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Autumn Cascade, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 18 May 2010 in Landscape & Rural and Portfolio.

This image is a few years old and nearly forgotten. I remember liking it originally, but somehow it fell off my radar in favor of newer stuff. But sometimes it's fun to shake the tree of my older work to see what falls out, and that's how I ended up here.

While I have no memory of this capture, what stands out most is settings I chose, which give me some insight into my thought process that day. But first, let's have a show of hands: How many remember the film days, when we needed to keep a written log of each image if we later wanted to review our exposure settings? Those who didn't raise a hand need to pause briefly to appreciate the EXIF (EXchangeable Image Format) data stored with each digital capture. It's both a tremendous learning tool for beginners, and a huge timesaver for pros (who are constantly asked for their settings, as if somehow this insight is the magic key to photographic success).

ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop are daunting to the inexperienced photographer, who often defer to their camera's "brain" in the mistaken belief that it will make better choices. So let me make one thing perfectly clear: Despite any experience to the contrary, your camera is stupid, and the sooner you realize that and take control of your camera's choices, the sooner you'll start seeing improvement in your photography. You'll find that choosing your own camera settings in the field enhances your creative options, and the more second nature these technical decisions become, the more your mind is free to follow its creative instincts. There's a nice synergy there.

Basically, in fully manual mode (using your camera's built-in meter but making the exposure settings yourself) you control everything: depth, motion, and light. And in most scenes landscape shooters on a tripod don't need to worry about motion (flowing water and wind motion being the most frequent exceptions), simplifying things further. Start by choosing an aperture (f-stop) that gives the depth of field you want. (When everything's at infinity and DOF doesn't matter, opt for a mid-range f-stop like f8 or f11.) Once the DOF is set, the rest of the exposure is a piece of cake: simply dial the shutter speed until it provides the amount of light you want.

If there's motion in the frame (remember, you're on a tripod, so the only motion is in the scene itself), you need to decide whether to freeze it (faster shutter speed) or blur it (slower shutter speed). In other words, shutter speed becomes a non-negotiable value. Photographic light is a balancing act, so if you must have a specific depth of field (in other words, you can't change the aperture) and a specific shutter speed, the only thing left to adjust is your ISO (the sensor's sensitivity to light).

So here's my thought process for today's image: In overcast or shade it's nearly impossible to freeze moving water without significantly compromising image quality with high ISO (noise) and/or a large aperture (shallow depth of field). So my choices in scenes like this are always how much motion blur and not whether to blur or freeze the water. In looking at the EXIF data for this image, it's clear that my primary objective was to maximize the water motion by going with the longest possible shutter speed. I accomplished this by dialing down to ISO 50 (lowest sensitivity) and setting my f-stop to f22 (smallest aperture).

While I achieved the blur I sought, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't make the same choices today. In recent years much concern has been raised about the diffraction introduced by small apertures (not to mention the fact that lenses tend to be less sharp as they approach their aperture extremes); now I rarely go smaller than f16. I also know now that, unlike my film days, ISO 50 on a digital camera doesn't buy me better image quality, and it costs me 1/3 stop of dynamic range. Now I only go to ISO 50 when I absolutely need the extra long shutter speed. So, knowing that when water is moving this fast there is little difference between 8 seconds and 2 seconds, today I probably would have opted for 2 seconds and shot this at ISO 100 and f16.

<<I hope I didn't lose too many with this. If this is confusing, ask me to clarify--if your question points out something I should clarify in my explanation, I'll fix it.>>

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Thanks for visiting. Even if I don't respond, your comments are always read and appreciated.

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

It is really interesting to know that you look back and see that you would do things differently now! My favorite thing about this image is the way the leaves mimic the flowing water and seem to cascade down the rocks too! Great you-tube video- hope there are more to come!

18 May 2010 5:32am

Vitor Martins from Lisboa, Portugal

A very beautiful image nicely balanced. The text is fantastic, very intersting and well done.

18 May 2010 8:44am

Tamara from Aarschot, Belgium

Nice milky effect ! Well done :)

18 May 2010 8:51am

Stefan from Thiersee, Austria


18 May 2010 10:05am

PD from Overland Park, Kansas, United States

Nice image, and thanks for the insights!

18 May 2010 3:34pm

Ansie from South Africa

Wonderful, and thank you for your very clear description of your thought processes!

18 May 2010 8:17pm

Didier DE ZAN from somewhere, France

Great shot

18 May 2010 9:22pm

Scott F. Schilling from San Martin, United States

Great image with the warm tones of the fall leaves and as you mentioned in your thoughts above, I like the slow shutter speed to soften the water! Have a great week Gary!

19 May 2010 1:55am

DarkElf from Perth, Australia

starting with the explanation - it is perfectly clear what you set out to do and how you would have done it differently now - great info and also good insight into your photography thought process! i really like this photo as well - there is a nice balance to it and the bright flowers provide a nice break from dark textures and tones...

19 May 2010 1:56am

Denny Jump from Easton, PA, United States

I'm still in the "daunted" stage, but your blogs really help to pull me out of the quicksand - this is great Gary, Thank you sir.

19 May 2010 2:28am

Julie from Easton, United States

What a great shot! Love the water, the color of the leaves and the textures! I learn so much from your posts, thanks once again!

19 May 2010 3:16am

KriKridesign from Cully, Switzerland

A pure art land simple and s beautiful

19 May 2010 12:35pm

Eleftheria from Athens, Greece


19 May 2010 2:53pm

payam from tehran, Iran

great job!

19 May 2010 2:54pm

K.B.R from Switzerland

Great shot

19 May 2010 6:39pm

Julie Brown from Indianapolis, United States

This is a very nice image with the leaves adding that touch of color at the bottom. Thank you for that tutorial, Gary. Lots of useful info here. I did not know that about using ISO 50.

20 May 2010 9:52am

CherishedKeepsakePhotography from Chapmanville, United States

Your portfolio is amazing..

21 May 2010 10:04pm

Magda from Vancouver, Canada

delicate..... wonderful :)

23 May 2010 4:40am

Singapore Food Photography from singapore, Singapore

Gorgeous photo! Great composition and colors!

26 May 2010 4:09am