My video guy keeps advising me “You need to keep telling people what you are up to, what your strategy is for capturing images". So, since he has ingrained these statements and the word "strategy" into my head, I thought it would be a good idea to blog about the strategy I used to capture my new image ‘Fantasy Falls’ from beautiful Proxy Falls, Oregon.
My goal with this first blog is to share my strategic thinking when in the field; and to share how I got this particular image. I hope it is a help and aid to up and coming or struggling landscape photographers. I know how hard it is to work your way up in your skill sets without a teacher to work with you side by side. Landscape Photography, unlike some art forms, is a solitary man or woman’s endeavor. Sure you can take classes, but the real learning and perfecting of one’s shills happens in the field. I hope this blog site will be a teacher and help to you.
I don’t know but I sometimes think photographers might be too competitive, too insecure, too selfish or probably, and most likely, just too busy to share their techniques. I know I can be too competitive, sometimes insecure, often times selfish, but more often than not, I am just too busy as well. But then I remember back to my first days behind the camera and how often I wished for a mentor to be by my side. Oftentimes I will remember how hard it was to find someone out there to give me advice when I was struggling through those first years behind the lens or working behind the computer to process my images; and generally when I remember this the better part of me wins! At least it does here, so let’s get straight to sharing it. This first blog is short, sweet and to the point. I hope you enjoy the learning journey.
A hand full of weeks ago I was finishing a 7 day photography tour/workshop. Both my client and I were exhilarated and a little fatigued from all the travel and the massive amounts of adrenalin flowing through us as we had chased and captured "wild light" (my particular passion) all over the great state of Oregon. Last on our list (but certainly not least) was the great Proxy Falls. I love to end with a bang! For those who have never seen Proxy Falls up close and personal, and have been limited to mere photographs of the place, well, let me tell you, this place is simply astonishing! On arrival at the magnificent scene my client could not stop saying "Oh my God!" Who could blame him? But let’s forget that for now, we need to get on with the show of "strategy."
We both sat in my truck at the trail head and my client asked me "should we pack it all up and bring the chest waders?" My response may sound a bit peculiar. I simply said, "I don't know." He asked me why I didn't know and I told him, "Well, I think maybe I'm getting a little lazy." You would have to understand the sheer mileage we had done over the last 7 days to understand where I was coming from. On our journey we drove well over 1000 miles, hiked and shot nearly every major "pearl" location Oregon has to offer, and, upon arrival, were quite sleep deprived. Then I realized I had had a momentary lapse of judgement! As soon as I heard myself say this, I caught myself and immediately said, "We are here, so let’s go for it"! He agreed and off we went with our backpacks full of weighty gear!
Upon reaching the sight of glorious Proxy Falls I instantly felt like a new human being. Much like I think we should always feel when seeing incredible beauty all around us! Suddenly (as is usual) my energy levels went through the roof, and I was on a mission! My goal: I was going to get my client a truly killer shot of Proxy and I was going to attack that goal with everything I had. I would lead him into what it takes to get a great waterfall shot. As we reached the base of that humongous roaring falls (BTW photos make it look extremely small in comparison) I immediately began to change into my chest waders and over-sized boots. I think he could tell I was gearing up to go nuts, so after some quick hand snaps (with his jaw hanging down) he followed suit. Next is the spontaneous strategy I came up with for shooting the falls. One needs the ability to be spontaneous and think on your feet if you are going to shoot Landscape well (my personal opinion).
I decided to ditch all equipment (including my camera) and step right into the water. I was very intensely and carefully going to river trek the entire stream system, scouting up and down all main veins of water flowing down the hillside. I recommend waders, they allow you to literally walk in the water (up to chest level if necessary) and put your body wherever you want to, just be careful not to go under and make sure you have some hiking poles for extra support (I recommend Black Diamond carbon fiber to which a person can put all their weight on without them collapsing)!
I had the idea of a very bold vertical approach with the super wide angle, but wanted to find the absolute best spot to do it. We did this by slowly following the river up and putting our head and eyes where we thought we could get the best shot. I worked the scene to completion finding two great locations, both only inches from the water, and, of course, in quite precarious positions (you would have to know me to understand the “of course”). After spending some time following the river streams up and back down we then memorized our two locations With some pre-visualization (one needs a good imagination) going on in my head while scouting, I had no doubt they would be the best!
We grabbed our wide angle lenses (for me the Canon 16-35L2 with a critical circular polarizer to reduce the glare on the water) and then proceeded to put our tripods with cameras exactly at our two pre-arranged locations. I can’t over emphasize the value of the technique of ditching the tripod and using your camera with "live view" on, to put your camera into a whole new realm of freedom and compositional possibilities! I see many photographers walking around with their cameras already on their tripods even before they attempt shooting angles and positions. To say the least, that is extremely limiting! We went a step further to simply use our heads and eyes to find the ideal positions and then later we matched the camera up to those positions.
The next issue (aside from the minor issue of some of my camera equipment floating down the river) to deal with was getting the composition in the midst of enormous water splash coming from every direction. Not only that but protecting our cameras from ‘deluge demise’ as well as getting the shot without water all over our lenses! Sometimes my clients at this point say to me "are you sure about this?" My answer is always a confident and resounding "heck yeah!" “You want the shot don't you”? Then we dive in and get great work. But what they don't hear is that little voice in my brain saying "are you crazy Mark?!" I admit it. I am a little crazy once in a while about getting "wild light" but when you get home and pull those shots up on your computer to start working on them in raw, it all becomes worth it! What is even more than worth it is when someone gives you money to produce for them a world class fine art print, and they put that print boldly on the wall in their home and call you to tell you it is the most beautiful thing they have ever seen! What an awesome privileged service! But let’s get back to strategy!
So water is flying, the falls are roaring, adrenaline is pumping and you have to pull off the shot! Here is the quick version. Use live view to get the comp. Cover your camera with a glad bag or a rain sleeve (or be an idiot like me and let it get sopped with water and have to buy new ones once in a while). Figure out your f/stop. Figure out shutter speed. Bracket. Voila! No not really. Actually there is more to it than that. Here is the technique:
Get your composition through "live view." Figure out your settings. Then make sure you have a nifty ball-head set up that allows you to rotate your camera so it points awayfrom the falls (so you can wipe the lens off with a camera cloth). My Really Right Stuff ball-head actually makes this a snap, and even has numbers on it so when I turn the camera back around I can get the exact same composition again and again! Once your lens is dry, put your hand on front of it to protect it from splash (I use my right hand) then in your other hand have your cable release trigger ready to shoot. Carefully turn your camera back into position for shooting (again with your hand covering the face of your lens from water splash) and quickly and simultaneously lift your hand away from the lens and fire off your 3 bracketed shots!
For wide dynamic range shots like this waterfall maybe bracket + and - 2 stops or so. In very diffused gloomy day lighting 1 stop might work. Often I will include attempts in TV mode picking my favorite shutter speed for a specific water texture (in TV mode you chose the shutter speed and the camera chooses the f/stop accordingly). Immediately after shooting off your 3 auto bracketed shots, turn your camera back around toward you (again my Really Right Stuff ball-head swivels around effortlessly) wipe your lens off and once it is dry keep repeating the process until you are sure you have the shot (you have come a long way to not get it!)! Once finished with the location move on and keep working the scene until fatigue sets in or the favorable light disappears.
My client and I shot all afternoon at proxy until after sunset and hiked out in the dark. Of all the shots we took these were our favorites.
I hope this strategy helps someone out there acquire great waterfalls shots. Just make sure not to fall in, and when you do achieve the image(s) you are after perhaps you will share the technique with others...