Posted by: kerryl29 | January 23, 2012

The Goldilocks Syndrome

In the February issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine, William Neill‘s column really hit home for me–partly because I was preparing a blog entry on the very same topic addressed by Mr. Neill.  As the column is available on line, I heartily recommend it to you, and will pen a few words of my own on the subject.

I’ve been photographing moving water for quite some time; it‘s a major elemental subject of landscape photography, most obviously in the form of waterfalls, but also rapids, streams and waves in large lakes and oceans.  Despite my experience, I’m rarely entirely certain about what shutter speed to use to render the subject in the manner I seek.  Oh, I almost always have a pretty good idea, but much of the time minor changes in shutter speed can have a subtle–but significant–impact on the quality of moving water.  And not infrequently relatively modest adjustments can have a substantial effect.

So what do I do?  I play around with the shutter speed.  Sometimes I fiddle around quite a bit.  Now I rarely, if ever, push this to the level described by William Neill, but when I’m trying to portray something that’s moving–it’s usually water, but not always, as will be illustrated below–it’s commonplace for me to experiment with multiple shutter speeds.

This may, at first blush, seem undisciplined or scatter-shot in approach, but I don’t believe that’s the case.  I’m not referring to firing away with no control.  The method I employ involves the camera mounted on a tripod, the composition fine-tuned, the focus and exposure established manually.  The exposure is then tweaked–and I think that’s the appropriate term, because we’re typically talking about a shutter speed adjustment of plus or  minus no more than a single stop.  This approach is about optimizing a shot already deemed by the photographer to have merit, not firing away and hoping to come up with a keeper image.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at some examples.  (I don’t ordinarily include technical information with my images, but since that’s the underlying point of this post, I’m making an exception.)  All of the images in this post were shot using a circular polarizing filter.  Some included the use of at least one neutral density filter.

Mill Creek Rapids, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

1.  Mill Creek Rapids:  D700, 24-70 @ 24 mm, ISO 200, f/16, 2/5 sec.  I placed myself smack in the middle of the water, roughly 100 feet upstream from Lower Cataract Falls.  (It isn’t nearly as dangerous as it sounds; while I was in fact standing in moving water, I placed myself in a spot that was remarkably calm.)  The goal was to render an in-your-face view of the rapids, so the tripod was set quite low; I was squatting, with the camera/lens assembly a bit less than a foot above water level.  The water was moving quite rapidly, so I cautiously dialed in an exposure that would accommodate a 1/4 sec. shutter speed without blowing the highlights.  That proved to be a bit too careful–the water was a too featureless for my taste, given the look I was going for (which was to represent something of the power of the scene).  But I wasn’t too far off–just 2/3 of a stop.  A 1/3 stop tweak (to 1/3 sec.) wasn’t quite enough, but shortening the shutter speed to 2/5 of a second did the trick.  So in this case, I played with three shots before being fully satisfied.

Otter Cliffs Sunrise, Acadia National Park, Maine

2.  Otter Cliffs Sunrise:  D200, 12-24 @24 mm, ISO 100, f/11, 1/40 sec.  A lot of photographers seem to enjoy extremely long exposures of surf and that’s fine, but I wanted to catch a breaking wave as part of this particular composition.  This shot was taken just moments after the sun crested the horizon, so the quality of the light was excellent.  Getting the right wave was a bit of a problem, and added to the experimentation, along with the changing light and the quest for an adequate shutter speed at base ISO.  The best I could initially muster was 1/10 sec., which didn’t cut it.  1/25 sec. was borderline.  Another 2/3 of a stop left me at 1/40, which appeared to do the trick.  It took me 19 shots before I got the combination of shutter speed, wave quality and light that I was looking for, which you see in the above image.

Brandywine Falls black & white, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

3.  Brandywine Falls black & white:  D700, 80-400 @ 200 mm; ISO 200, f/8, 1/5 sec.  I found Brandywine Falls to be a fascinating subject for abstract and semi-abstract waterfall sectionals and I spent several hours exploring different possible compositions from a variety of vantage points.  I was particularly fond of this combination of rock steps and splashes and tried a variety of shutter speeds before settling on 1/5 of a second.  This was a (relatively) rare circumstance where I explored options that ranged a full stop in both directions from the final choice (from more than a second to 2/5 sec.) before settling on a final product.  In this case, even multiple shots using the same shutter speed appeared different from one another in the final comparison.  Approximately a dozen images of this specific composition were made before moving on.

Water Abstract, Matthiessen State Park, Illinois

4.  Water Abstract:  D700, 24-70 @ 60 mm; ISO 400, f/11, 1/13 sec.   I ran across this fascinating abstract reflection in the shallow stream above Giant’s Bathtub at Matthiessen State Park.  How it actually looked was entirely dependent on the shutter speed used to render the scene.  Seven exposures were made before settling upon this one, ranging from 1/6 sec. to 1/40 sec. (an even larger range of shutter speeds than is typical for me).

Summer Breeze, Jardin du Soleil Lavender Farm, Washington

5.  Summer Breeze, Lavender Farm:  D700, 24-70 @ 60 mm; ISO 100, f/22 @ 4/5 sec.  Here we have an illustration of how shutter speed alteration can impact water-free subjects.  (Those of you who read my inaugural guest blog entry on 1001 Scribbles have already seen this image, which I used to help illustrate how seizing manual control of the camera settings is critical to photographic creativity.)  It was a variably breezy afternoon at the lavender farm; with some care, I managed to photograph this scene with front to back sharpness by timing the gusts and managing a shutter speed of 1/50 sec., mostly by raising the ISO and keeping the polarizer off the lens.  (I almost never shoot at f/22 because of concerns about diffraction, but in this case the only way to get the depth of field I was looking for at 60 mm was to stop all the way down; a bit of diffraction is worth the DOF, in my estimation.)  When I decided to go for the blurred look and take advantage of the breeze, I was walking a narrow line.  I wanted some sharpness; I think the blur here has far more impact because there are places of sharpness for the eye to rest.  This means that the shutter speed can’t be too slow (to prevent too much blur) and can’t be too fast (or there won’t be enough blur).   It’s the Goldilocks Syndrome; it has to be just right!  It took 10 exposures to get the shot you see above, with the shutter speed ultimately settling at 4/5 sec.

Incidentally, back when I was shooting transparency film, I might not have even tried to produce some of these shots.  Blow most (or all) of a roll of film without having any way to know if I was really on the right track?  I don’t think so.  This is an excellent example of how digital capture spurred creativity, at least for me.

My recommendation?  Give yourself a chance to play around a bit.  I think it’s usually helpful to do so with a purpose attached, but allow yourself the freedom to experiment to get the best result, even if that means a few (or many) more frames are exposed.



  1. Breathtaking pics 🙂 I really like them all!!

    • Thanks, Elyas!

  2. beautiful posts with beautiful photographs

    • Thanks very much!

  3. Great post and beautiful photos. Thanks for sharing.

    • My pleasure, thanks!

  4. I read Neill’s article also. Your point is well taken. Digital allows for immediate feedback. It is still hard to tell until you can put the image on a larger screen. The shot made standing in the middle of the water was a brave move. There’s a Youtube video somewhere showing a wave overtake a tripod and expensive Canon DSLR. Good lessons to be learned here.

    • Definitely agree about digital capture and the power of immediate feedback; this benefit shows up in myriad ways (i.e. not just in terms of experimenting with shutter speed).

      I don’t do anything crazy when it comes to getting an image. I routinely stand in water if that’s what it takes to get the shot I’m after, but only if it’s safe. No worries about rogue waves in a creek (which is where this image was made); believe me, neither I nor my gear was in any danger.

  5. Experimentation sparks creativity! This is one place where digital shines over film.The instant feedback is invaluable. Very nice shots to go with this fantastic write-up.

    • Thanks, Michael!

  6. My question is why is it important to show water as a blur? What is your concept as far as the landscape goes? Are you trying to communicate the movement of the wind or water?

    • I feel as though I’m somehow being challenged. 🙂 Just kidding; these are fair questions and I’ll do my best to answer them.

      Q. “Why is it important to show water as a blur?”

      A. I don’t know that it’s necessarily “important.” Blur (or lack thereof) in photographing water–for me–depends on what I’m trying to express. Note, for instance, in the Otter Cliffs sunrise image in this sequence, I very directly was attempting to avoid blurring the water. When I do choose to blur the water, it’s not always for the same reason. Sometimes I am trying to portray motion (e.g. Mill Creek); sometimes I’m trying to use the water as a placeholder for abstract impressions; sometimes–lowbrow as this may sound–I just like the way it looks. 🙂

      Q. “What is your concept as far as the landscape goes?”

      A. I’m not sure I have one, other than my profound respect for the landscape. To the extent that I have a landscape “concept,” it is trying to represent it a respectful manner. I always hope the viewer experiences that sense of respect–and occasionally awe–that I feel. And that’s about as ethereal on the subject as I’m going to get. 🙂

      Q. “Are you trying to communicate the movement of the wind or water?”

      A. I addressed this somewhat elliptically in response to the opening question, but the most honest answer I can give is “sometimes.” In the blurred image of the lavender farm that’s definitely what I was trying to express and it’s my hope that at least some viewers can achieve some semblance of the feeling that I experienced when I was standing there, with the scent of the lavender and the unmistakable sensation and sound of the breeze that summer afternoon in Sequim, Washington.

  7. Love the Otter Cliff shot! Thank you for visiting my blog earlier.

    • Thanks for the comment and the return visit.

  8. While sometimes I try to read through technical instructions, I generally get slightly bored, but I read this one all the way through! Thanks for the mini-tutorial and the honesty to say sometimes-it-takes-a-little-guessing 🙂

    • You’re very welcome; glad to hear that you found it useful.

  9. Great information, thank you for sharing…nice photos, too!

  10. Excellent post and photos! It’s enough to make me want to get serious again!

    I don’t miss film at all, the cost of a roll of film wasn’t that bad, it was the developing that seemed to set me back the most. You could save some by developing ektachrome yourself, but Kodachrome had to be sent to one of a handfull of places that could process it.

    • Thanks.

      I never tried developing color film–and I used Fuji film (Velvia and Provia) more than Kodak in any event.

  11. Breathtaking images!

  12. These images are simply awesome.
    The beauty of nature is captured so purely. It’s just as good as going there and seeing the place with your naked eyes. The emotions are evoked in my mind. Thank you for this share 🙂

    • Thanks very much, Amira!

  13. A most excellent post, Kerry. I can remember a number of instances when my creative imagination was captivated by a particular segment of scene, but I didn’t put enough effort into the capture to ensure that I had the raw material I needed to be able to present what I envisioned at the time. On rare occasion I’ve been able to go back and re-shoot, but it seems that the light is never the same. I’ve also learned to bracked my shutter speeds when part, most, or all of my subject is in motion, and it’s an invaluable lesson. Thanks!

    • Thanks…yup, the light rarely (if ever) is exactly the same the second (or third or fourth, etc.) time at a particular venue, even when all the other circumstances seem to line up just so.

  14. Outstanding series of images! These are all great. I like to range of creativity, which is certainly a good thing for any photographer. 🙂 Nicely done, Kerry.

    • Thanks, Jimi!

  15. I love water images

  16. All of these images are beauties Kerry, but the light in the second is extra special. It’s delicious.

    Your post got me thinking last night, thinking about an alternative technique for capturing motion. I finally found the reference that drove me crazy for awhile. Les McLean’s “Creative Black & White Photography” is among my favorite books. In one section, Les describes how he uses multiple exposures (on the same piece of film) to create evocative photographs. He took 200 separate exposures for the image “Tide, Atog, Wales” reproduced in the book. He uses the technique with water and finds trees on a windy day another excellent subject.

    First he selects the shutter speed he will use for the multiple exposures, then carefully meters shadows and highlights normally. He illustrates with an example: Normal metering 1 second at f/22, he decided to use a shutter speed of 1/60 so he divides 4 into 60 to get 15 and then takes 15 multiple-exposures of the scene at 1/60. Of course you need a sturdy tripod and Les uses either medium or large format.

    I’m tempted. My F3HP can take multiple-exposures. Yes, it’s 35mm, but the principle should work. I have no idea if this multiple-exposure technique is possible with digital.


    • I goofed Kerry. That normal metering should be 1/4 second, not 1 second. 60 / 4 = 15. Big duh for john.

    • Thanks, John.

      The multiple-exposure technique CAN be done with many (but not all) DSLRs. I’ve messed around with it a bit myself. It also can be done via layering individual exposures in post-processing. (I’ve done this with eclipse images.)

      BTW, there’s absolutely no reason you shouldn’t be able to do this with a 35mm film camera; the format shouldn’t matter as long as your camera–which I believe is entirely manual, so it shouldn’t be an issue–requires a manual advance of the film. That dealt with, the principle is exactly the same as it would be with medium or large format.

  17. My F3HP has a multiple-exposure lever next to the film advance lever. Now I must try this for myself. The question is when. I know I’ll need slower film so I have to wait until the TX is done.

  18. […] lightscapesphotography [Kerryl29] […]

  19. Beautiful photographs. I am just starting to play around with my creative photography and the technical information was beyond helpful.

    • Thanks; happy I could help.

  20. The lavender really caught my eye!
    Water/long exposures like it are really something I want to get better at. Of course, I never remember what kind of settings to use when I’m actually taking the picture….I’ll have to start writing general suggestions down so that I can try them that way

    • Thanks for the kind words.

      I think you’ll find, if you continue to do work with (relatively) long exposures that you’ll get a pretty accurate sense of where you should start, shutter speed-wise, fairly quickly. When it comes to very long exposures–let’s say 30 seconds and longer–it becomes more of a guessing game unless you work in that range on a regular basis.

      • That’s good to know. Thank you 🙂

        • My pleasure!

  21. Another wonderful post, Kerry – I always learn something from you! I love all the photos and I agree with you that working in the digital realm encourages more experimentation. I used to work with a Polaroid back to my camera when I did studio work and I don’t miss that at all. I just got a remote shutter control for my DSLR and am looking forward to doing more shutter exposure experimentation – thanks for the inspiration. And the lavender field photo brings back memories of attending a drinks and dinner reception in a lavender field one summer near Seattle – I will never forget the incredible heavenly scent permeating the air. Thanks for triggering a great memory!

    • Thanks very much, Lynn.

      A remote release is a good idea for a variety of reasons–specific control of “Bulb” shutter speeds (i.e. those over 30 seconds in length) is one, but minimizing the vibrations introduced by manually pressing the shutter release button on the camera is another. I use a cable (or wireless) release for literally every landscape and macro shot I take. So that’s a good addition to your in-field workflow. I also strongly recommend introducing mirror lock up (assuming your camera accommodates it) to your workflow, to reduce the influence of vibrations caused by mirror slap; in my experience–based on experimentation some years back–this is a particularly problematic phenomenon for shutter speeds ranging between (roughly) 1/15 sec. and 2 seconds. More and more DSLRs raise the mirror and keep it raised when exposures are made in Live View mode, but that’s not universally the case (mine doesn’t for instance–it raises the mirror to enable LV and then–somewhat inexplicably–lowers the mirror to begin the exposure sequence; as a result I never actually shoot in LV mode–I use it for preview purposes only).

      There are a bunch of terrific lavender farms in NW Washington; the best I’ve seen are on the Olympic Peninsula near Sequim (many of which are accommodating of photographers), but the locals would certainly know better than I.

  22. Great post my friend 🙂

    • Thanks, Jake!

  23. Beautiful photographs. I will keep experimenting.

  24. Super images and a super post. Outdoor Photographer mag is a great one. I’ve been a subscriber since the beginning (1985). I especially like the abstract water image!! It hard to pick my other fav’s…they are all well done!

    • Thanks, David!

  25. Wow, beautiful images!

    • Many, many thanks!

  26. I just love the photo of the lavender fields!


    • Thanks, Ashley!

  27. Awesome photos!

    • Much obliged!

  28. Amazing photographs. Brilliantly taken. 🙂 I loved the Otter Cliffs Sunrise, it’s breathtaking. 🙂

    • Thanks very much, Nandini!

  29. Great series. The water is not too much ‘washed away’ but just enough to show movement and thought. Very interesting series and I do like your technique.

    • Thanks, Todd!

  30. What delightful photos…I especially like the Otter Cliffs Sunrise — so dark, yet peaceful somehow. You’re skilled in evoking emotion with your photography.

    • Thanks, Mel.

  31. wow! Stunning photos!

    your student


  32. As awesome as ever. Love it. The second photo is just stunning!!!!

    • Thanks very much, Paprika!

  33. Great images Kerry. I also checked out your website. Your landscape images are superb.
    I see you are a Nikon user. I am a Canon user myself and believe that, good images are totally down to the expertise of the photographer.

    • Thanks very much, Jim.

      Yes, I’m a Nikon shooter, but I’m no fanboy and I never get caught up in the–in my opinion–exceptionally silly Nikon v. Canon debates. From a piece on my Web site:

      “When I moved to replace [a Minolta SLR], I chose a Nikon N80–a kind of mid-level film SLR, something that had every feature that was important to me (except mirror lockup) at a relatively affordable price. I was insistent on a camera that had a built-in spot meter–almost all of my shooting is done in full manual exposure mode–which left out the comparable Canon SLR (the Elan 7). Had I been willing to move up a class in camera–the Nikon F100 or the Canon EOS 3) I might well have ended up buying into the Canon line, but I didn’t want to spend the extra cash. That’s the reason I entered the Nikon world and I became more deeply embedded as I invested in lenses. I’ve stuck with Nikon because of this investment, but I’m sure that I would have been at least as satisfied if I’d ended up going the Canon route.”

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