Shine Falls Base—Hawkes Bay, by Peter Kent
This week’s image, by Peter Kent of Canberra, Australia, was made in the Boundary Creek Reserve in the Hawkes Bay region of New Zealand. It’s nice to add a photograph from down under to this series!
There’s something about falling water that holds an irresistible attraction; photographers have a hard time passing by a waterfall without breaking out their cameras. Having lived in or near Yosemite for over 25 years I get to photograph some of the world’s most spectacular waterfalls on a regular basis, yet it never gets old—I still find them fascinating. But Yosemite doesn’t have a monopoly—there are thousands of waterfalls in the world, each with its own unique character and photographic potential.
I’d never heard of Shine Falls before I saw this image, but it certainly looks like a beautiful cascade, and a rich subject for photographs. On Peter’s Flickr photostream you can see a couple of other variations, including an overall view.
That wider view is a pretty good composition as well, but when I look at it my eyes are drawn to the bottom of the waterfall, with its interesting patterns and textures, and of course the rainbow. So I think Peter did a good job of identifying the most appealing part of the scene, the area that captured his attention the most, and filling the frame with just that.
This is the essence of composition: identifying what catches your eye, and eliminating all but the most essential elements. The best images are simple. The photographer’s point stands out clearly without distractions or clutter.
Good compositions almost always have something else in common: a strong, abstract design. Too often photographers become trapped into thinking in terms of subjects rather than designs. When photographing a tree, for example, many people approach the scene with a pre-formed mental image of what a tree is supposed to look like, instead of seeing the unique qualities of the particular tree they’re photographing. To avoid this trap, try studying the tree’s lines and shapes. Think of the abstract designs created by the trunk and branches, then find the composition that presents these patterns in the strongest way. And don’t be afraid to cut off the top or bottom of the tree. The desire to include the whole subject is grounded in that mental image of what a tree is supposed to look like, not in the desire to present the most interesting, essential elements of a particular tree in the strongest manner.
Here Peter wasn’t afraid to cut off the top of the waterfall and focus attention on what he thought was the most interesting part. In doing so he also emphasized the lines and shapes of the subject—the repeating vertical lines in the cascading water, and the small diagonal lines and triangles in the corners.
I think there’s potential for other compositions of this scene as well, especially more abstract images that include just small sections of the fall. In fact Peter said he did just that while he waited for the sun to be in the right position for wider views, but he didn’t post them to his Flickr page.
The light was coming from behind, above, and to the left of the camera. Frontlight like this often leads to flat, dull photographs, but there’s enough contrast here between the white water and the dark surrounding rocks to avoid that, plus of course the rainbow adds a splash of color.
If there’s a problem with this image, it’s the position of that rainbow. Since it’s the only really colorful thing in the photograph, it pulls your eye into the corner. It would be great if the rainbow arced through the middle of the frame. Of course we don’t have control over those things, except to try to be in the right place at the right time.
Here’s where some planning can be beneficial, because rainbows on waterfalls are actually predictable. Rainbows form a circle around a point opposite the sun. Because the sun is always above us, the point opposite it is always located below us, so we usually only see the top half of the circle, which looks like an arch (the bottom half is interrupted by the earth). To find a rainbow in any waterfall, position yourself so that the sun is at your back as you look toward an area with abundant spray. Rainbows are most vivid when they arc through the base of the fall, where copious amounts of mist are generated.
This image was made at around 10:00 a.m. Remember, a rainbow forms a circle around a point opposite the sun, so as the sun rises in the morning, the rainbow moves down, from the top of a waterfall to the bottom. In the northern hemisphere it moves from top-left to lower-right, but in the southern hemisphere it travels from top-right to lower-left. So it probably just slid through the lower-right corner of this image, and was never in an ideal position from this camera position on the morning Peter made this photograph. If he had been able to move further to his left the rainbow would have “followed” him and arced through the lower-middle of the waterfall. I don’t know if that was possible; Peter actually included a photo of his camera and tripod on Flickr, which show their position, but it’s hard to tell if there was any more room to the left. Most likely stepping to the left would have put him in the river!
Time of year also matters. My brain has a hard time wrapping itself around the movement of the sun in the southern hemisphere, but I think that the rainbow would be visible further left, toward the middle of the fall, on shorter days, when the sun would rise further north. The EXIF data says this was made on March 14th, a little over a week ago. Maybe in another month or two it would be in the right place, or again in the southern spring, around August.
Of course we don’t always have the opportunity to plan things that precisely. Peter made this photograph while on a business trip, and tried to take advantage of whatever conditions he found. That kind of flexibility is vital in landscape photography, but so is the ability to plan and try to figure out when the light will be best for a certain image. Often on your first visit to a location you find subjects that would work better at a different time, conjuring thoughts of a return trip.
One more thing about rainbows: they’re actually enhanced slightly by polarizing filters. Rotated to maximum strength, where it darkens a blue sky and cuts reflections, a polarizer will make the rainbow disappear, but turned 90 degrees from that it will make the rainbow a bit more vibrant.
The exposure looks great overall: the water is as light as it can be without being washed out. I might try darkening the brightest strand of water, about a third of the way from the left edge, to keep it in balance with the rest. I like the choice of a fast shutter speed for this image. While slow shutter speeds usually work well with small cascades, as in the photograph by Charlene Burge that I critiqued on February 24th, fast shutter speeds are often a better choice for big waterfalls, as frozen motion preserves the form and texture of the spray.
Thanks Peter for sharing your photograph! You can see more of his work on Flickr.
If you’d like your images considered for future critiques, just upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose. If you’re not a Flickr member yet, joining is free and easy. You’ll have to read and accept the rules for the group before adding images, and please, no more than five photos per person per week. I’ll be posting the next critique on March 30th or 31st. Thanks for participating!