Are you sure you want to do this?" I holler to my friend Patrick above the thunderous roar of the waterfall. He gives me a thumbs-up and a smile. One mistake, and Patrick is going to get seriously injured—or worse.
I'm dangling on a cliffside above a 60-foot waterfall in Idaho. The constant mist rising from the crashing water is coating my camera and lens and making my climbing rope slick. Patrick had called the day before to tell me he was going to kayak off this waterfall, which prompted me to drive 12 hours straight to get the shot. Patrick is an expert kayaker, but paddling off this waterfall is a one-time event—there won't be a second chance. I want tack-sharp images of his descent. What shutter speed should I use—1⁄500 sec., 1⁄1000 sec. or even faster?
I hear a whooping scream above me. I grab my camera, paste the viewfinder to my eye, press the shutter button and watch in disbelief as a red kayak teeters over the falls into a frothy white abyss, completely disappearing from view. Moments later, Patrick emerges from the mist, twirling his paddle above his head. Wow!
Whether you're in the studio photographing models or capturing a kayaker paddling off a waterfall, knowing how to capture motion is an important photographic skill. Sometimes freezing the action is a good choice, and other times slowing the shutter speed to 20 seconds gives the right effect. Following are six techniques to help you capture motion, whether you want to freeze the action or add some blur to your shot.
Pan and Blur
TECHNIQUES Pan And Blur. This tried-and-true technique is a great way to spice up your images. From rickshaws in Katmandu to horses in a pasture, almost any moving subject is suitable to photograph using pan and blur. Depending on how fast your subject is moving, a good starting shutter speed is around 1⁄15 sec.
The trick with pan and blur is capturing your subject with just enough sharpness to anchor the shot, while the background is pleasantly blurred. It generally takes multiple passes photographing my subject until I capture one image that has the right balance of sharpness and blur. Sometimes you may need to slow down your shutter speed, other times, make it faster.
I like to use a tripod when possible to help steady my shot. Using a tripod also makes it easier to track my subject along an even plane.
Another way to further experiment with pan and blur is by adding a little flash to the shot. Set your flash for rear-curtain sync, which creates streaks coming off the back of your subject (versus in front of them), and try adding a little pop of balanced fill-flash. Often, this further enhances the feeling of motion.
Silky Landscapes. This technique is one of my favorites and requires very long shutter speeds. Water is a component of many landscape images, and the creative question you must ask yourself is: Will the image look better with the water frozen in place or silky and blurred?
I prefer to have my water soft and silky, which helps set the contemplative mood I strive for in many of my landscapes. What shutter speed should you use? If you want to get a soft water effect, try shutter speeds around 1⁄4 to 3 sec. These speeds will retain a little detail and contrast in the water. If you want to have some fun, try shooting really slow, around 15 to 30 seconds.
In order to get these slow shutter speeds, set your aperture to ƒ/22, and try adding a polarizing filter to reduce the light another one to two stops. This should put your shutter speed around a few seconds.
To get really slow speeds, you may need to add an ND filter to block some of the light entering your lens. I love the Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter, which enables you to adjust the amount of light blocked, from two to eight stops-very convenient in getting just the right amount of blur. The Vari-ND allows you to photograph at speeds from 20 to 30 seconds in midday sunlight, resulting in incredible silky waterfalls and surreal beach images. Every time I see surf crashing on a rocky coastline, I imagine how it would look at 20 seconds!