How long is just enough? Long exposures – Part 1

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Long Exposure shot of the stream from Bridal Veil Falls
On the path to Bridal Veil Falls.

I recently photographed some handheld long exposures in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon. I made a series of shots with a one second shutter speed. That doesn’t sound very long, but it’s enough to completely change the look of the water. The blurred and smoothed look for waterfalls is very popular. Many shots see online used much slower shutter speeds than mine, so I was surprised by how much the water was transformed at the fairly tame shutter speed of one second.

My usual approach when shooting is to best capture the experience of being at a place. I am careful in how I process photos to keep true to that. For me, figuring out what speed would be most like natural vision is important. If I don’t slow the shutter, my camera shoots waterfalls in at around 1/500s, which gives a frozen in time look.

Pony Tail Falls in the Columbia River Gorge. This was taken a few days before the Eagle Creek Fire. At 1/500s, this image is faster than what natural vision would be.

I decided to head back into the gorge and experiment with different speeds. I went to Latourell Falls during a break between winter storms to try some long exposures. The day was cloudy, dark, and raining. My camera can handle being wet, so I was determined to get some shots.

I tried out a broad range of shutter speeds but couldn’t shoot much faster than 1/160th due to poor weather conditions. In the shots with slower shutter speeds, the waterfall pops more due to a strong texture contrast between smooth water and the details of rocks, moss, and trees.

Shooting at five seconds was so much like shooting at one-half second that I checked my files several times to be sure they were right. One-third of a second is still significantly blurred, but it captured more character of the falls. Shooting at one one-sixtieth has light blurring.

A closer comparison of shutter speeds. Here you can see how playing with settings to optimize my waterfall shot changes how the surrounding scenery is captured.

Between one third of a second to one thirtieth is the range I am going to look at shooting in. In terms of speed, the one-thirtieth of a second shot was my favorite. In person I could see a lot more detail when looking right at the falls, but a small amount of smoothness reads well and shows the motion of the falls. This mix of detail and motion feels like a good starting point to me. One detail of the falls missing from every shutter speed is how muddy the top of the falls were. While often clear, the heavy rains made Latourell Falls and other falls run fast and muddy.

There is a marked difference in the color information in the longer shot. ISO is not something I usually pay too much attention when shooting. I focus on speed and depth of field and let the ISO wind up wherever it has to make the shot work. If I am concerned about color information, I usually take separate color reference shots to make sure my processing is correct.

Why do long exposures of waterfalls appear natural to viewers?

Bridal Veil Falls in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon. This is one of the photos from my One Second Exposures shoot.

In long exposures, it becomes clear why these falls evoke bridal veils. When photography started in the Gorge in 1867, the first images where longer exposures with lots of motion blur. Even my own shots of Multnomah Falls from the mid-2000s have smoothed water. They were film shots using a point and shoot camera. iPhone shots, even take on a sunny day, have motion blur on the water. Multnomah Falls gets lots of natural daylight, making them easy to shoot. Many other falls are shadowed, which leads to slower shutter speeds. I think it’s fairly safe to say that the vast majority of images of waterfalls have blur due to either deliberate choice or technological limitations.

The base of Latourell Falls shot on a brightly sunny day using an iPhone 6s with no edits.

A certain amount of blur feels natural due to the Coconut Effect. We see waterfalls in pictures more often than in person. Those pictures shape our mental image of waterfalls, and go on to affect whether a photo looks natural or surreal. I struggled with this effect a lot when I shot The Grand Canyon last year. The rocks were more vibrant and more red than I’d come to expect from the photos I’d seen. I tried to process them to be to true to life, but my own images felt over-saturated to me. I was even able to edit some of my shots looking directly at the view, and I still struggled with the urge to tone them down or just do black and white shots.

The results of my experiment

I don’t think a perfect shutter speed exists. One one-thirtieth is a good starting point most of the time. Light blurring to express movement makes sense when capturing waterfalls. Making a project of examining the effects of various speeds will impact how I shoot when I am hiking to waterfalls.

Most of the long exposure shots I see are to blur waterfalls and streams into that popular, silky look. We’ve covered that here in Part 1 of this article. In Part 2, I’ll show some other uses for long exposures! Color information, texture contrast and other effects from longer exposures have a lot of uses. In the meantime, what blur amount speaks to you? Which amount feels natural? When do you like to capture the experience and when do you like to see what effects you can create?

You can find more of Dawn Hewitt’s work, chasing waterfalls or exploring Portland, on her personal website or Instagram.

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