"Spring Flooding" | Landscape Photography | Tutorial

I've had some fellow photographers ask me how I go about shooting and editing my images, so I decided that I'd make a small tutorial so-to-speak out of this morning's photoshoot at Diana's Pool in Chaplin, CT.  I've shot at this location many many times, but all of which have been at times of low water.  I knew that with all the snow-melt and rain we've had in the last week, the water would be significantly higher than I've ever witnessed there.  I've also only shot this location during the afternoon and evening, but never at sunrise.  So I woke up early and headed on over, knowing last night's dusting of snow wouldn't last too long.

 

First things first, here's a short iPhone-video of how the "stream" looked, from approximately where I set up. 

 

As you can see, quite a bit of water was raging through here.  See that rock? The one in the middle of the water? I've set up and shot on that rock in the summer months.  Crazy, right?!  Anyway, I knew I wanted to shoot wide, as I wanted to include the foreground rocks, the water (in a diagonal line through the frame), and then the far side rocks/ice/snow in the top of the frame. I decided to place my tripod on this particular rock as it was the one that projected the furthest into the stream.  

 

First step? Set up the tripod and nail the composition.  I've found that, recently, I have become much more aware of my composition in camera--I do much less cropping in post processing, and I think my images are that much stronger because of it.  

 

Why the spikes?  Much of the rock was ice from the spray, so they were necessary to hold the tripod legs in place.  

Essential pieces of gear in this shot?  

  • The spikes, for the reason listed above.  
  • The Vello Shutterboss, as it makes remote triggering effortless.  I've even completely, and accidentally, submerged the remote in a tide-pool, and it still works!
  • Really Right Stuff L-Bracket.  I went for the longest time without an L-Bracket, and now that I have one, I can't ever imagine shooting landscapes without one.  They make mounting and orientation-changes effortless and quick. 
  • Lee Filters.  You should know by now my addiction to the Lee Filters 100mm system.  Keep reading and I'll shortly explain which ones I used and what kind of effect they had on the image.    

Now onto the image itself.  Here's a test-frame, unfiltered and with automatic settings.

See that incredibly bright spot in the upper right? See all the glare on the rocks in the foreground? See all the glare on the surface of the water? We'll fix that, in two simple steps. But first, a note on the composition. I've broken this image into diagonal thirds: 1st is the foreground in the bottom right corner, 2nd is the water itself, and the third is the far bank and trees upriver.  For some reason, the idea of thirds appeals to us aesthetically, and I've found myself framing images in this manner, often subconsciously.  

 

How do we fix the over-exposed sky in the upper right? Add some graduated neutral density filters!  Now, how do I choose which ones?  When I first started using ND Grads, I'd use the built in meter in my camera to meter the sky, meter the foreground, and then go from there.  As of late, I've become able to approximate the exposure difference quite well, and can often get it right within two tries.  For this, I knew it'd be a significant difference, and the first one I added was the 0.9GND Soft.  Why soft?  There's no clean line in terms of the over-exposed to properly-exposed bits, so a hard-edged grad makes no sense.  Soft it is.  I added the 0.9, and found that there were still a few spots of blown highlights in the sky, so I ended up adding a second filter, this time the 0.3 GND Soft.  Below you can see what the same frame looks like with both grads applied.  It's near perfect!

You may ask "But Jake, how do you determine proper exposure when using filters?"  I've found the most foolproof and effective method to be using my histogram, as well as the "blinkies."  The blinkies are where the camera shows you where and what highlights are blown (I typically try to avoid this, and will sometimes even under-expose ever so slightly as to retain highlight detail.  The D800 has some incredible dynamic range, and I've found I have quite a bit more leeway when it comes to recovering highlight and shadow detail.)  But more importantly, I use the histogram.  Below are two separate histograms--the one on the left is the unfiltered image, and the one on the right is the filtered image.  Much improved!

Okay, so now we have an even exposure, a solid composition, but lots of reflections and glare.  Sometimes reflections add to an image, but here they are simply distracting.  How do we clean this up? Simple! Add the Lee 105mm Landscape Polarizer.  Why did I add this last, you ask? I find it easiest to place my GND's first, orient them as I'd like, then screw on the polarizer and adjust to taste.  Below is the final image, with all three filters, but no post processing.  

This time, the exposure has changed a bit.  The Landscape Polarizer cuts about 1 stop of exposure, but I also altered the settings to get them more in line with how I wanted the image to look.  When I first began landscape photography, I was all about long long exposures in this type of setting.  But I've come to realize that super-smooth silky water isn't always the best way of shooting.  In this image, I wanted to convey the rapid and strong water movement, and an exposure longer than say a second would have made that impossible.  The final exif is as follows: 16mm, f18, 0.4sec, and ISO 500.  As you can see, I had to bump the ISO up quite a bit to retain a large dof while maintaining that shorter exposure that I wanted.  Thankfully the D800 has super-clean RAW files at 500, so I didn't have to worry.  

Now, on to post-processing:  I'm not going to bother showing you exactly what value each slider had in Lightroom, as no two images are alike and copy and pasting settings from one to the next means little.  But in general, I've found that I really like the look and feel of cool and desaturated post-processing, especially on water/rock shots with snow and ice.  I think it helps maintain the mood of the cold air and water, which is important. I boosted the shadows, knocked back the highlights, increased clarity, selectively cooled the temperature of the water (the tannins and iron in New England's fresh water leads to heavily browned water, which doesn't always fit the final image I have in mind, so I often desaturate/cool the water in post-processing).  I added some moderate contrast in the curves, removed the slight barrel distortion and vignetting that the 16-35 has, added some sharpness, and a few other minor edits.  This is full-frame, and un-cropped.  Notice any vignetting from the filters? Neither do I! (Likely the BEST attribute of the Lee 100mm system, wide angle adapter, and landscape polarizer--nothing beats being able to polarize and ND a 16mm full frame image without fear of vignetting!)

"Spring Flooding"

 

Full Gear List:

  • Induro CT214 Carbon Fiber tripod legs, with optional spikes and ELC2 short center column. 
  • Arca Swiss Monoball
  • Really Right Stuff BD800-L L Bracket
  • Nikon D800
  • Nikon 16-35 f4 VRII
  • Lee 77mm wide-angle adapter ring
  • Lee Foundation Kit with 2 filter slots and the optional 105mm front accessory ring.
  • Lee 0.9 and 0.3 GND soft
  • Lee 105mm Landscape Polarizer
  • Vello RCW-N1 Wireless ShutterBoss
  • Sandisk 16gb Extreme Pro SD memory card
  • Sandisk 16gb Extreme CF memory card

I hope this helps in terms of understanding how I approach and execute a landscape shoot.  It's not always simple, sometimes I spend hours finding the right composition, and sometimes the light just isn't there.  But today, that wasn't the case.  The composition was right, the light was perfect, and the water was exactly what I had hoped.  The image I had in my head when I went to bed last night is the image you see above.  If you have any further questions, please don't hesitate to ask me here in the comments section, on Facebook & Instagram, or in email (jake@redskiesphotography.com).

 

Jake