By Dave ‘Scout’ Wortley
Part 2: Exposing the beauty
In part one, I looked at capturing fast action shots, freeze-framing action. This time I’m going to guide you through some of the artistic steps for making beautiful photos. Whenever I go kayaking somewhere I make it my mission to not only take nice photos of my friends pulling tricks or running waterfalls but also to capture a sense of the place itself. I’ve built up quite a collection of photos from paddling locations around the world and I have several of these printed out. It can make a disappointing journey to an almost empty river into a photographic adventure, a quick visit to somewhere without your boat into a real bonding experience with the river. I specialise in taking long-exposure landscapes of rivers and water. I enjoy exposing the mystery of shapes and flow lines that wouldn’t be obvious in a sharp image by smoothing out the fine droplets and splashes with long exposures. These photos are harder to take because they require a lot more time, they will take you lots of practice to get right and you need to learn to master post-production to really get the best from them..
You don’t want too much light, dawn or dusk are the best times or even under full moon-light like in my photo of the Falls of Falloch on a freezing cold winter’s night. You need to be able to leave your exposure open for anything from two up to 30 seconds and in the middle of the day you just can’t do this as the image will blow out unless you use an ND filter, which will reduce the amount of light coming into the camera and thus you can expose the image with a longer shutter speed.
Finding the right balance of exposure time depends entirely on the water, expose for too long and the water will be a thick blur, get it too short and it’ll look like it’s accidentally blurry or streaky. To get the right look does take time and judgement; you’ll want to try a few different shutter lengths, it will totally depend on the waterfall itself combined with the amount of light and your own taste with respect to combination. Take the time to experiment and see what works on the day.
I take a lot of panoramic long exposures, this means using a tripod to take a sequence of photos as I pivot the camera around. I always shoot with the camera in portrait orientation to give myself the biggest vertical field of view. It can take between six and ten shots to cover a wide landscape this way but it gives you a huge resolution for your final image.
Throwing these into Photoshop or Lightroom you can quickly stitch these together, but unless you’re really lucky with the lighting conditions the challenge has only just started. I do a lot of post-production on my photos, this skill has developed from my professional life working with extremely talented photo-retouchers. I’ve learned a huge amount and constantly find it interesting to push my own creative-eye and find a way to transform a photo. Simply adjusting the white-balance, dialling up and down the levels of shadows, highlights and bringing some clarity into the image can be enough.
I recently took a panorama at Asygarth Falls in Yorkshire, the river was very low but this didn’t stop me having a nice stroll along the falls for my first visit and spend time getting to know the drops through the lens before hopefully returning to run it in my 9R one day soon!
It was a bit of a grey day, there wasn’t any direct sunlight and it was getting on in the afternoon, which made capturing a long exposure without an ND possible but left the light quite lifeless and dull. At the lower Asygarth Falls I found a nice ledge to sit on, down close to the water, I always like to get as close as I can so there’s an element of foreground in the shot. I carefully positioned my tripod to frame up nicely and as it started to drizzle I quickly banked a series of five segments for a panoramic.
When starting the post-production process for my photos, I do some simple adjustments in Lightroom to remove distortions cause by wide-angle lenses, vignette, the shadowing around the edge of frame, chromatic aberration (the purple fringing that appears in high contrast wide images), and colour balance the images so they are all consistent. I process them out in 16-bit for greater control and allow Photoshop to do its magic stitching the separate photos together into one image.
I often work with a black and white correction on top until I’m happy with the levels of contrast in the image, without the distraction of colour you can really find the balance and make sure the focus is in the right point of the image (which would be where, in your opinion? What do you tend to focus on in your photos?). Sometimes there’s a little air-brushing required to darken down highlights on rocks so that they don’t pop out of the image, often I’ll darken the sky down as well so that the water is the brightest and most prominent thing in the image. I like to paint artistic vignettes in and force interest into the key areas, once I’m happy the contrast is correct, I then start looking at the colour balance.
Does the picture need more blue, do I need to remove some orange from the water, etc… This is a totally bespoke thing to the image and can take hours to perfect? Does the river or feature look better in natural colours, or could darkening it or using black and white add more drama to the final image? When you’re working with adjustments in Photoshop the most important thing is to use Adjustment Layers with masks so you can selectively make adjustments in different areas of the image. The key here is to be subtle by having a play around and experimenting. It’s not uncommon to have 30-50 adjustments on an image to make it work, but it will be well worth your time.
In your RAW processing settings make sure you write your images to 16-bit TIFFs, they will be much bigger in terms of file size but you’ll have much more control of the highlights and shadows in Photoshop than you would with a regular 8-bit JPEG.
To some people this level of manipulation may seem like cheating, but there are hardly any professional photographers out there who don’t do some form of colour correction afterwards; it’s always been a part of photography. Since the early days of film, mixing chemicals to get different results from developing negatives, pouring liquid into certain areas of the negative to dodge/burn areas, has been used to generate artistic effects by photographers back as far as Ansel Adams.
Almost every photo on Instagram has been subjected to some form of filter or adjustment, but to get truly epic photos, adjustments need to be refined and concentrated into different areas using masks. One of the nicest things about shooting panoramics in many portrait panels is that the resolution increases cumulatively so that you end up with a big image size when the parts have been stitched together, this means that they can be printed-out beautifully on large prints.
Keeping kit dry
A crucial consideration is to make sure that your kit stays dry whilst out on the river, you can get a cheap small light-weight tripod that you can stash in the back of your boat, but even just walking around the river bank is risky. I entrust my gear to a Watershed Ocoee bag that keeps my kit safe and dry. I always do it up properly, which saved my bacon when I tossed the bag up on to the bank at the very start of the Grand Canyon only to watch my camera bag roll straight off and drop into the river! A waterlogged camera would not have been a good start to a three-week trip!
I often get asked about what camera is best; the simple answer is that it really doesn’t matter. DSLRs come in all shapes and sizes and all with slightly different perks. Find what’s right for you, price wise and size-wise What is a million times more important than the camera itself is what lens you should buy. If you purchase a DSLR on the high-street today it’ll come with a kit-lens 18-55mm, which isn’t that good for kayaking as it doesn’t have much zoom and the lens is slow; no good for capturing fast action on flowing rivers. Even a cheap Tamron Lens like 70-300mm will allow you to get zoomed right in on the action and get much better shots. The best all-round lens I’ve seen lately is the Sigma 18-75mm… However, it is fairly heavy! Sacrificing lens quality, an 18-200mm lens will give you the ability to go from wide angle to zoomed in, which will be good most of the time for quick shots as you won’t have to faff around switching lenses on the river-bank.
There’s one more part of the puzzle that’s needed; and that’s how to understand all the technical settings on your camera. In the next part of this series I’ll be explaining what F-stops really are and how to work with metering.
About the Author:
Dave Wortley is an experienced kayaker and has photographed the sport all over the world. He is best known for his film FUSE which received international recognition amongst outdoor film festivals such as the Banff Mountain Film Festival, but his real love is with photography.