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One of the wonderful things inherent in a camera is its ability to "freeze" objects that are in motion.

It often helps you to look at moving objects from a different perspective.

However, there are also times when "freezing" objects may actually take away from what you may be trying to convey photographically, and in such cases, it's good to know how to alter your photographic methods.

This lesson uses water to illustrate how to "freeze" motion as well as how to apply a "controlled blur" to your images for a different look.

(Most images can be clicked for an enlarged view.)

Topics Covered:

  • Shooting water handheld
  • The need for a neutral density filter
  • Tripods: a necessity for long exposures
  • Adjusting white balance for special effects
  • Masking in layers for special effects
  • Other examples of water in motion

Equipment Used:

    Figure 1

    Shooting Water Handheld

    For this lesson, we decided to shoot at a river that flows past an old mill of a nearby town. There had been some heavy rainfall that week and the river, as we had expected, was running pretty strong (figure 1).

    After scouting around for a while, we came across an interesting perspective under the bridge. For comparison's sake, we decided to take a snapshot the way most people would go about shooting such a scene. We took an Olympus E-1 digital camera out of the camera bag, set it to Program (fully automatic settings) and took a shot (figure 2).

    Figure 2

    The result shows a decent result: the exposure is good and the shot clearly documents the river from this perspective. The problem, however, is that this type of shot doesn't really capture the essence of the scene. The motion of the river appears somewhat static, and there are distracting elements of the shot (telephone wire, graffiti, etc.) that take away from it.

    Coming In Tighter
    As we've illustrated here, it is common for the novice photographer using a standard lens to include more in a shot than is necessary. An experienced photographer, by contrast, will often zoom in on his/her subject for optimal impact, and that is what we decided to do next. Here, we were using an Olympus Zuiko 14-54mm zoom lens (equivalent to 28-108mm in 35mm format). The first shot was captured with the zoom about halfway out. For the next exposure, we came in a little closer to the river, zoomed all the way in on the lens, and took another shot (figures 3 and 4).

    Notice how just by coming in a little tighter, we've greatly improved the compositon of the shot. The distracting elements are no longer present, and the focus now is primarily on the water.

    Even so, the water element of the shot doesn't really convey a sense of movement because the shutter speed (determined automatically in the Program setting) was so fast as to "freeze" the motion of the water. To "unfreeze" the water, we decided to manually slow the shutter speed down to create some motion blur in the water.

    Slowing Down The Shutter
    We set the shooting mode to Manual, set the shutter speed to 1 second, and then set the aperture to its lowest setting to compensate for exposure (in this case, f/22). Remember that when you slow down your shutter speed, you are letting light in through the lens for a longer period of time. To ensure that you don't over-expose the image, you often need to set your aperture to its smallest opening so that it cuts down on the amount of light coming through the lens.

    Once the shutter speed and aperture were adjusted, we took another shot (figures 5 and 6).

    As you can see from this overexposed result, our smallest aperture (f/22) was not small enough to compensate for a 1-second exposure at these light levels. What do you do then if you need to shoot at a slow shutter speed and your aperture is at its smallest opening? One of two things: either wait for the sun to go down when the light is not so bright, or better yet, use a neutral density filter.

    The Need for a Neutral Density Filter

    A neutral density (ND) filter is used to reduce the amount of light coming through the lens. As a result, placing an ND filter over the lens will render a darker exposure without affecting the color or contrast of a shot. In this situation, an ND filter is exactly what we needed. Here we used a 3-stop ND filter. (Neutral density filters come in three densities: 1-stop, 2-stop and 3-stop. The 3-stop filter is the densest of the three and will cut the light by, you guessed it, three stops.)

    For this next shot, we thought we'd see how a 2-second exposure would fare. After we placed the ND filter on the lens, we slowed the shutter speed to 2 seconds and took another shot (figures 7, 8 and 9).

    Figure 9

    The result shot shows that the ND filter was successful in rendering a good exposure at 2 seconds, however, the motion blur caused by the water and the movement of the camera caused the entire frame to be blurry. Even with the steadiest of hands, a two-second exposure is too long to keep motionless elements of your shot in sharp focus. In such a case as this then, you need to use a tripod to eliminate movement of the camera.

    Tripods: A Necessity For Long Exposures

    To secure the camera in a fixed position, we mounted the camera to a carbon fiber tripod and extended each of its legs to various lengths so that it stood upright against the slope of the rocks. This tripod was the perfect choice, as it is lightweight and has solid rubber footings at the base of each leg that prevent the tripod from sliding or falling over (figures 10 and 11).

    NOTE: On a slope, it is a good idea to have the tripod oriented so that 2 of the legs are on the low end of the slope at roughly the same levels, this is the most stable position, and reduces the chances of the tripod falling forward or backwards.

    Once the tripod was secured in place, we reframed the shot, tightened up the adjustment knobs on the tripod and tripod head, and took another shot at the same camera settings (figures 12 and 13).

    While this shot was looking much better than the first exposure, we still couldn't get away from the fact that the water just looked so brown. There's a lot of sediment in this river water, particularly after heavy rainfall, but photographically, brown river water doesn't make for a very pretty scene.

    Final Results

    Figure 14


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    Equipment Used:

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