Sea stacks, late afternoon, northern California coast, USA

Sea stacks, late afternoon, northern California coast

Learning photography is often a process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t. As beginners we usually learn what doesn’t work from our own images, and what does work from looking at photographs and photographers we admire. And that leads to a natural tendency to try to recreate the images and styles of others.

As we spend more time behind the camera we build up our own repertoire of ideas that work – for us. And naturally, when faced with decisions about where to go, or what light to look for, or what lens to use, we gravitate toward places, compositions, lighting situations, and techniques that we’ve used successfully before.

Which is all fine – except that the only way to grow, to expand your repertoire of ideas about what will work for you, and to avoid simply imitating yourself, is to try something that hasn’t worked for you before. That could mean using light you don’t normally use, or putting on a wide-angle lens when you’d typically reach for a telephoto (or vice versa), using a wide aperture when you’d usually stop down, or photographing a subject you’d normally avoid. Anything will do, as long as it forces you to stretch yourself and reach beyond your box of tried-and-true tricks.

One day during our recent workshop in redwood country we arrived at our sunset location along the coast with at least two hours to spare. Later some clouds would move in to create a beautiful sunset, but at first the sky was perfectly clear, and the light didn’t seem that interesting. I asked the question I often ask myself – what was catching my eye at that moment? The answer was easy: the bright sunlight reflecting off the water.

That was, of course, one of those situations I’d normally avoid. It’s difficult to photograph right into the sun like that because of the extreme contrast, and the potential for lens flare. There was a good chance it wouldn’t work. But then again, maybe it would – and at worst I’d learn something.

It wasn’t like I’d never tried photographing sunlight reflecting off water before, but most of these attempts hadn’t looked very interesting. So in order to change things up I decided to use a super-slow shutter speed to smooth out the water. I tried my 10-stop neutral-density filter, with a polarizer to cut some of the glare on the water, but the exposure was still too short. So I changed to my 16-stop ND filter, with the polarizer, which allowed me to use 30-second shutter speed without overexposing the bright water.

The initial results looked intriguing, so I experimented with different compositions, trying to get decent visual separation between the rocks and sea stacks, while placing the bright streak of reflected sunlight where it would draw the viewer’s attention to an interesting part of the photo near the middle of the frame.

Because of the long exposures and dark, silhouetted rocks, the resulting images look a bit like nighttime photographs of moonlight reflecting off water. They remind me a little of the “day-for-night” shots that Hollywood used in the past for night scenes, where they’d shoot in the middle of the day, with a blue filter, and deliberately underexpose the film to make it look (not very convincingly) like the scene took place at night.

We did a lot of experimenting that afternoon. Some members of our group used slow shutter speeds as they panned with waves. Others tried catching wave splashes with semi-slow shutter speeds. And I encouraged other participants to try shooting into the sun with super-long exposures. Most people got some good results, and we all had fun stretching ourselves and reaching beyond our tried-and-true techniques.

— Michael Frye

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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.