Lessons from the Creek by Curtis Heikkinen
Like many photographers, I enjoy photographing water, especially long-exposure shots. I’ve taken my share of waterfall images as well photos of dramatic coastal vistas. Those locales can be fun, but sometimes be less than relaxing to photograph. Frankly, the spray and wind around waterfalls can make picture-taking difficult. At the beach, there is the ever-present feeling that a sneaker wave is going to swamp me and my equipment if I am not careful.
Those concerns are why I have gravitated toward creek photography as my photography genre of choice. To me, there is nothing more relaxing than photographing a mountain creek. While there are risks and complications inherent in creek photography, at least I don’t have to be constantly wiping my lens or keeping a wary eye on the next wave. What follows are some lessons I’ve learned from photographing creeks and, hopefully, a useful tip or two for anyone interested in capturing mountain creeks in all their glory.
Give Me a Polarizer Or Give Me Death
With apologies to Patrick Henry, I concede I am being a bit melodramatic. Nevertheless, it is difficult to overstate the importance of a polarizing filter when taking pictures of a creek. I am constantly amazed by the amount of glare present in water. The easiest way to reduce or eliminate it is through the use of a polarizer. What I am saying is no great revelation to experienced photographers but to anyone just starting out in long exposure water photography, I would submit that such a filter is essential. It allows one to expose the rocks and gravel beneath the surface of a stream and greatly increase the attractiveness of a photo. A polarizer is so important that I would recommend investing a significant sum of money in purchasing a good one. You’ll be glad you did.
Get Your Butt Off The Bank!
Creeks don’t always surrender their beauty easily. Many are guarded by thick vegetation, making clean shots from a bank very difficult, if not impossible. I’m not saying one can’t get a compelling image from a distance, but I have often found it more difficult. To me, the best way to capture the spirit of a creek and to obtain an unobstructed image is to wade in the creek with a tripod and camera in hand. To do that you’ll likely need some water-proof boots and a steady sense of balance. If you don’t fall in, you can obtain some pretty compelling photos that can make it seem to the viewer that he or she is in the middle of the creek with you.
Don’t Fall In The Water! You Will Get Wet
No, I’m not auditioning to be Captain Obvious. I mention this because safety should be a top priority if you choose to muck about in a creek. Personal experience has taught me that submerged rocks are incredibly slippery and that currents can be very swift. There is a very serious risk of falling, perhaps resulting in injury or damage to your equipment. I like to take photos in the winter which would make an unplanned dip very unpleasant, to say the least. I would also caution anyone against taking unnecessary risks scrambling down steep embankments. It is tempting to do so in order to get that unique shot in a beautiful gorge. However, no photo is worth the risk of serious injury. Always calculate the cost/benefits of attempting a steep scramble down to a creek.
Cleanliness Is Next To Godliness
Creeks can be messy places: they are often littered with downed and submerged logs, countless branches, leaves and unruly vegetation. I’ve taken numerous photos, gotten home and found lots of distracting elements in my uploaded photos. Of course, much can be removed in post-processing. However, I have found it helpful and time-saving to take a look around where you are photographing and perform a bit of housekeeping. Some debris, such as small branches, can easily be tossed to one side. It is easy to forget to tidy up your scene but it is something I have been more cognizant of as I survey creeks for compelling compositions.
I am a bit of an iconoclast when it comes to photography. The conventional wisdom is that one must shoot in RAW and use Lightroom/Photoshop or something similar for editing. I must confess to doing neither. As an amateur who does not harbor professional aspirations, I can’t justify the file size of RAW images or the time and expense of sophisticated editing platforms. I make do with JPEG and relatively simple editing programs like Snapseed or even the native editing tools provided on my iPad or MacBook. Obviously, I can’t bring out all the shadow detail or merge multiple exposures like a pro can. Still, I am convinced that if I pay attention to the fundamentals of good photography, I can still produce respectable images, even if not at a professional level. My desire for ease and simplicity carries over to my equipment. In addition to a good, lightweight tripod, I wear my kayak boots for wading in the water and carry my Sony a6000 and my polarizer. I occasionally use a 5 stop ND filter if there is a lot of light, but most of the time my polarizer suffices for all my needs as I am careful to photograph early in the morning or on cloudy days. My go-to lens is a 10-18 mm Sony wide-angle zoom (15-27 mm with crop factor). That is about it.
Why Long Exposure?
I love watching the water flow in creeks with the naked eye. It always surprises me, however, how unsatisfying creek photos are when they are taken at a shutter speed that approximates what our eyes see. In my view, faster shutter speeds cannot match the lovely artistic effect that slow shutter speeds can give to flowing water. If you haven’t tried long exposure photography on a mountain creek, I urge you to give it a try. I suspect you won’t regret it. Just make sure you don’t fall in the water.
I am an avid kayaker, bird watcher and outdoor enthusiast, who likes to travel the Pacific Northwest in search of beautiful places to photograph. Though I am strictly an amateur photographer, I hope my pictures effectively capture some of the amazing beauty that surrounds us in the Pacific Northwest. Visitors will find that my photographs generally lack the heavily processed aspects that characterize much of contemporary landscape photography. Many were taken in areas not often photographed and from uncommon vantage points. I hope you enjoy them as much I did taking them.