain.
  • Direction of composition: Compositions aimed toward the North or South Poles will display less star motion than compositions aimed toward the celestial equator. That’s because, due to Earth’s rotation on its axis (an imaginary, infinite line skewering our North and South Poles), everything in the sky rotates 360 degrees in, around the poles, in 24 hours. But even though every star rotates the same number of degrees in any given period (seconds, minutes, hours, or whatever), the stars travel different distances in that same period: The farther a star is from the axis of rotation (the North or South Pole), the more visual distance covers to complete its circuit (it appears to move faster). This is clear to see when you realize that the farther a star is from one of the poles, the longer its arc is in a star trail image.
Star Trails, Desert View, Grand Canyon

Star Trails, Desert View, Grand Canyon National Park

As with water motion, you can choose between a long exposure that exaggerates stellar motion, or a shorter exposure that freezes the stars in place to display a more conventional night sky (albeit with more stars than our eyes can discern).

Read more in my Starlight photography Photo Tips article

Freezing motion

The other end of the motion continuum is stopping it in its tracks with an exposure of extremely short duration. Sometimes simply to avoid blurring something that should be stationary, like flowers or leaves. But just as a long exposure can blur water to reveal patterns in its motion that aren’t visible to the unaided eye, using a short exposure to freeze a fast moving or ephemeral subject freezing can reveal detail that happens too fast for the unaided eye to register.

Stopping motion in an image often requires exposure compromises, such as a larger than ideal aperture or ISO, or removing a polarizer. In my landscape world, f-stop rules all, so I won’t compromise my f-stop unless it’s truly irrelevant—for example, when everything in the scene is at infinity at all f-stops. And I’m reluctant to remove a polarizer because its effect, even when small, can’t be duplicated in Photoshop. Fortunately, compromising ISO is relatively painless given today’s digital cameras stellar high ISO capabilities.

Wind-blown leaves, breaking surf, and plummeting waterfalls examples of detail that can be frozen in the act, but my favorite example of an instant frozen in time is a lightning strike. Lightning comes and goes so fast that the human experience of it is always just a memory—it’s gone before we register its existence. Read how to photograph lighting in my Lightning article in the Photo Tips section of my blog.

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So what’s the point?

In the static world of a photograph, it’s up to the photographer to  to create a sense of motion. Sometimes we achieve this with lines that lead the eyes through the scene, but even more powerful is an image that uses motion to tap its viewers imagination. Whether it’s freezing an instant, or connecting a series of instants in a single frame, the way you handle motion in your scene is a creative choice that’s enabled by your creative vision and technical skill.

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A gallery of motion

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

 

Grand Canyon garden spot

Gary Hart Photography: Nature's Garden, Deer Creek Fall, Grand Canyon

Nature’s Garden, Deer Creek Fall, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/3 second
F/20
ISO 400

Who knew there could be so much intimate beauty in a location known for its horizon stretching panoramas? In fact, there are so many of these little gems that I run out of unique adjectives to describe them. Springing from a narrow slot in the red sandstone to plummet 180 feet to river level, Deer Creek Fall is probably the most dramatic of the many waterfalls we see on the raft trip.

Last year we stayed at Deer Creek Fall long enough to photograph it, but not long enough to explore. The prior year, on my first trip, we spent a couple of hours here; with temperatures in the 90s, most of the group photographed from the bottom, then cooled off in the emerald pool at its base. But a few of us took the relatively short, fairly grueling, completely unnerving trail to the top. Grueling because the route is carved into the sun-exposed sheer wall just downstream from the fall; unnerving because just as you’re catching your breath atop the slot canyon feeding the fall, you realize that continuing requires navigating about 20 feet of 18 inch wide ledge in the otherwise vertical sandstone. With no handhold and a 75 foot drop to the creek that may as well be 750 or 7500 feet (the outcome would be the same), I studied it for about five minutes. Watching the guides stride boldly across without hesitation, in flip-flops, did little to quell my anxiety. I finally sucked it up and made it to the other side, but once was enough.

This year, thanks to some deft planning by our lead guide, we scored the campsite directly across the river from the fall. He deposited the group at the fall, then motored across the river with another guide to get the camp started. The two other guides led a hearty group up the trail to the top, while the rest of us explored with our cameras at river level.

Already familiar with scenes down there, I scaled a boulder-strewn notch in the rocks just upstream to an elevated platform with great top-to-bottom view of the fall. Up here I found enough foreground options to keep me happy for the duration of our stay, and was so engrossed that I was completely unfazed by the verticality of my surroundings.

As I worked the scene, I eventually honed in on a vivid green shrub that stood out against the red sandstone, ultimately landing on variations of the composition you see here. Working this scene I dealt with intermittent showers, a fickle wind that ranged from nearly calm to frustratingly persistent, and a real desire for depth of field throughout my frame. After a number of frames at f16, I magnified an image on my LCD enough to see that the shrub was sharp, but the background was just nearly sharp. As much as I try to avoid anything smaller than f16, I stopped down to f20 and refocused a little farther back, about three feet behind my shrub. Another check of my LCD confirmed that everything from the nearby rocks to the background plants was sharp.

Our campsite that night was less than spacious (think compact condo living as opposed to sprawling suburban subdivisions), but definitely worth the close confines for the view alone. This stay across from Deer Creek Fall turned out to be memorable for one other event that happened later that evening, but that’s a story for another day….

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A Gallery of Waterfalls

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

Inside the Grand Canyon: The Great Unconformity

Deer Creek Fall, Grand Canyon

Deer Creek Fall, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
19 mm
1.6 seconds
F/16
ISO 100

When we think of the Grand Canyon we tend to visualize expansive vistas, but it takes getting down to the canyon’s foundation to see how incomplete those notions are. Every day on the river our raft group was treated to an assortment of layered rock, turquoise pools, polished slot canyons, and plunging waterfalls that reminded us of nature’s complexity. More than simply beauty, these little gems helped all of us appreciate the intricate, inexorable processes that formed the Grand Canyon, and that are constantly work across our planet.

Deer Creek Fall lands less than a stone’s throw from the Colorado River. Not only is it pleasing to the eye, Deer Creek Fall provides a great opportunity to understand the some to Grand Canyon’s extremely complex geology. Most of the red rock you see in this image is Tapeats Sandstone, deposited beneath an ancient sea over 500 million years ago. This rock wasn’t exposed until the region was uplifted and carved by the Colorado River, most likely in the last 5 million years (that timing is still subject to debate).

What’s most intriguing to me here is the red granite, an intrusive igneous rock injected beneath the Earth’s surface about 1.7 billion years ago. But near the top of the fall are the discernible layers of sandstone. When we see two types of rock immediately adjacent to each other, it’s easy to forget what that interface represents. In this case we have 1.7 billion year old granite underlying 550 million year-old sandstone. What’s missing is 1.2 billion years of geological history. Dubbed the “Great Unconformity” by early Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell, over a billion years of Earth history was erased by processes we can only infer by observing other geological features nearby, or similar rock deposited elsewhere.

To comprehend how long 1.2 billion years is, and all that could have happened during those missing years, consider erosional (wind and water) and uplift (volcanoes and continental collisions) processes that add or subtract just one foot of elevation every thousand years—a little more than an inch every 100 years. (The San Andreas Fault races along 10 times that fast, at an average of about 12 feet every 100 years.) Do the math—at a foot every thousand years, 1.2 billion years would be long enough for a mountain range the elevation of the Sierra Nevada (14,000 feet) to rise and completely erode to sea level over 40 times.

Just a little perspective for the next time you think your barista is taking too long with your latte.

About this image

Unlikely as it may appear in the arid Grand Canyon landscape, Deer Creek Fall springs like a magic fountain from red sandstone, dropping over 100 feet and scurrying into the nearby Colorado River. The jade green pool beneath the fall, echoing with a jet engine roar and fringed with mist, was a refreshing elixir to our weary band of adventurers.

We pulled up here toward the end of our fourth day of careening through a seemingly endless series of intense rapids (with harmless sounding names like Ruby and Lower Tuna), making the opportunity to recharge in Deer Creek Fall’s cool-but-not-cold pool a welcome respite. Some in the group hiked to the top of the serpentine slot canyon feeding the fall (a story for another day), others danced in a rainbow beneath the fall.

Direct sunlight made photography difficult at first, but by the time I returned from the hike to the top the entire fall was in shade and I went to work. I started on the left side, looking straight up from as close as the spray allowed me. I soon crossed the creek and move a little farther back. When I was done I set down my gear and hopped in the pool beneath the fall for a most welcome shower. We were back on the river a few minutes later, refreshed and giddy about our good fortune to have witnessed this natural marvel up close.

I’m doing it all over again in 2015 (May 11-18)—contact me if you’d like to join me. 

Deer Creek Canyon, Grand Canyon

Deer Creek Canyon, Grand Canyon (above the fall)

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