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In an earlier post, I described the challenges of trying to photograph one of my favourite places – the Karangahake Gorge with its two rivers, the Ohinuemuri and the Waitawheta. Last month a good friend from Wellington came north for a photographic foray, and we decided to revisit this challenging place. It wasn’t just the lure of the famous raspberry tarts at the Waikino Cafe – for me it was the chance to spend some time seeing how someone else would tackle a subject that I’ve found tricker than most.

Spencer arrived on the Friday night, a stormy evening with promise of more wind and showers to come. However, Saturday morning arrived with enough of a gap on the rain radar for us to throw our gear in the car and hit the road. Although we drove through rain, by the time we arrived at the carpark, it had cleared with the odd patch of blue starting to show. We explored both the Ohinemuri and Waitawheta, but the light was difficult in the first, and getting access to the second is not easy.

Eventually after poking around off the track we found a way to get down to a spectacular cascade in the lower Waitawheta – the river was fair pumping with all the rain that we’d had during the week, and the main drop where the river is constricted through a narrow cascade was spectacular. Here our contrasting styles quickly became apparent. Me resorting to my traditional approach of taking multiple short exposures to combine later in Lightroom, and Spencer taking a more deliberate approach using a neutral density filter or two, and taking much longer exposures using a tripod. I’d not seen anyone working this way – I’ve seen river shots taken with long exposures, and they don’t always impress me, particularly when exposed so long that the water becomes a featureless ribbon of white. But this was a more deliberate approach with variation in exposure length and careful checking of results to match exposure length to water speed and distance from the camera.

Arriving back home – after missing the raspberry tarts – I checked my results. The subject matter was good – but the effects were really not quite what I was after, even when combining multiple images using an image stacking plugin in Lightroom. Some captured a sense of movement, but not in a particularly realistic way, and definitely not as well as my mate’s longer exposures…

Waitawheta River

Waitawheta River – two shots at 1/160th sec combined using LR-enfuse

Changing tack…

That next week saw a lot of reflection, a quick trip to the local camera store to purchase a 3 stop neutral density filter, and then lots of forecast watching to see if a return to the Karangahake could be organised for the next Saturday. The forecast was good – much better in fact than the reality, but I sallied forth again with tripod, camera, the new filter, and an umbrella to keep the rain off.

When it finally cleared I started to experiment – I didn’t much like being constrained by the tripod, but I gradually began to get a feel for the interplay between the amount of movement blur and exposure length, the speed at which the water was flowing and the distance to the river. Below is an example of the results, with an image taken at much the same place as the previous one, but using a longer exposure with the camera tripod-mounted.

Waitawheta River

Waitawheta River – a single exposure at 1/10th sec, ND8 filter (3 stops)

For fast moving water like this at some distance I found that exposures around 1/5th to 1/10th seemed to strike a good balance between detail and movement. For quieter water, exposures as long as a second delivered a pleasing result. And one thing that I hadn’t anticipated was the way that longer exposures bring to life images of quieter flowing water that just don’t work with short exposures, as in this one…

Waitawheta River

Waitawheta River – 1/3rd sec, ND8 filter

So overall, thanks Spencer for contributing a new tool to the tool kit. Its definitely a technique that improves my ability to get a satisfying rendering of NZ’s gorgeous back-country rivers and streams. Carrying a tripod might be a challenge on some of my longer trips, so perhaps I’ll have to check out one of those dinky little minature ones that can be set up on a rock. And for exposures down to around a 1/10th second, the awesome image stabilization in the OM-D substantially improves the chances of getting a useable image hand-held, particularly when using a wider angle lens.

ps. And on the second trip we did score raspberry tarts at the Waikino Cafe – their flavour has to be tasted to be believed!