No this post isn’t about creaky knees. I don’t know any more than you do how to stop the process of a nature photographer’s knees going creaky with age. It’s a different spelling anyway! No, this post is about photographing creeks and streams. Big rivers require a different sort of approach, so this will focus on the small and medium-sized water courses. When I go out to shoot in these environments, I call it “creeking”, a term borrowed from hard-core kayakers. If you’re from certain areas of the U.S., you might pronounce it “cricking”!
If you’ve seen enough of my images, you know I like to shoot water, and usually that water is photographed more or less smooth (long exposure). After going out again yesterday afternoon for some good old wet miserable creeking, I thought about how I have come to do this sort of shooting. It really is unlike any other kind I do, and I’m not sure if it’s fun I’m having or not. Since it’s Friday, I’m going to be positive and say it’s fun!
Since the way you photograph water is a personal thing, I will talk little about the details of exposure and such. Instead I’ll concentrate on the approach I take to ensure I get the most out of my flowing, gurgling or tumbling subjects. But I will say you would do well to at least try long exposures with water. Don’t get married to it of course, but also don’t be surprised if you get drawn into a passionate romance. However long your exposures, the fun part of this is composing an interesting “‘intimate landscape” – an image of a fairly small piece of nature.
Many of these I captured yesterday in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. Please click on the image or contact me if you are interested in any of them. They are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission, sorry.
- Tripod: Since streams are often lined with trees, light is usually low. Also, for long exposures a tripod is almost a necessity. The only other way to do them is to set your camera on a rock or your pack. That’s a hassle and you also run the risk of dumping it in the water.
- Tripod Head: A ball-head is probably best, since you will want to quickly change the camera angle in a number of directions. Make sure your entire attachment system is bomb-proof. Having a camera come off the tripod in the grass of your front yard is okay. But when you’re perched over a stream, you can’t afford anything of the sort. So check the screw that attaches your camera plate to the camera & make sure it’s tight. If it frequently works itself loose, apply blue Loctite to it. Your tripod head’s clamping mechanism should fit well and be very snug on the plate. Get a camera plate made for your camera and buy both the clamp and plate from the same manufacturer. The camera shouldn’t move at all if you push and pull at it. You can also attach a safety strap from the camera to the tripod head. But if the whole tripod goes tumbling that will just make sure your camera follows. At the edge of or in water (and also near cliffs), I either keep the camera strap around my neck or loop it around my arm.
- Backpack: You need a camera backpack for this. A sling or satchel type doesn’t really cut it, since you’ll be scrambling and balancing. Try to find a backpack that fits closely to your body and wears like a real backpack. Clik Elite is one company that sells such packs. Unfortunately, most packs sold are too bulky and awkward, poorly suited for hiking in rough conditions. Make sure your tripod attaches securely to the pack.
- Camera Protection: It helps to have camera & lenses that are fairly well sealed against moisture. I’m not talking about waterproof cameras here, though you could use a waterproof housing if you can afford one. Any DSLR or non waterproof point and shoot camera that falls into a stream will be in need of immediate service – not good! But even aside from the creek itself, there’s always plenty of water around a creek. Fine droplets hang in the air near any stream, especially near waterfalls. In addition you will often be out when it is raining or threatening to rain. So you need some way to cover your camera and keep it dry in rainfall or in the spray of waterfalls. In the camera store, try to play with raincovers and see which one fits your camera best and yet still allows you to use the controls with relative ease.
- Photographer Protection: Figure the temperature near streams will be at least 10 degrees colder than away from them. Also figure on getting wet, which will make you colder. Bring rain coat and pants. Wear your most water-resistant footwear, plus thick wool socks. Bring a warm hat. You can try rubber boots (wellies) but it’s easier than you think to get in water too deep for them. A better choice: hip waders. They will allow you to wade in as deep as you probably want to anyway. I just use an old pair of boots and warm socks. I don’t mind getting wet and hip waders have always seemed too clunky to me. I bring a change of socks, shoes & pants for after the shoot.
- Footwear+: One more note on footwear. If you are really into creeking consider getting felt-bottom boots. These are the kind fly-fisherman wear. Felt is the perfect sole material for slippery wet rocks. Most people don’t know this, but so are your socks! Since I”m too cheap for felt-bottom boots, this is how I do it when the rocks are super-slippery.
- Hiking Pole/Staff: It helps to have a hiking pole or stick to help balance and probe when creeking. I sometimes take one of my (pair of) trekking poles, but only when I think I will be fully crossing streams. Usually I just use my tripod. But a hiking pole with a strap that goes around your wrist is best for stream wading.
- Camera Gear: You’ll want the option to shoot long exposures, so an auto-everything camera won’t really work. A DSLR is perfect, and a full-frame DSLR even better. Bring your wide angle lens; you’ll be using that most of the time. Also bring along a circular polarizing filter. Though not as useful as a CPL, a graduated neutral density filter comes in handy as well.
Other than that the gear is pretty much the same as for other kinds of landscape photography. So let’s get out and do it! Here are some things to keep in mind for a successful creeking trip.
- Clouds are Best: Creeks are normally found in the forest, or at least lined with trees. And so sunshine is generally the enemy. The colors of vegetation and cobbles are washed out by sunshine, and contrast in sun-dappled scenes can be a nightmare. An overcast sky is good, and so is heavy cloud-cover and rain. fog and low clouds add atmosphere.
- Composition is King: As always, composition is really the make or break in your images. And when you get under the trees and into the small-scale settings of a creek, it becomes even more important (it stands more on its own because light doesn’t steal the show as much). Be very careful about having too much “junk” in your photos. Sticks, ugly rocks, really anything can clutter a creekside photo. Be patient and hunt around until you find relatively clean and beautiful compositions.
- Light Still Matters: Although you can easily get great shots in the middle of the day (provided it’s cloudy) while creeking, golden hour is still golden. Even if you’re in a canyon with only a small part of the sky above you, when that sky gets filled with great light near sunrise or sunset, the resulting reflected light down near the creek can become special. I used to try and leave the creek before sunset so I could get somewhere to shoot. Now if I’m somewhere nice I stay put and take advantage of the good light in the canyon.
- Get Wet: If you are determined to stay dry, and to avoid going into the stream, your images will simply not be as good as they could be. Sooner or later you’ll need to enter the water.
- But Be Careful: Being around water is a hazard for both you and your equipment. This means taking your time and being deliberate about all your movements. Use your pole (or tripod) to probe ahead. Place your foot only when you know how deep it is and what the bottom is like. Don’t take chances balancing and hopping when it’s much safer to just walk through the water. Plan ahead before you enter the stream so you aren’t fussing with gear and changing lenses. Your camera is either around your neck or on your tripod (preferably both!).
- Beware the Current: People are surprised when they find out how it only takes a shallow stream to knock them off their feet. If it’s swift, a creek does not need to be that deep to be powerful. So enter current only after you’re sure of its power. You can get an idea by probing with your pole/tripod. Face upstream and take a wide stance, don’t take really big steps, maintain good balance. Also be aware that your tripod will only be stable up to a certain speed/depth of water.
- Get Creative: Look for logs and other interesting elements to help frame your pictures (see image above). Climb up above the stream and look down, shoot both downstream and upstream, move up and downstream looking for creative compositions. Try using a fisheye lens if you have one.
- Use a Polarizer: Put your polarizing filter on, point it at a bright part of the stream, where it’s reflecting the sky, or at rocks shiny with water, and rotate it to see the effect. You’ll notice how, just as with your sunglasses, it’s possible to see the bottom of the stream when you do this. If there are multicolored rocks below the water, you have a nice foreground if you have a polarizer. It will also help to bring out the colors, especially if things are wet. There are exceptions to the rule, of course (see image below).
- Go Long: Most photographers want to get at least some longer exposures, where the water takes on that silky look. Yet another benefit of the circular polarizing filter is that it stops anywhere from one to two stops of light from reaching your sensor or film. So this (plus smaller aperture and lower ISO) may be all you need for longer exposures. If it is bright out, or if you want really long exposures, you’ll need a neutral density filter. You can buy those that rotate to give you a varying degree of darkness, but be cautious about the quality on these.
- Keep a Lens Cloth Handy: Water droplets from a waterfall or rain will get on your lens surface and interfere with the light. Then when you come home and look at your pictures, you will be disappointed. Unlike dust spots, water droplets are very hard to clone out with software. I have ruined many a shot not being fastidious enough about keeping my lens dry. Prevent water getting on the lens by using a lens hood and covering up with a towel until the moment of the shot. Check and wipe with a dry lens cloth when necessary. That can mean constantly when it’s raining or near a falls. Annoying but definitely necessary.
- Take your Time: Since there is a safety aspect here, taking your time is very important. But more than any other kind of photography, especially when it’s raining (when I usually go), creeking takes time. So plan on at least a couple hours in each location. Exploring up and down the creek, to areas that are not accessible by trail, setting up, being careful with your camera gear, all this takes time.
I hope you got something out of this post. And I hope you take some time to go play along a stream with your camera..soon! If you’re patient you could easily come away with a beautiful intimate landscape that you’re proud to hang on the wall. Have a great weekend!