Beginning Waterfall Photography :: Technical Flaws and How to Avoid Them

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It is often said that the first rule of photography is: only show your best work. And while it is not always easy deciding exactly which is your best work, you can exclude most photos which exhibit technical flaws. Each of these flaws is an indication that you could have done better in either your focus or exposure. You may be able to hide them using Lightroom or Photoshop, but there is no substitute for perfect focus and exposure at the time of capture. Many beginning photographers create new flaws in their work by trying to compensate for technical mistakes at the time of capture. For instance, it is common to see luminance noise in photos on Facebook when a photographer first discovers they can digitally sharpen their photos. You may be able to hide these flaws at low resolution on social media, but if you try to print your photos at large sizes you will see them. And of course you cannot sell your work to galleries or magazines if it exhibits these flaws. If you have a nice photo printer, the best way to check your photo for these flaws is to make the largest print you can and examine that. A nice medium format (13 inches by 19 inches) printer like the Canon Pixma 9000 Mark II is a fantastic investment for any serious photographer, it will really open your eyes about the importance of technical perfection in your images. If you don't have access to a nice printer, view your photos on the highest resolution device you own. A retina iPad is a great way to check photos for technical flaws, just make sure you view them in full resolution with the Photos app or something similar.

Overexposure

The most common flaw seen in digital landscape photography is overexposure of the sky or water. When one part of a scene is significantly brighter than the rest, the difference in brightness (known as dynamic range) can cause the camera to record the brightest parts as 100% white, which causes all detail and color in that area to be lost. A beautiful blue sky can be recorded as blank, featureless white. Because the human eye has much greater dynamic range than a digital camera, it can be difficult to spot when this will be a problem. Learn to use your camera‘s histogram to evaluate exposure and avoid this problem. For waterfalls, you will find more even lighting early in the morning, late in the afternoon, and on cloudy days. Sometimes you may need to re-frame the scene to exclude the brightest area in order to get a good exposure or use post-processing techniques like HDR or exposure blending to compensate for your camera's lack of dynamic range.

This picture from the top of the Bonas Defeat cliff has an overexposed sky. You can see some cloud shapes in the sky, but it is mostly white.

Using Adobe Lightroom, I adjusted the exposure of the image down by two stops in an attempt to recover the lost details. The clouds still have overexposed white in them, and look completely unnatural. The detail in the clouds cannot be recovered.

Digital Noise

On the opposite end of the spectrum are photos that are underexposed (too dark). This often happens when a photographer captures a scene with water or sky combined with areas of shadow under trees or shrubs. By properly exposing the bright sky in the image, the darker portions are left underexposed. In digital photography, areas of the scene can easily be brightened using software like Adobe Lightroom, but doing so often creates digital noise, which detracts from the beauty of the image. Using a high ISO when you capture the image contributes to digital noise, but the real secret to avoiding this problem is proper exposure. Use the lowest ISO setting you can and learn to use your camera‘s histogram to evaluate exposure. When processing your photos, zoom in on the darkest parts and check for the two types of digital noise.

This picture of Raven Rock Falls is zoomed in to show the color noise to the left of the water in the dark section of rock. Color Noise appears as patches of purple or green in the shadows of the image, and is most often caused by brightening an underexposed image.

Luminance Noise appears as black dots like sand in lighter portions of the image. This type of noise is often caused or intensified by oversharpening. It can also be caused by brightening an underexposed image. To avoid the problem, learn to use your camera's histogram to evaluate exposure and brush up on techniques to get sharp photos without oversharpening. This image from the top of Bonas Defeat shows luminance noise in the lighter trees.

Sharpness

Another common problem in digital landscape photography is poor focus, resulting in a lack of sharpness in the final image. This is a more complex subject so I have written an entire article about how to achieve good focus in landscape photography.

Oversharpening

Amateurs will often try to compensate for poor focus by oversharpening their images in the digital darkroom. Software such as Adobe Lightroom can sharpen your photographs, but there are limits and the algorithms used to sharpen images have side effects. The most common side effect is digital noise: oversharpening leads directly to luminance noise in the final image. To avoid this problem, make sure you nail your focus at the time of capture.

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