Three ways to shoot a waterfall

As we caught our first glimpse of Wailua Falls on Kauai (Hawaii), we admired the dual cascades rushing 80 feet to the still pool below. From our roadside overlook, we stood slightly above and about 30 degrees left of the head of the falls. It was about 7am, and fortunately our group of 9 photographers were the only people peering over the four-foot wall. Lush green foliage on the other side of the wall, grew tall and could or could not be part the foreground. The first question that crossed my mind was what lens to choose, and I first chose a wide angle in order to capture the grandeur of the scene. No, it didn’t work. I could not make my tripod high enough to frame the scene properly. I tried…made the tripod 8 feet tall, but I could not see what I was doing and quickly became frustrated. It would have helped if I were 9 feet tall, but I’m 5’6″! I soon changed my mind and mounted the 70-200 mm lens and focused on the head of the falls and surrounding rocks and foliage.  Our photography instructors, Don Smith and Gary Hart, urged us to work with the head of the falls. “You don’t have to include the whole thing,” they said.

In landscape photography, I always use a tripod, so I can be very deliberate, careful and stable with composition, focus, manual setting decisions and long exposures. Today was no exception. I loved the effect of a long exposure on this Wailua Falls: the rushing water becomes creamy. I combined a small aperture (f22) with a long exposure (.8 second) at 100 ISO and took in the surrounded the source of the falls with visual interest in the rock formation and foliage. If you are wondering about the ghost-like line in the center cascade, that is the edge of the rock formation under the falls.

Wailua Falls
Wailua Falls

Now, let’s try something different and make a comparison. Let’s try to freeze the water motion with a fast shutter speed. I opened the aperture as wide as possible to f 2.8 and zoomed in to eliminate foreground which would have been out of focus.  I also need to increase my ISO, or the sensitivity of the sensor to light. In this photo, you can see how the waterfall appears with these settings: ISO 800, f 2.8 at 1/250 second.

Wailua Falls, with faster shutter speed
Wailua Falls, with faster shutter speed

Satisfied, but with extra time — I decided to try to capture the whole waterfall. With the tall wall right in front of me, I would have to take the camera off the tripod and hand hold it. That means no long exposure if I want a nice sharp image. I would need to keep a high ISO (800) and a shutter speed of at least 1/250 of a second. Instructor Gary Hart crept up behind me and whispered, “tripod alert!”  I assured him I had made a conscious choice to take a few shots without the tripod, and that I increased my shutter speed to make sure that hand holding would not ruin the sharpness of my image. Here is the third way to shoot the Wailua Falls, all with the Nikon 70-200 lens. Now with 2.5 hours of driving, hiking and photography done, it was time for breakfast.

All 80 Feet of Wailua Falls near Lihue on Kauai
All 80 Feet of Wailua Falls near Lihue on Kauai

Anticipating Kauai

After a first visit to Hawaii (the Big Island) last July and my first photography workshop with Don Smith and Gary Hart in Utah last November, I will be merging two great experiences by meeting the instructors again on the island of Kauai — the Garden Isle (aka rainy and green), northernmost and oldest of Hawaii’s volcanic chain. I am hoping it will be much easier to wake up in the dark at 4:40am when the weather outside is more moderate than it was at 9,000 elevation (coldest photography ever!).

As we did in Utah, we will be visiting new and beautiful locations for sunrise and sunset for five days with our high-end cameras, lenses and tripods. (Here is one of my photographs of Bryce Canyon at dawn.)



Then, we will be using our accumulated knowledge in the capture and processing of these images and comparing notes and learning in classroom time. Since my last workshop in November, I have had more experience with nature excursions, the tripod, the histograms and the processing. I visited two state/national parks in Florida: Lover’s Key and the Everglades.  I also bought a new lens, the Nikon 24-70 zoom and a new Singh-Ray filter, the Color Combo Polarizer. I look forward to seeing what kind of magic will emerge from new locations in Kauai in conjunction with the cumulative investment in learning and equipment. As in Utah, I also look forward to meeting 10-12 new photographers and learning from them.

Stay tuned to this blog space through the end of June to see some new images. Gary Hart will lead us on a star gazing night shoot, too. Here is my favorite image from the Big Island of Hawaii last year. It just goes to show how important it is to go with the flow and act quickly when a unexpected event (in this case a girl running through the frame) creates a new image opportunity in the blink of an eye. The parents apologized, and I assured them it was okay; in truth, I couldn’t wait to get back to my computer to see how the image turned out.



Fakahatchee Strand, Everglades

Last night’s sunset shoot in the Everglades allowed me to combine cloud formations with landscape features into some compositions of wide open spaces. I think wide open spaces are therapeutic for us urban and suburban dwellers. When you find yourself in a wide open space like a prairie in the Everglades, you realize how much of your time is spent driving and in stores, restaurants, schools and other enclosed spaces. Wide open spaces also bring your attention to the wide open sky and the clouds. Of course, the sky and clouds are always there — but we may be too busy attending to traffic or each other to notice.

Here is my first composition of the prairie, trees and sky in Fakahatchee. I used my wide angle zoom lens at 24 mm and my 3-stop, hard edge neutral density filter (Singh-Ray) to darken the scene above the horizon. For a long focal length (sharp focus near to far), I used f14 at 1/100. Using the ND filter, I had to experiment with the exposure time, until the histogram showed the right amount of highlights and shadows.

Fakahatchee Strand: wide open spaces

Fakahatchee Strand: wide open spaces

In all my shots, I used ISO 100 to give me the sharpest (not grainy) image. I also used my tripod to help me frame each composition carefully and steady the camera for longer exposures. This next image was shot at f11 at 1/100 second. See how different the composition looks as I swivel the camera to the left to take advantage of the changing cloud formation.

Fakahatchee: matching landscape to cloud formation
Fakahatchee: matching landscape to cloud formation

I used this cabbage palm (native to Florida) as foreground in this image, F11, 1/60 second with 2-stop ND filter.


Continuing to work with the cabbage palm as my foreground, I used the 3 stop ND filter and a longer exposure, allowing the prairie grass to look lighter, more yellow.

Fakahatchee: expose for 1/25 second and 3 stop ND filter above the horizon
Fakahatchee: expose for 1/25 second and 3 stop ND filter above the horizon

Here was my favorite image of the evening. Clouds were changing rapidly, and this vertical stroke of white called for a vertical composition. The golden, almost rosy light on the grass as the sun set makes the grass a beautiful color.

Fakahatchee favorite: vertical clouds and golden light
Fakahatchee favorite: vertical clouds and golden light

My last prairie shot of April 9: See the colors of dusk near the horizon. Enjoy the color and texture of the grass at sunset. This setting was f11, 1/10 second with 3 stop ND filter. Matching the cloud formation to the landscape. Thanks to photography, I can share these wide open spaces with you. Prints are available upon request.

Sun sets at Fakahatchee Strand, April 9, 2014.
Sun sets at Fakahatchee Strand, April 9, 2014.



Surprise at Lover’s Key

Looking for some new landscape locations in southwest Florida, I resolved to rise and shine before dawn on Sunday and head out Bonita Beach Road toward Lover’s Key State Park. Alas, the sun rose at 7:13 am, but the gates did not open until 8 am.  I was hoping to catch the colorful pre-dawn sky and early bird activity, but instead I got a nice long hike along the beach, starting at 8 on the north end of the island. It was just me and the fishermen for a couple miles.

Finally, I came across some dead trees by the water’s edge. I dug my Nikon 14mm wide angle lens out of my backpack and found some interesting compositions. I have been reading Visual Flow, an e-book about the components of dynamic compositions in paintings and photographs by landscape photographer Ian Plant. As I composed my images, I was looking for strong diagonal lines in the trees and the shadows. I also watched the role of the surf and clicked the shutter when the surf played a dynamic role in the frame. The wood and the water play point/counterpoint in each image. (The wood directs the eye in one direction, and the surf moves in another, yet the two forces support one another in the image.)

Lover's Key. Warm and cool scene.
Lover’s Key. Warm and cool scene.
Lover's Key: tree roots
Lover’s Key: tree roots
Lover's Key: dynamic nature
Lover’s Key: dynamic nature

Sunday morning on Lover’s Key: I didn’t shoot what I came for — the sunrise sky or sea birds, but I found some new subjects along the shore line and explored elements of composition. This hike gave me a feeling of being alone in nature and witnessing its ongoing evolution.  I enjoyed the solitude and the exquisite details of the location: the movement of the water, the shells in the sand, the texture of the decaying wood, and the story they reveal.



Naples Pier: lesson in point of view

I’m sharing with you some lovely dusk images of Naples Pier, but I am also sharing with you a demonstration of how point of view can affect your photography and the drama of your images.  When I approached the beach just north of Naples Pier one blustery evening in March, the clouds were gathering. They would either obstruct the sunset or set the sky on fire. Of course, I was hoping for the latter. As I emerged onto the beach in view of the historic pier, I first thought of a point of view on the dune, so the dune grasses would create a foreground and add something by showing the wind. Here is my first image.

Dune grass as foreground
Dune grass as foreground

Then, I walked closer to the pier to look for another point of view. I had recently read a tip in Don Smith’s photography blog about getting low to the ground, getting your knees dirty to look for an advantage in the low point of view. I was rewarded with my favorite image of the evening with this nice reflection of the pier in the wet sand.

Naples Pier reflected in wet sand
Naples Pier reflected in wet sand

While I was down there kneeling in the sand with my Nikon 14-24mm lens mounted on my D800, mounted on my sturdy tripod and  my hair blowing every which way, I changed the camera angle so my frame recorded more sky. It was clear to me that these were going to be my best shots, as the sunset would be completely blocked by the clouds.

Patchy clouds over Naples Pier at dusk
Patchy clouds over Naples Pier at dusk

Often you don’t capture what you came for, as the weather has a mind of its own, but sometimes you get a little bonus — such as these “God rays.” A reminder to be both humble and thankful.

God rays by Naples Pier
God rays by Naples Pier



Barred Owl up close

I set out for Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, FL with the goal of photographing the Barred Owl — having seen it from a distance in April 2013. I hiked the boardwalk through the cypress swamp with tripod and camera backpack, asking naturalists if they had spotted the owl or its nest. “The nest is a mile this way, just past marker seven. There is a chance the father owl will be out hunting for food for the chicks. Listen for the call, ‘Who cooks for you?’ ” My efforts were rewarded with close views of this elusive owl, who usually hunts at night and is most often heard “who cooks for you?” but not seen.

I first spotted this large barred owl on this high branch. I set up my tripod, mounted my Nikon D800, and Nikon 70-200mm lens with 1.4 extender and set the focus and aperture and waited. I chose to use 100 ISO and a long exposure. He rewarded me by looking at me first over one shoulder and then the other.



You can see the barred owl’s distinct features: the brown and white stripped wing feathers, the head without horns, the substantial size (about 15″). In the next shot, you will see the vertical stripes on the front. He is leaping from the branch into flight in pursuit of prey — very fast! Having the camera ready on the tripod and my finger on the shutter release made this shot possible.



On another perch, he looks down for more prey. A second later, he startled me by flying right over me. I ducked, and was glad he didn’t claw my head. Barred owls are known to fight detractors, so that scare may have been deliberate.



This was my favorite image — looking right at me. Such detail, and such intimacy with wildlife. All of these photos are large files and will make large high quality prints. Mission accomplished!



Alligators at Corkscrew

My alligator photographs reflect my views toward them. I find them powerful and sinister — especially the enormous ones at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary (estimated 14 feet and 1200 lbs, and 11 feet and 600 lbs).  They are quiet and still much of the time, but if you see them move — either in a flash while hunting or slowly on the prowl, you know you had better keep your distance.

This week when I visited Corkscrew, a 17 square mile Audubon Nature Preserve with a two-mile boardwalk for observation, I was astonished to see the giant American Alligator, resting on an embankment, well camouflaged in the dappled light.

Can you see him camouflaged in the dappled light?


Here is a close-up of his face. (The naturalist told me this one is a male.) He eats mostly fish and baby alligators, less frequently birds.

American alligator’s head


Here is an action photo of another alligator at Corkscrew, crawling over the log.

After crawling over the log


Bald Cypress at Corkscrew, April 2013

Lest these gator photos leave you with a fright, we’ll close with a look skyward into the bald cypress grove, for which Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary was created in the 1940s.