Where There's A Will, There's a Way
This is Big Dog Branch Falls in a remote part of the Daniel Boone National Forest in Laurel County, Kentucky.
I got a lot of satisfaction from capturing this scene in a photo because of the fun challenges involved. First, I wanted the composition to prominently feature both the waterfall, and the tall Cardinal flower on the left. However they are actually much farther apart than they appear here. I wanted this photo to reveal the beauty I could see by moving close to the flower for a good look, and then moving closer to the waterfall until it filled much of my field of view.
I also wanted to use a slow exposure to give the waterfall and the splash pool a silky smooth appearance. Basically, I wanted to simulate how the water would appear to ones eyes under very low light conditions. In that case light would be accumulated over a longer period to time to build the image perceived by the brain.
Conversely I wanted to use a fast exposure to freeze the motion of the vegetation. The forecast said to expect 8 mph winds, but I think the force of the waterfall made the local winds considerably faster and more chaotic. The tall flower was in constant motion, and reminded me of a breakdancing flower. I wanted this photo to reveal what one would see by grasping the stem of the flower, and holding it steady for a detailed look.
The sunlight was starting to be filtered by the trees in the forest, but hotspots remained. I wanted to take advantage of the bright sunlight to make faster exposures possible. However, I needed to drastically lower the contrast of the scene (while retaining details) in order to create a more aesthetically pleasing image. In general our eyes greatly outperform our cameras when capturing high contrast scenes. I wanted this photo to avoid blown highlights, and to still reveal any noteworthy details in the shadows. Basically, I wanted it to show what I was seeing as my eyes constantly adjusted while I scanned the scene.
One way to handle the conflicting goals stated above is to use camera settings which make compromises to partially achieve each goal. The resulting image would still look good, but only after it was scaled down for viewing on a small screen. However, I always have one additional goal. I want to make available very large prints which look great hanging on my wall, or on your wall.
Another possible approach is to redefine the goals to more easily take advantage of what the scene has to offer. For example, some might prefer the abstract look (and implied motion) achieved by capturing a very blurred image of the vegetation.
I chose to take extraordinary measures to achieve all of my goals regardless of the effort required. Twenty five "raw image" photos contributed to my final image. Normally I put far less effort into getting the results I want, even under challenging conditions. This was an extreme case, but one I was eager to take on. I knew very recent rains had created a flow level very much to my liking, and no trace of muddy water remained. I had never seen such a tall Cardinal Paintbrush flower here before, and this one was in the perfect location. The dark background really made it stand out. I also knew that this exact scene would never exist again.
Anyone interested in an overview of my approach can continue reading.
For all photos of this scene I used a tripod and a telephoto lens zoomed to 135 mm (on a full frame sensor). That focal length compressed the scene sufficiently to make the flower on the left and the waterfall appear to be much closer together. I positioned my the camera as far back as possible in order to capture the entire scene while still using such a large zoom amount.
To solve the problem of too much contrast in the scene I used exposure bracketing (with automatic ISO assist as needed). I had my camera setup to take seven bracketed exposures for each press of the shutter release button. I created high dynamic range (HDR) images from each bracketed set. Those HDR images then became my source files for subsequent processing.
To partially tame the wind I took many photos of this same scene. The points where the wind most affected the vegetation varied from one photo to the next. I replaced moving vegetation in one photo with still vegetation in another otherwise identical photo.
For my base image I used slow exposures at f-32/ISO 50. That gave me even more depth-of-field than necessary to bring the entire scene into focus, with surprisingly little loss of detail. The slow exposure smoothed out the ripples in the splash pool and made the waterfall look the way I prefer. I captured additional exposures at f-25 to retain the required depth of field with somewhat faster exposures (to do a better job of capturing the non-water parts of the scene). I used a wide aperture (f-2.8/ISO 400) for very fast exposures to freeze the wild movement of the flower on the left. That resulted in photos with "tack sharp" focus only for that prominent feature.
Finally I blended together parts of my set of HDR images to create one final image. I started with the HDR image which had the best looking water. I replaced part of that image with just the flower from the fast exposure image. Then I replaced most of the vegetation with better versions from the f-25 images, and etc.
Part of the merging/blending task I needed to accomplish mimicked the well known "focus stacking" process. However, I also had to deal with getting the "variable exposure time" captures properly merged into the final image. Also automated focus stacking doesn't work well when there is movement in the scene being captured. So for this scene I used the manual merging process described below.
Changing the focus has the side effect of changing the zoom amount a bit. So first I had to make my set of HDR images all show exactly the same content, and be exactly the same size. That effort involved some slight cropping and scaling. Next I had to pick which pixels to use (or partially use) from each image, and then seamlessly blend those pixels into one final image. That step involved image editing using layers and "mask" images. That topic is very familiar to some, and much information is readily available for those who want to learn more.
20170823Big Dog Branch FallsDaniel Boone National ForestFlowersForestKentuckyLandscapeLaurel CountyNatureScenicSplash PoolStreamWaterfall