Five tips for photographing waterfalls

Two days ago I went to the Hunua Falls and was inspired to write this post. Waterfalls aren’t my favourite subject and it’s easy to make dull photos of them, but a few simple techniques will give your photos a lift.

Click here to see more photos from the falls.

1: Include a person for scale

Put your thumb over the man in the photo below and your sense of the waterfall’s height disappears. Part of telling the story of your visit to a waterfall is showing viewers how high the waterfall was and the simplest way to do this is to include a person, preferably one who is the same distance from the camera as the waterfall is. Including people in landscapes also gives viewers an emotional connection with the image.

Mandeno Moments: Hunua Falls &emdash;

2: Get wet

If you have a waterproof camera or an underwater housing such as a Dicapac you may be able to get close to base of the waterfall and make a photo that is different enough to arouse the viewer’s interest. For the shot below I was one step away from swimming and about ten feet away from the waterfall. There was so much water in the air that I was looking around for the soap.

Mandeno Moments: Hunua Falls &emdash;

3: Frame it

Vegetation can be a nice soft frame around your waterfall. Having some in the foreground gives the photo a sense of depth.

Mandeno Moments: Hunua Falls &emdash;

4: Include interaction

When people stand and point at the waterfall there is interaction between the people and the scenery which ties the elements of the photo together. This is much more interesting than having people who are just standing there (compare with the example above at “Include a person for scale”).

Mandeno Moments: Hunua Falls &emdash;

5: Experiment with motion blur

If your camera will allow you set the shutter speed you can experiment with differing amounts of motion blur: having the shutter open for longer increases the degree of motion blur. You’ll need the Manual camera mode (you set the aperture and shutter speed. M on a mode dial) or Shutter Priority (you set the shutter speed and the camera sets the aperture. S or Tv on a mode dial). Generally you will need to use a tripod and the two second self timer in order to avoid camera shake.

How much motion blur is good? That’s a matter of taste. Personally, I don’t like the cotton wool look but I do like to have enough to make it obvious that the water is moving. For the photo below I used a shutter speed of 1/160, but this is only a rough guide because the same shutter speed will give different results when the speed of the water changes.

Note that the mono version of this photo give a stronger sense of motion than the colour version above does. This happens because mono emphasises light/shadow, shape, and texture: shape and texture convey motion blur, so mono often strengthens the message that motion blur gives to the viewers.

Mandeno Moments: Hunua Falls &emdash;


Warbirds and the art in the plane

I was given an opportunity to photograph some Warbirds, which are historic aircraft. I didn’t want to create a bunch of boring record shots, rather I wanted to make photos that even people who aren’t interested in planes could enjoy. Planes are often curvaceous creatures that have all sorts of interesting shapes and patterns, so they have great photographic potential. It’s impossible to precisely describe my methodology, but it goes something like this: forget that it’s a plane and instead look at light and shadow, shape, colour, patterns, and reflections. When we can see those things we can see the art in the plane.

Click on the photo to see more art in the plane.


Using corners in sports photography

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Recently I made some photos of kids who were practising for the Weet-Bix Tryathlon, which is a light-hearted triathlon for kids. The kids were using the actual course, and before they got started I went to look for shooting positions. Today we’ll look at what I chose for the cycling and running.

It pays to be realistic and there was virtually no hope of creating “arty” photos in the conditions that I found, although I’m always on the lookout for such opportunities. My primary goals were (1) to get some nice snaps for the kids and their families and (2) to show movement in those photos.  Thankfully it was heavily overcast, which is much better than full sun.

Cycling

Basically I wanted a corner with a plain background. When something in a photo has the potential to fall it adds life to a photo, and having the kids leaning into a corner would provide this even if they were too slow for motion blur.

Let’s start with a “bad” example. This girl’s family will probably like this photo, but it’s very static and it looks as if the bike is bolted to the ground:

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Let’s look at a three good examples. The driveway in the background gives a sense of depth, as does the layering caused by the shrub on the right. These shots deliver a sense of movement:

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This is a race of sorts, but the photos above don’t tell us this because they only show a single cyclist, and for all we the viewers know he could be out for a solo jaunt. See how having more than one cyclist in the frame makes the photo to tell a story that is closer to the reality of the situation:

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Running

The kids had to run a loop around a sports field, then go over a low footbridge before turning hard left to the finish. They had to turn as soon as they came off the bridge and I figured that this turn would produce some interesting body positions. Also, the bridge was a choke point so I knew that every kid would pass in front of my shooting position. The background wasn’t ideal, but was okay when blurred.

I sat on the grass between the bridge and the finish. Sitting was a lot more comfortable for a long spell, and an unusual viewpoint adds interest to a photo (adults aren’t used to looking up at kids so when the camera is below a child’s eye line you have an unusual viewpoint). This position also meant that the kids would be looking towards the camera when cornering. When heavy rain showers came through I impersonated a mushroom by putting an umbrella up for the duration.

First, the “bad” example:

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Those two are running in a straight line and, although their families will probably like the shot, it’s nothing special. I do like the rain, which is hard to see at this size.

The contortions of cornering have a lot more visual interest:

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A final tip

Don’t switch off your brain and your camera when the sports is over. The athletes gathered at the gear dump point after they’d done all the hard work and I saw an opportunity for rounding out the story with candid shots of relaxed kids. In anticipation (a very important skill in photojournalism) I swapped the telephoto I had been using for a standard lens and this was the result:

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Street Sleeper

I do like a good juxtaposition, and they don’t get much better than this.

Street Sleeper

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A juxtaposition occurs when you place side-by-side two objects that wouldn’t normally be seen together. Doing so emphasises the properties of each object by contrasting it with the other. Imagine that you’re at a fashion show, watching (allegedly) glamorous models striding down the catwalk: after seeing the fiftieth fancy outfit they all start to blur together and none stands out. Suddenly, a car mechanic dressed in oily overalls appears in the middle of the line of models and strolls along with them. Now you are acutely aware of the fancy femininity of the models’ outfits because when they are juxtaposed with plain, dirty overalls your senses are awakened. Moreover, you notice the overalls far more than you do when you walk into a garage, and you’re likely to think about the differences between the lifestyles of models and mechanics. The juxtaposition has made you much more aware of the nature of models and the nature of mechanics, and done so on more than one level. If you made a photo that showed the mechanic among the models the juxtaposition would make the viewers engage with the photo, i.e. spend longer looking at it. To put it another way, the photo would be far, far more interesting than one of models on a catwalk. Successful (i.e. appealing) photos are ones that people emotionally engage with and spend time looking at, and a juxtaposition can make a photo successful.


Portraiture: learning from the Mona Lisa

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Framing in portraiture

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DPS has an article which is well worth reading. I added a comment to the article which I would like to draw to your attention:

“Here’s how one artist reproduced the Mona Lisa with the extra columns”

It’s interesting to note four things about this reproduction:

1) The “in focus” background is much less pleasant than the original (this subject is covered in the article)

2) The tones are repulsive and sickly. The original (as shown here) has unnatural but warm, pleasant tones: I generally prefer realism, but this reminds me that unrealistic photos can be pleasant. Photographers will benefit from learning which tones are pleasant and which are unpleasant: when photographing people warm (reddish) tones such as light from a sunset are a safe bet (set white balance to Daylight to preserve those sunset tones).

3) The shape of the face, particularly the mouth and nose, makes the subject unattractive. The lower forehead is less pleasant than the original’s. The human mind is drawn to faces in a photo and they are often a make-or-break factor.

4) The subject’s hand that is on the viewer’s left looks claw-like and somewhat creepy. This reminds me that hands are an important factor in photos (the subject is too large to cover in a comment).

The article mentions the idea that the Mona Lisa was originally framed by pillars and with this post I’ve included two examples of framing in portraiture.


It washed the spider out

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This photo was made for a weather website rather than for an artistic purpose, but it’s growing on me. The car gives scale and splash while the dark background makes the rain stand out. The car and tree give framing and help to keep your eye in the photo, while the diagonal lines of the rain give life and movement. I like the way that the rain is parallel to the windshield, while the car gives the photo a solid base. The car’s more-or-less-neutral colour is good; a red car would have pulled your eye away from the rain.

You’re probably thinking “Why do I need to know this when I don’t take photos for weather websites?”. Well, a good way to approach holiday photography is to think of it as a photo essay, a story in pictures. If you’re on holiday and want to illustrate adverse conditions the best method is to get your family dancing in the rain while you take photos. Failing that you can use this method and add another chapter to your narrative.

Click here to see more foul weather photos


A technique with no name

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Jeff & Penny Vann

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The photos in this post show a technique that I’ve never seen a name for, and the nearest I can get is to say that it’s a form of photojournalism.

The couple that you see in these photos had been pastors at my church for 11 months and were about to return to the USA. I was taking photos of their final service, which was an emotional occasion for them and for others. I saw Jeff and Penny holding hands and realised that the words of the songs fitted beautifully with the visual display of relationship so I moved in behind them. I prefer the right hand shot because the lower camera position reduces distractions and as a viewer I’m seeing what the subjects see. The foliage behind Penny’s head is regrettable, but if I’d moved the camera to the left you, the viewer, wouldn’t have been looking along Jeff and Penny’s line of vision. Moving the foliage was not an option in the middle of a church service :(.

For me these photos hammer home a simple “rule”: always maintain situational awareness. To put it another way, avoid target fixation and be aware of what is happening in the vicinity. I find that it’s all to easy to focus on one subject or on getting one shot and thereby miss out on other photo opportunities. I have to make an effort to pull away from the camera and look around me, because doing so often results in seeing something else that will make a great photo.

I don’t regard these as great shots but I love the way that the words sounds like Jeff and Penny speaking and connect the subjects to their environment. I also like the way that the photos transmit a combination of visual and textual messages.

I’m going to have to think of a name for this technique. How about “environment-subject connective method”? Yes, a snappy name like that is bound to catch on.


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