Begin With the End In Mind – Controlling The Flow

Article by Jim Denham

Begin with the end in mind. For photography, this means letting your vision of the final image drive how you take a picture. The environment you’re working in and the tools you have at hand both impact how you get from here to there. In some instances, it may take multiple tools and techniques to produce that desired finished image. Take a look at the following image from Willow River Falls in Hudson, WI.

The intention of this visit to the falls was to work on some long exposures with my new 10-Stop filter, but the conditions were a bit dark away from the water, so getting images that featured the rocks and logs on the banks really required bracketing and tone mapping in order to capture the entire tonal range. So, to get the shot of the rock and the falls, a combination of techniques needed to be applied – long exposure and HDR.

Before firing off the brackets, the most important decision (outside of composition) was how the water flow needed to be in the finished image. Do you want totally smooth or a little bit of texture in the falls? This will help us decide our exposure settings, primarily aperture and ISO. The zero bracket at f14 and ISO100 produced a shutter speed of 0.4 seconds, which smoothens out the water nicely. It may not be our final look, but it’s a good place to start knowing that the -1 and +1 EV brackets will likely give us good options to select from later on. As result, f14 was the aperture of choice.

The Magic Lantern HDR Autodetect mode determined the image needed 7 brackets to cover the entire tonal range at an interval of 1 EV, from -4 EV to +2 EV. All 7 were loaded into Photomatix with the only option selected was semi-manual deghosting. This tool will help us take control of how the water looks ultimately.

When the deghosting selection screen popped up, you can see that none of the points where the water is easily seen looked natural or clean because there were multiple layers of moving water on top of each other ghosting the image. That’s why we’re here! Using the mouse, each of these areas was selected and I let Photomatix choose which exposure it liked best.

The foreground water looked less murky and the two smaller areas in the mid-ground were nice and smooth. The larger portion of the falls at the top of the image had just a little bit of texture in it, which looked pretty good. Going back to the selection mode, we can see that Photomatix selected the -1 EV bracket for this area by right clicking on the selected area and holding our pointer over the ‘Set another photo for selection’ command. This command also let’s us select another frame if we choose to do so – just scroll to the bracket you want, select it and hit the ‘Preview deghosting’ button.

While there, I selected the 0 EV bracket just to see what it would look like after deghosting (see below). Because the water was slightly overexposed in this frame, the preview showed it being kind of flat. I chose to go back to the -1 EV bracket for that reason and because I liked the texture of that one pretty well for the image.

Once this step was complete, I hit the OK button to move on to tone mapping. From here, it’s up to you and how you like to typically adjust the sliders. For me, my main intention is to produce an image with no clipped highlights or shadows and a relatively tame histogram – I prefer to style an image outside of Photomatix rather than inside.

Had there been more light, the 10-stop ND filter still may not have been an option in capturing the entire tonal range and movement in the water being that some of the points along the banks of the falls would still have been a couple of stops or so darker than the water. However, we still could have used a less potent ND filter, like a 2 or 3 stop, along with bracketing in order to produce the water movement we desired along with exposed highlights and shadows.

Depending on the environment you’re shooting in and the tools you have available, it may take multiple tools and techniques in the process to produce the end product you desire, but you have to begin with the end in mind!

Jim Denham

Jim loves all things photography, but the obsession with the medium started with HDR and it continues to be a main tool in his processing belt. Jim’s portfolio consists of images both from his hometown area of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, as well as images from many towns around the US.


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  • Erik Kerstenbeck

    Nice article indeed