Text and photography by David DesRochers
Ever since I was a young boy growing up in New Jersey, I loved being around water. Whether I was exploring the Rahway River near my home in Union or playing on the beach in Seaside Heights, I was fascinated with the power of moving water. It is only natural that I am still drawn to rivers, lakes, and oceans as inspiration for my photography.
I caught the nature photography bug on a trip to Glacier National Park in the year 2000. I returned home with only a few “keepers” but I knew that exploring our natural world was going to be part of my life for as long as I could hold a camera.
Early on, I photographed popular subjects such as water falls and sunsets over the ocean and tried to emulate photos I had seen. I was pleased with my result but my image looked a bit cliché. I began reading photography “how to” books and looking at photos by the masters of nature photography such as the late Galen Rowell, Art Wolfe, and David Muench, just to name a few. One lesson I learned was to slow down and spend time seeing the landscape before trying to capture its beauty. This approach helped me go beyond the obvious and I began capturing images of the “hidden beauty” within the landscape that most photographers were passing by.
Rivers and Streams
I use this approach when I photograph landscapes that include moving water. A common approach to photographing rivers, streams and waterfalls is to include the entire landscape. Wisely using the elements of composition, this approach can result in compelling photos. But, don’t stop there. After you’ve taken your standard waterfall shot, look closely at small areas within the water fall and stream. As the water tumbles over the rocks and boulders, interesting lines and shapes will begin to reveal themselves as shown in the image of the Ausable River in the Adirondacks.
My goal is to try to capture as much detail in moving water and it’s easy to lose that detail by exposing too long resulting in featureless blown out areas in your image. To get that soft flowing look that still has detail, I find that ¼ of a second shutter speed is a good starting point. The photo of the Ausable River Rapids (above) was shot at f/18, 1/5 of a second, ISO 100. Of course, the lighting conditions may require you to adjust your settings. Review your first few images and change your shutter speed as needed to get the result that you are looking for.
The next time you visit a scenic coast line or even one not so scenic, consider passing up the temptation to compose a typical sunrise or sunset photo and take a closer look at the ever changing artistic designs created by the approaching waves. The giant waves of Hawaii offer one option (see the work of Clark Little for some real inspiration) but even the quiet waves of Cape May, New Jersey can result in a unique image. Position yourself on a jetty or in the water and pan along with the waves as they approach the beach. The Wave photographed at sunset in Cape May, New Jersey was capture from a jetty using my Canon 7D and a 28-135 MM lens set at 95 MM and f/6.3, I found that a shutter speed of 1/8 of a second provided a nice balance of sharpness and motion blur.
If you are blessed with an intriguing ocean side composition with great light, try using the receding surf to add your own leading lines. Select a wide angle lens and set your tripod as low as possible. The waves should move past your position (yes, it’s OK to get wet). As the water begins to recede back into the ocean, push your shutter release. A shutter speed of 1 to 4 seconds, depending on available light and the speed of water will create streaks that will lead the viewer’s eye to the center of interest in your composition. A 4 or 6 stop neutral density filter may be required to achieve the desired results. The image from Rialto Beach in Olympic National Park was taken with a 1 second exposure at f/16, ISO 100. A word of caution, make sure you keep an eye on the approaching waves and be prepared to lift your tripod in the event that a unexpected large wave attempts to knock you and your camera over.
Be Safe and Be Inspired
The most important thing to remember is to be careful when photographing water. I discovered on more than on occasion that my lenses and cameras do not perform very well after following me into a local river. Wet rocks are a real danger so move slowly and carefully. Keen Sandals are comfortable during the hike to your location and they provide traction as you walk across rivers and streams. Worried about getting wet? Don’t be. Just bring a change of clothes and a towel and dry off when you return to the car.
Photography is a very personal endeavor and each of us must develop our own vision and style. The ever changing nature of water can provide inspiration and you will find endless opportunities to create those unique images you can truly call your own.