NORTH CAROLINA GROIN : FINAL B&W VERSION
I'd like to discuss the idea of experimentation in your photography this week. Another way that you can "discover" things to photograph while you are on vacation, or just around the corner, is to consciously set out to experiment when you head out with your camera. Trying something new can open up loads of possibilities, especially when the "subject" of your image is overly familiar. Experimentation can allow for a new way of seeing, either at the point of capture or later in post processing.
The image above is of a groin on a North Carolina Beach near Wilmington, North Carolina. I don't know why a man-made intrusion that disappears into the sea is also the place that a man definitely does not want to be hit, but that's for another day (in England, they differentiate by calling the seaside feature a groyne). This groin carried a pipe that probably discharged something nasty into the ocean, but on this rainy day I found it interesting enough to see how I could manufacture an image out of concrete blocks and an iron pipe.
My solution was to search for elements of abstraction in the image. I will show you the original color image in a second, but I turned to black and white almost immediately for several reasons. Since it was such a nasty day, the sea was grey anyway; the hint of green on the moss covered concrete didn't add much either, and the pipe and the stanchions in the water were already black.
NORTH CAROLINA GROIN : FINAL COLOR VERSION
But my search for abstraction centered on my experiment with a long exposure. While it was a grey day, it was still day, and the sea was actually pretty rough without being very exciting - think breaking swells that threatened my tripod without throwing up any picturesque splashes. My objective became how to lengthen the exposure enough to reduce the sea to a flat, abstract surface leading past the groin and the stations out to the horizon.
Photographers do this with a few pieces of equipment that allow us extend our exposures enough so as to perceive a kind of zen-like gaze at the environment that is the exact opposite of an artificially lit flash shot. While strobe flashes stop action because they show us exact, almost infinitesimal moments in time, long exposures show us things that our naked eyes cannot see by stretching out the duration of our view. The shutter is open so long that momentary movement is ignored by the sensor. Moving tourists seem to disappear in the piazza because they moved too fast to be registered on our sensors, which only caught the things that were there the whole time. And recurring movements, like waves at the beach, get evened out, because the camera is recording all of the waves as a "still average" over a much longer period of time than any one breaking wave.
FIRST SHOT : f8.0 @ 1/350 second - A TYPICAL APERTURE/SHUTTER SPEED
Taking such long exposures that will yield images of things we really can't see in real life require a few accessories. You really need a stable tripod because you can't possibly hold or even place your camera down to stop camera shake when your exposure lasts for multiple seconds. We want to see the movement of our subject, not the apparent palsy in our grip on the camera. We put our cameras on a two-second delay when we push the shutter, because even that subtle act of hitting the button might actually register as shake, so we let the camera "settle down" before it takes the shot.
To lengthen the time of exposure, and not just get an over-exposed image, we must cut down the amount of light that is getting to the sensor. We can't turn off the sun, so it's time to put on sunglasses to cut out the light. The sunglasses aren't for us, but for our camera - in this case it's not what we see, but what the camera sees, that is important. A neutral density filter placed over the lens will hopefully reduce the light by a measurable amount that will enable vastly increased exposure times by convincing the sensor that the sun has gone down. While reducing a waterfall to a gentle mist might require an exposure of a couple of seconds (still far too long to hand-hold), stopping the ocean might require an exposure lengthened to minutes. Now the problem is not hitting the shutter, but having to close it again. Most cameras will not automatically close the shutter after 30 seconds, so for longer exposures you need a gizmo to both open the shutter and close it again after your watch registers the appropriate excruciating time required. I cannot explain how long a two-minute exposure can seem, when we are used to the exposure being over before we are really concious of having pushed the button at all.
SLOWER : f16 @ 1/45 second, off-center, one stantion
There is one physical problem I haven't yet mentioned. You have painstakengly determined the perfect composition, and accurately focused - but then you must engage in some lower-level math to take a photo you can't see. The filter is so dark that when you place it over your lens you can no longer see the scene through the viewfinder, and you cannot see what your subsequent setting changes are doing to the image before you take the photo. You are literally in the dark. You must change your focus to manual focus, because the camera will try to adjust the focus to the new midnight lighting, and it won't be able to auto focus. Even worse, your viewfinder is going to stay black no matter how you change your settings. Fortunately, the neutral density filters have ratings on how much light they are stopping. To stop the ocean, you should have a ten-stop filter, which reduces the light by ten stops. Remember that we are trying to reduce the light to the sensor. Thus you have set the sensor sensitivity to it's lowest native setting, exactly opposite what you would do to take a night-time shot. You have also set your lens to a very small aperture to reduce the size of the hole that light can get through. You then click your way down to the lower shutter speed, doubling the amount of light with each click, because you are letting in more light by extending the duration the shutter is open. Count ten clicks, and you are somewhere in the neighborhood of properly exposing an image that you can't see. It's time to experiment, and to see what happens.
That's what it comes down to, and why it often seems that photographers are just overthinking the entire affair. Our digital cameras will now let us see our results right after the shot is over, so after our long exposure is finally over, we can see how close we are to what looks a reasonable exposure. Adjust as required, and probably wait even longer. Something to read is highly recommended.
FASTER, BUT ALMOST SYMMETRICAL : f16 @ 1/125 second
You are not searching for a "proper exposure" once you are in the ballpark, but are actually trying to see if you have positively affected the image enough by lengthening the exposure. If we have a "proper" exposure at our first ordinary view through the viewfinder, then we will have another "proper" exposure if we keep doubling the exposure time while we halve the light getting to the sensor with our neutral density filter. But since we cannot see the exposure until we take it, we are in the dark until we take the photo.
I used to think that long exposure photos were just a gimmick, a way of easily creating an arty image out of nothing. This might be true to some extent, but now having experimented with the technique I can see that the rules of composition are not suspended just because we have changed the amount of time we are recording. This image would not be as strong without the central placement of the groin, and I for one think that the presence of the stanchions is crucial. And I regret that the rain caused enough discomfort that I refrained from getting out the electronic shutter release. A thirty second exposure was just not long enough to completely flatten the waves and eliminate their variations near the groin. But for a first experiment this wasn't bad.
TEN STOP FILTER : f16 @ 30 SECONDS
The exposure of the photo will not change, but the photo will. The waves will disappear, and the clouds will seem to streak across the sky, while stationary objects will still stay sharp. Once the viewer notices, they will frequently get fascinated, because you can't see this stuff on the beach. Our photographic experiment has yielded a new view of a familiar subject.
TEN STOP FILTER : f16 @ 30 SECONDS, B&W