Photographic cliches and the ‘big stopper’

It’s funny how a disagreement can help to clarify one’s own ideas, rather than help one to see the opposite point of view.

Whilst browsing on a photography forum recently I came across a post asking for suggestions on how to use a 10 stop ND filter (I’ll call them ‘big stoppers’). I’ve been in photography for many years now and I can spot a new trend when I see one. So a few years ago when photographers began asking about these filters on the internet I thought something was afoot. But I just couldn’t understand why anyone should want to increase shutter speeds by so much – in the case of a big stopper by approximately one thousand times. For most of the history of photography the very opposite has been the case. Photographers have striven to reduce shutter speeds to the very minimum in order to stop subject movement.

Eventually I realised that some of the big names in landscape photography were either photographing moving water in almost complete darkness to produce the silky flowing effect that is now so common –  or were beginning to use what had hitherto been a very specialist filter to produce the same result. And the technique was beginning to trickle down to the masses. The trend quickly became unstoppable, and filter manufacturers were unable to keep up with demand.  A deluge of copycat images, some of very poor quality, appeared on the internet. Beginners with very little knowledge of basic photographic techniques were posting images taken with their big stoppers. Waterfalls galore appeared even though the flowing water “effect” can be easily obtained without the filter. The classic big stopper image was of a manmade structure by a shoreline, at dusk, with milky water washing around it. They were (and still are) everywhere on the internet and in the magazines. Some are very good, I’ll admit, but many just aren’t.

Skokholm Island, Pembrokeshire. (5 secs. @ f16)
Skokholm Island, Pembrokeshire. (5 secs. @ f16)

So I suggested that the use of a big stopper in such situations had become a cliché. I likened it to the use of HDR processing, which also enjoyed a few years of popularity, before – I think – more or less dying a death. And they didn’t like it! How dare I impose my opinions on other people? But the truth is I’m not the only one and I have some well-known allies. David Ward, for example, discussing one of his images with Tim Parkin (OnLandscape Issue 59), recently said the following –

DW……. And it was timed for subsequent waves coming in so that you get a little bit of that kind of misty water effect further up the strand of the kelp but not too overboard. I am getting a bit bored with that.

TP: Milky water.

DW: Milky water indeed. Yeah, yeah, I am guilty I know. I’ve shot milky water in the past. Hands up. Yeah it was me. I suppose my problem with some of them is that there are…we were talking about means a second ago, there is definitely a meme of a bit of seaside architecture in milky water with either a completely blank sky or scudding clouds rendered as a blur. And yes, they’re perfectly attractive photographs. But to me, they don’t really say very much. What they actually talk about, to me, is more about that meme than they talk about their subject. They’re self-referential, aren’t they, in a way. And I suppose all photography is, to an extent, self-referential. But I think they are particularly about a style and that’s what you get out of them, is that reference to the style, rather than anything else. And, for me, this picture was more about colour of light and flow and those kind of things.

T: Moderation, again, isn’t it? It’s nice how it’s picked up the colour of the light, as well, the cool colour? …..(continues)…..

And in the December 2012 issue of Outdoor Photography David Noton made the following comment –

“…… certainly among the [Landscape Photographer of The Year] competition entries there were a lot of waves lapping around rocks at twilight. It’s understandable; they are fun pictures to make. I do wonder if the viewing public is as enthusiastic about these images. I have to admit to stifling a yawn when looking at another long exposure with milky seas and pink skies. That is, of course, rank hypocrisy on my part; my website has many such pictures in the galleries. I told you I’d make your blood boil! I undoubtedly will continue to be powerless to resist occasionally counting down the minutes of another long exposure at dusk, but I am under no illusions as to the novelty of the likely results.”

I did buy a big stopper. It was difficult not to, really. I would otherwise probably have been the only landscape photographer in the world without one. But I’ve not often found the opportunity to use it. It might be fun to try to remove all the traffic from the Severn Bridge with it and maybe I’ll have a go one day. For waterfalls you just don’t need them, and I couldn’t bear to copy all those milky-water-at-dusk-seascapes, especially now I’ve been so rude about them! But I have used it a couple of times in broad daylight at the coast,  for example on Skokholm Island earlier this year, and I quite like the results.

As I pondered over my internet disagreement, I realised again what I had always known; that my interest in photography is not about exploring what a particular piece of equipment can do. It’s all about exploring the world with the camera. The ‘kit’ I own is the set of tools that I use. My particular weakness may be the polarising filter but with a few other exceptions if it is obvious which particular tool I have used then I feel I may have failed.

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A return visit to the waterfalls

Last week I made a return visit to the waterfalls described in a previous post  – What………..me, guv? (Part 2).  After an early breakfast in the van I set off on the steep and rugged walk down to the falls, kitted out ready for a long day by the river. It had been a still and very humid night – the midges were ravenous – and there were still signs of mist and fog in the valley. On arrival, about 7 a.m., I settled down with my back against the tree stump and began waiting to see what the day would bring.

There was no sign of the kingfishers I had seen on my previous visit but very soon it became apparent that both grey and pied wagtails had young nearby. It took me rather longer to realise that a dipper was perched on a log just upstream,  below the opposite bank. The valley bottom was still in shade, however, so I decided to walk the short distance back up to the falls themselves, and what a spectacular scene revealed itself there!  In the still humid atmosphere each separate “step” of the falls was creating large volumes of fine spray. The sun had just risen above the rim of the gorge directly behind the falls, back-lighting the spray in a very dramatic fashion.  It was rather a Stonehenge situation. Only very close to the summer solstice would this particular alignment of sunlight and landscape be possible, and  the spray was an added bonus.

Sgwd Clun Gwyn Isaf, Powys
Sgwd Clun Gwyn Isaf, Powys

My immediate reaction was “wow” and then “whatever do I do with this?”. The lighting was so extreme, and likely to be very short-lived,  that I began work immediately without giving technique much thought. I set up the tripod and, relying on the camera’s meter reading, began taking photographs. I don’t often use a vertical format but this scene was crying out for it; there was too much deep shadow to left and right.  Once my thought processes began to kick in again I experimented with various shutter speed/depth of field combinations which would produce different amounts of “flow” in the water. Over the next twenty minutes or so the quantity of spray gradually decreased as the sun rose and moved across the sky and I ended up with a selection of different compositions to choose from.  With very high levels of contrast in the images I was grateful for the processing power now possible with Lightroom v4, in particular the separate “whites” and “highlights” sliders which I have now got the hang of! You can see one of the best above.

After an exciting half-hour I returned to my post by the tree stump. The dipper was still there but very shortly after my arrival it began a short walk downstream towards me, feeding as it did.  It continued until it was directly opposite me, at which point it entered the river and perched on a couple of rocks mid-stream. I followed it with my camera. I felt almost certain that it was checking me out. It flew back to its log, still in deep shade despite the bright sun. And for the next four hours it spent all its time either there or in the water nearby,  preening and bathing.

…. scratch …….. tug ………. stretch left wing out ……… stretch right wing out ……. stretch both wings up …… fiddle …….. tug ……. fiddle ……. splash ……. shake ….

That’s the bird, not me. I had rather less to do.

I did get a couple of nice pictures of the grey wagtails during this time – despite their almost constant activity – and although I didn’t realise it until later, I learned an unexpected lesson about birds and their way of life.  After they have reared their young,  small birds go straight into moult. They skulk and become difficult to see while they lose their old feathers and grow new ones. And this is what the dipper was doing. My photographs showed that it was not in good condition, some of its wing primaries in particular looking to be missing.

Back at the falls, I noticed a juvenile dipper – probably reared in a nest nearby – a pair of grey wagtails feeding young, and a pair of spotted flycatchers visiting a potential nest site. A little higher up the valley  came the gorge walkers. A party of twelve inner-city teenagers. It may do them good but I still question if river wildlife can cope with such high levels of disturbance. And in a “Special Area for Conservation” as well. It appears that my conversation with the National Park authorities had not yet borne fruit.