Wide-Angle Portraits

I have learned most of what I know in photography by observing others that are better at some aspect of it than I am. I recently learned some great portrait techniques from Indonesian photographer Rarindra Prakarsa, who shoots beautiful and compelling environmental portraits. I really enjoyed shooting these pictures and was happy with the results.

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Taking a Break : Prints Available

Indonesian dock worker taking a break behind a shipping container

Here are five tips for creating these types of images:

First, the subject and background must both be compelling. Notice in the shot below how excellent the subject is and how well the background complements him. This was a very friendly guy who works in a shipyard in Jakarta, Indonesia and who just happens to really know how to pose. You have to be really talented to get a bad picture of this guy… I had a number of keepers and it was difficult deciding on my favorite. What makes this image is his great expression and the interesting background which complements him so well.

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Jakarta Shipyard : Prints Available

Dock worker in a Jakarta shipyard poses for the camera.

Second, use a wide-angle lens and shoot from below eye level. Wide-angle lenses aren’t normally thought of as portrait lenses and don’t work for everyone. But, for certain subjects, shooting in the 20mm-30mm range can really work well. Shooting from below eye level makes your subject look larger than life. In the image below, I shot from significantly below eye-level and the result was…. well, very cool.

Third, carefully position the hands to be part of the composition. When a wide-angle lens is used, hands in the foreground will look much bigger than normal (as in the picture below). However, this looks good in these images in my opinion.

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Stand Tall and Hold a Machete : Prints Available

Indonesian man holding a machete with the rising sun behind him.

Fourth, use a mix of natural light and flash. These pictures were generally shot using just one off-camera flash at a 45-degree angle to the subject. Don’t overpower your subject with flash. You want to make it look like no flash was used. You’ll want to set your camera to “manual”, expose for the background (I generally underexposed a bit for these shots) and then bring in the flash.

Fifth, shoot either early or late in the day (when the sun is low in the sky) or in overcast conditions. Bright sunlight on your subject will generally ruin the picture… especially if he or she is squinting from the sun.

What I like about these images is that the wide-angle lens creates a perspective that doesn’t look quite “real”. Because of that, these techniques are entirely inappropriate for many or even most portraits. You will want to use different techniques if you are shooting a wedding or senior portrait, for example.

I Love Ultra Wide Angle Lenses

I love wide-angle lenses. I love them so much that I need to say it again. I LOVE wide-angle lenses.

When I refer to my love for wide-angle lenses (I really love these lenses), I am mostly talking about the widest lenses, also known as ultra-wides. Without getting too technical (because I can’t), these are lenses in the 14mm-16mm range for those of you who have full frame sensors (you know who you are). For cropped sensors, the 10mm range is the upper end of ultra-wide. These are different from fish-eye lenses, because ultra-wides keep the lines straight while fisheyes curve the lines. Don’t know what I’m talking about? That’s okay… read on as the same principles apply (somewhat) to wide-angle lenses in general.

I’ll start with the most important thing I have to say about wide-angles. Do NOT just use these lenses for jamming as much as possible into the picture. In fact, this usually doesn’t look good.

There are three things that I like about ultra wides. First, these lenses exaggerate the distance between the foreground and background. Objects that are far away look smaller than they really are while closer objects look larger. Getting close to a foreground subject makes the subject more prominent in the frame. Below is an example. I was shooting somewhat close to the model… probably 12-16 inches away from her left hand. The model’s dress and hand look large… like they have been pulled towards the camera. The building feels farther away than it was.

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Blue costumed Carnival model calling from a stairway in Venice

Here is another shot from Venice which further illustrates this. The distance between foreground and background has been greatly exaggerated.

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Ornate Staircase : Prints Available

Carnival model in red walking down a beautifully painted staircase

Second, ultra wides make the corners look stretched out. Check out the lower right corner of this picture shot with my 14mm lens and compare it to the center of the frame and the building in the distance. This stretching of the corners adds a lot of dimension to this image. One challenge in taking this shot was keeping myself out of the reflection in the sign.

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Reflection on Wacker Drive : Prints Available

Color rendition of a reflection in a sign on Wacker Drive

Third, yes, sometimes wide angles are helpful for jamming everything into the picture. Cathedral shots are an example. I could not have gotten this entire shot in without an ultra wide lens.

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St. Mark's Basilica Interior : Prints Available

St. Mark’s Basilica in San Marco square

Here is some advice on using ultra-wides (and wide angles in general):

First, do not be shy about getting very close to your subject. Walk up to and around your subject while looking in the viewfinder and you will see how moving forward or back just inches can dramatically change your composition. This will also make you look cool to those around you. Just don’t trip on anything while looking through your viewfinder. Not that I’ve done that. I’m just saying.

Second, pay extra careful attention to the background. There is more background to worry about. It is much easier to inadvertently include unwanted elements. It is also more challenging to position yourself just right in order to get corners and lines where you want them. An example of where I blew this is the stairway shot earlier in this article. Notice the ceiling isn’t straight. I was positioned slightly off-center.

Third, and last, start without a tripod. Even if you will actually shoot with a tripod, start by walking around and determining your position first.

Using Leading Lines to Draw Attention to the Subject

I generally try to avoid saying things that sound corny. But I’m going to make an exception here. Okay, so here goes… ahem…. “good photographic composition should take the viewer on a visual journey through an image and arrive decisively at the subject of the photograph.” Okay, yes, that is super corny sounding, but you should not view me as being a writer of corny blogs since I recognized the statement was corny and warned you ahead of time.

So, now that the corniness is out on the table, let me explain what I mean. If you look around an image and your eyes don’t know where to land, then it is usually compositionally unpleasing. Why? Heck, I don’t know, but smart people have done studies on this. A good compositional technique is to get your viewer’s eyes to move around the image (this takes a fraction of a second) and land on the subject. How do you do this? One way is through “leading lines”, the topic of this blog.

You can use lines within your composition to direct the viewer’s attention to the subject. In the picture below, the retreating waves make lines which move your eye through the image until arriving at the cape in the distance.

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Morning at Cape Kiwanda : Prints Available

Retreating water forms a leading line to Cape Kiwanda

In this next image, the wooden posts in the water make a line which brings your attention to the Chicago skyline. Note that straight lines in images don’t always work. In scenes with man-made structures (such as this one), you expect to see straight lines, whereas you generally expect more curved lines in nature.

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Chicago Sunrise : Prints Available

Beautiful red sunrise over Lake Michigan

The winding fence makes a perfect leading line up to the barns of Jenne Farm. Jenne Farm is the most photographed farm in the U.S. and for good reason… it’s a very beautiful place to spend a morning in Autumn.

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Jenne Farm in Autumn : Prints Available

Morning light and Fall foliage at the Jenne Farm

The path below brings your attention to the hikers in the distance who would otherwise be lost in the image.


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Path forms a leading line to hikers in the distance

The “Rule of Thirds” – Part 2 – Breaking the Rule

This is the 2nd part of a 2-part blog on the “rule of thirds”. Part 1 focused on demonstrating what the rule is and how to follow it. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, you should probably read that first. Part 2 focuses on breaking the rule.

I should start out by saying that the rule of thirds is a good guideline which more often than not results in a better overall image. However, sometimes breaking the rule is a good thing. This blog is going to focus specifically on the #1 reason I break the rule… that is to create or take advantage of symmetry in a composition.

For example, in the following image of the Green Tree Python, I placed the snake’s head dead center. This goes against the rule of thirds, but works well because of the symmetry of the snake. If I had placed the snake’s head at one of the four intersections of the rule of thirds grid (see Part 1), the image would not have been as strong.

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Perfectly symmetrical sleeping Green Tree Python

Close-up portraits where the subject is looking straight at the camera generally look better composed dead center. I really like the composition in the Carnivale model portrait below because of the symmetry in the mask and costume.

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Elegance : Prints Available

Close-up portrait of a gorgeous Carnival model in a bright purple costume

The same applies to the cathedral shot below, which works well because of the perfect symmetry of the cathedral. I could have composed this shot with the top of the church pews 1/3 from the bottom of the image. However, the church pews are much less interesting than the beautiful walls and ceiling, so I opted to de-emphasize the pews by keeping them at the very bottom of the image.

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Saint Nicholas Cathedral : Prints Available

Interior shot of Chicago’s own Saint Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral.

Combining symmetry with a slightly off-center subject can work very well as a composition. Notice the foreground below is mostly symmetrical, while the sea stack (the main subject) is composed slightly off-center. The sea stack is not quite at the top right rule of thirds intersection. The symmetry of the foreground holds the image together, while the slightly off-center sea stack really draws your eye in this case.

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End of Day at Rialto Beach : Prints Available

A beautiful sunset on the shores of Rialto Beach

Look for opportunities to create symmetry in your photos and don’t hesitate to break the rule of thirds in those cases.

If you would like to read more about the rule of thirds, you can also check out the following article at Photography Talk:


The “Rule of Thirds” – Part 1 – Following the Rule

Welcome to Part 1 of a 2-part blog on the “rule of thirds”. The rule of thirds is perhaps the most well-known guideline in art and photographic composition. Part 1 focuses on creating images that follow the rule. For you rebels out there, Part 2 focuses on breaking the rule. So, there is something for everyone in this blog.

First, what is the “rule of thirds”? Let’s start with what it is not. Take a look at the image below. This is your typical awful, boring vacation snapshot that your college roommate just brought back from a weekend trip to Chicago. Only it is not just this one picture… your roommate has seven of the same shot and you need to look at all of them. Notice how the subject is dead center (left to right), the horizon line is very close to the bottom (and crooked) and there is too much sky in the picture. The picture just looks off-balance and compositionally boring. This picture is a snapshot and does NOT follow the rule of thirds.


Now, take a look at this next image of a fisherman I shot in Guilin, China.

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Morning on the Li : Prints Available

Chinese fisherman silhouette on the Li River

Notice that this image really works compositionally. This one doesn’t look like your roommate’s vacation snapshot. One reason this picture works so well is because it follows the rule of thirds. Now, I haven’t forgotten that I still haven’t really told you what the rule is. So, let’s do that now. Let me take this same image and put a “tic-tac-toe” grid over it using two horizontal and two vertical lines, each 1/3 of the way into the scene.

Morning on the Li

To follow the rule of thirds, you place “points of interest” (the subject, horizon lines, etc) 1/3 of the way into the image, using both the lines and the intersections of the lines to guide you. You would often place your subject (or a key part of your subject) at one of the intersections and also use the lines themselves for important parts of the picture. In the image above, I placed the fisherman at the lower right intersection, while the horizon line and mountains are generally along the top line.

So, how do you know which line(s) and intersection(s) to place your subject and points of interest at or along? Good question! Remember, photography is more about what works as opposed to following rules. However, here are three guidelines to consider:

  • If your subject is moving, you usually want them moving into the image rather than out of it. Notice my placement of the fisherman on the right of the above image means he is moving into the composition. Placing him at the lower left intersection would have looked awkward… like he is moving right out of the image.
  • Similarly, if your subject is someone or something with eyes and is looking left or right, you generally want them looking into the picture, not out of the picture. In the image below, the woman on the left is looking into the image which works well. I’ve also placed the two women along each of the vertical lines. I’ve placed the main subject (the face of the woman on the right) at the top right intersection.
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Older Chinese women sitting on the stairs

  • You typically want the most important part of the picture to take more space. This factors into a decision on where to put the horizon line in a landscape photo. Placing the horizon on the bottom line would generally result in about 2/3’s of the image being sky. This might work if you want to emphasize the sky. However, you may not want to short-change the main subject of the image… the landscape foreground. In the image below, I placed the horizon along the top horizontal line because I wanted more emphasis on the lavender fields than the sky. Notice the tree (the subject) is at the top left intersection.

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Late evening light strikes a tree in the middle of a lavender field

There is more to say on the rule of thirds. However, hopefully this helps with an introduction to what the rule is and how to follow it. In Part 2, I’ll show you that it is often a good idea to break the rule.

Also, if you would like to read more about the rule of thirds, you can also check out the following article at Photography Talk:


Dramatic Portraits Using Side Lighting

I love dramatic portraits. You can add drama to a portrait in a variety of ways, but the starting point is your lighting. Creative use of light and shadows can make almost anyone look cool. Almost.

An easy and effective approach is called “side lighting”, also known as “split lighting”. Take a look at the image below and notice the obvious… that the light is coming in at a 90 degree angle to the subject and putting half of her face in light and half in shadow. This is a pretty extreme example of side lighting.


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Stylish woman decked out in a red hat and sunglasses against a dark background

In this case, I took the picture in a fairly dark room with a black background. I used a studio light (strobe) and a light modifier called a “beauty dish” placed very close to the left of the subject’s face. I also had her move her right arm forward to light her arm and balance out the picture.

It was important to make sure that the light did not hit the background and did not go directly into the lens and create flare. You can prevent light from hitting either by placing a couple pieces of black cardboard near the front of the flash (parallel to the light and on each side of the flash) to block the light that would otherwise hit the background and lens.

For the above image, I wanted very directional light. For the image below, I allowed a bit more light through on the front of the model.


No Rest for the Weary : Prints Available

Distressed looking woman wearing a red hat in a dark room

To get a less dramatic effect, you can bounce light back onto the unlit side of the subject’s face using a reflector. Also, window lighting can be used to side light, although the light coming in from the window will also create ambient light in the room, meaning you will have less contrast between light and shadows.

Including Reflections in Your Images

There is an old adage that “two is better than one”. Like most old adages, there are exceptions to the adage. For example, I just used the word “adage” twice in the same sentence and it sounds kind of crummy. Nevertheless, from a photography perspective, I think Taylor Swift was really onto something when she coined this timeless phrase.

Including a mirror image reflection of a subject can result in a pretty cool picture. I regularly look for reflections in water, mirrors, windows and other reflective surfaces when out shooting pictures. Here are some examples:

Reflections in Water – Landscape photographers regularly use reflections in water as an important compositional element. In most cases, you will want to avoid cutting the reflection in half, so you might have to bend or break the “rule of thirds”, sometimes putting the horizon line dead center in your composition.

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Fishing on the Li : Prints Available

Chinese cormorant fisherman on his boat

Reflections in Mirrors – The shape of the sign and mirrored reflection is what makes the image below (somewhat) interesting. When using a wide-angle lens, you often have to be careful to keep yourself and your camera out of the reflection while also keeping interesting elements in the reflection.

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Reflection on Wacker Drive : Prints Available

Color rendition of a reflection in a sign on Wacker Drive

Reflections in Windows – I did an earlier blog on “watching the windows” when composing, so this is a bit of a repeat. Notice how the reflection in the windows adds color and contrast to the subject.

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Church on the Coast : Prints Available

Red and white coastal church with the beginning of a beautiful sunset overhead

Creative Use of Other Reflective Surfaces – In the shot below, the reflection is the subject, as opposed to complementing the subject. Reflective use of shiny surfaces, such as black plexiglass, is often used in product photography and even portraits.

The Beach

Including Motion in Your Pictures

Photographers are faced with the challenge of bringing life to a static, two dimensional image. The creative use of light and shadows can make images appear three dimensional (I’ll address this in a future blog). You can also make your images more dynamic by capturing motion, which is the topic of this blog. Below are a few examples on how to do this.

Use very long exposures in dark environments. The picture below looks like the London Eye on steroids. The motion blur in the clouds and ferris wheel is the result of a 20 second exposure. These long exposures are only possible when minimal light is hitting the camera’s sensor, such as at night or when using a very dark neutral density filter.

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London Eye spinning at night

Capturing moving objects in brighter conditions. You can still get motion blur in a light environment. The amount of motion depends upon your lens focal length, distance to the subject, shutter speed and, of course, how fast the subject is moving. The shot below from Venice was taken using a shutter speed of 1/2 second, although you can blur fast moving objects using faster shutter speeds, such as 1/250 or faster. Generally, you’ll want to experiment to get the effect you want.

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Gondolas docked at San Marco Square in Venice

Freezing motion. Capturing and freezing water or moving objects using a fast shutter speed can still add movement to your image. This is especially true if the moving subject is prominent in your composition, such as in the wave splash below.

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Wave Crash at Oceanside : Prints Available

A wave crashing on the rocky shore of Oceanside, Oregon is frozen in time

Zooming during the capture. If you use a zoom lens, another way to capture motion is by zooming during the actual capture. In most cases, these shots look better if at least part of the picture is sharp (notice the trees are sharp in the image below). So, it is still important to focus on your subject before zooming.

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Zoom shot of foliage at Groton State Park in Vermont

Taking Blurred Water Pictures of Creeks – Part 2 of 2 (Composition and Shot)

Welcome to Part 2 of “Taking Blurred Water Pictures of Creeks”. The first article focused on setting up the shot, including settings and positioning. This article deals with the fun stuff… composing and shooting.

Judging by the number of emails I’ve gotten, a lot of you were anxiously awaiting Part 2. Actually, that’s not true. I didn’t even get one email. No phone calls, no texts, no emails, no nuthin’. In fact, while I’m on the subject, it’s really lonely authoring a blog. If it wasn’t for this large white chocolate mocha sitting next to me, I don’t know how I’d handle it. But, let’s move on, first with composing the shot…


  • Use leading lines to direct the viewer’s attention – This is an often used compositional technique, but is especially helpful in creek shots. Creeks are full of leading lines, starting with the creek itself. As in the shot below, look for rapids which will form white blurry lines. Also look for rocks to form leading lines. You want the stream, rocks and whatever else to focus the viewer’s attention where you want it. Generally speaking, you will want to avoid straight lines in your composition, particularly if they don’t point to the background or subject. If there are fallen trees in the middle of your composition, you might have to think about a different spot until they get cleared out.
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Middle Prong Creek : Prints Available

Fall colors on Little River off of Middle Prong Trail.

  • Don’t let the rapids run out of the frame – Remember those white blurred lines we just talked about? Well, you will typically not want these small rapids running out of your composition. It doesn’t look good. Notice in the image above that the blurred rapids are close to the edge of the image, but don’t actually run out of the frame.
  • Avoid patchy lighting – Don’t go out on a bright sunny afternoon and expect good creek shots. You will want to avoid patchy lighting in your foreground or background, so shoot in cloudy conditions, or else very early or late in the day. This isn’t necessarily a rule… sometimes a bit of sun coming through the trees can really add a nice glowing effect on the scene. It is harsh, patchy light you want to avoid.
  • The shot must be compelling, front to back – When composing, make sure the entire image works together. The foreground and background need to have a connection.
  • Include partially submerged objects – Sometimes a leaf or other objects which have water flowing over them can really add to the picture. Notice the water running over the leaves near the foreground in the image above.
  • Look for natural “frames” within the picture – Curved trees near the top of the frame look cool and help form a natural frame for the image. I’m talking about distant trees, not close-up. In general, I don’t like using leaves in the immediate foreground to frame an image.
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Gorton Creek : Prints Available

Lower Gorton Creek in the Colombia River Gorge


  • Use Live view – As in most landscape images, using “live view” is helpful in getting good focus on the scene. For creeks, you generally want your scene to be sharp from front to back and avoid blurred objects in the foreground. This is a much bigger topic that is beyond the scope of this blog, however.
  • Use wide angles, but not necessarily the widest setting – Although a lot of people set their wide angles to the widest setting, this doesn’t always work in stream shots. You are trying to balance the emphasis placed on the foreground and background. The widest setting of your wide angle may not give you the right balance.
  • Sometimes two shots are necessary – With long shutter speeds, trees and plants have more time to move due to wind. You may want to take two shots and blend them… one with a fast shutter speed to freeze the blurred plants and a second with a longer shutter speed to blur the water. This is especially true for foreground plants. You can get away with some blurred leaves in the distance, but blurry foreground objects ruin the image.
  • Leaf blurs – If there is a small pool in your composition which has a current (especially a circular current), then toss some leaves in there to get a nice leaf blur. This adds some motion to the images, as in the image below.
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A flood in the Subway leaves the formerly turqoise pools filled with sand

Bonus tip – Once it gets too bright outside to shoot standard creek shots, consider shooting some reflections in the creek. These can make great abstract pictures, especially if the light is hitting the trees along the creek (which are reflected in the water), but not lighting the creek itself.

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Golden River : Prints Available

Abstract of golden reflections in Tennessee’s Little Rover

Taking Blurred Water Pictures of Creeks – Part 1 of 2 (Set-Up)

The list of types of water bodies can be overwhelming. In the river category alone, there are creeks, streams, brooks, rivers and a bunch of other names for each of those. I think the reason for this is that, throughout history, there have been a lot of people hanging out at small rivers waiting for the fish to bite who had nothing better to do than to think up additional names for water bodies. Well, I’m fighting against this and limiting my blog title to “creeks”. However, the same principles apply to brooks, streams, small rivers, cricks, forks and tributaries.

This is a two-part blog on shooting a creek with a blurred water effect, such as in my shot below from a recent trip to the Smoky Mountains. I’m doing this blog in two parts because I prefer to keep these articles fairly short and sweet. Part 1 focuses on everything before you actually compose and shoot. Part 2 will focus on the composition and shot itself.

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Little River in Autumn : Prints Available

Creek on Middle Prong Trail of Little River during Autumn.

Equipment Needed

  • Polarizing Filter – Polarizer filters are necessary for shooting streams for two reasons: 1) They reduce the light getting to the sensor, which allows you to shoot longer shutter speeds. Without this reduced light, your shutter speed would be too fast to blur the water during daylight hours; and 2) They reduce or eliminate glare from the water surface. This glare can ruin your picture. I use a circular polarizer and rotate it until the glare disappears or is at its’ minimum. You can also combine the polarizer with a neutral density filter to restrict the light even more, allowing for even slower shutter speeds.
  • Tripod – You will need a tripod due to the slow shutter speeds. Also, flimsy tripods won’t work well if you have your tripod legs in the water while shooting.
  • Wide Angle Lens – I use a wide-angle zoom most of the time. A tilt-shift lens is another option, if you have one.

Camera Settings

  • ISO – 100
  • Mode – I recommend manual mode, which will help you pay close attention to both aperture and shutter speed.
  • Shutter Speed – You want shutter speeds in the range of 0.5-5 seconds or more. The longer the exposure, the more blurred the water will be.
  • Aperture – Your composition will likely include foreground and background elements which should be sharp throughout, which means small aperture. I generally use F16 as a starting point when shooting wide angle and have foreground elements fairly close to the lens, which is typically the case in shooting streams.


  • Some of the better compositions require standing in the water – You have to use good judgment about whether or not it is safe to shoot from in the water. Although dry feet are more comfortable, sometimes the better composition is from inside the creek.
  • Be careful! – Wet rocks can be surprisingly slippery. Heed the advice of the warning sign below which was posted in my shower stall in a hotel in China. 🙂

bad chinese translation

Well, that’s it for Part 1. Part 2 will focus on the fun stuff…. composition and the actual shooting.