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12.26.2013

Rivers as Lines

Photography is all about abstraction. As you reduce three-dimensional scenes into two-dimensional photographs, your world flattens and becomes filled with geometric forms.

Along the Chena River small tributaries meander throughout the landscape. Photographing the S-curves of rivers such as this one produces pleasing, placid pictures. Chena River State Recreation Area, east of Fairbanks, Alaska, USA. Sigma SD1 Merrill. Sigma 50-150mm F2.8 EX DC HSM II lens at 103mm. F/11, 1/10 second, ISO 100. Gitzo GT2451EX Tripod with Gitzo GH2780QR head. Cable release. Processed in Sigma Photo Pro 5.3; Photoshop CS5; NIK Viveza and Sharpener Pro plug-ins applied. Photo copyright David FitzSimmons 2013. All rights reserved.

Along the Chena River small tributaries meander throughout the landscape. Photographing the S-curves of rivers such as this one produces pleasing, placid pictures. Chena River State Recreation Area, east of Fairbanks, Alaska, USA. Sigma SD1 Merrill. Sigma 50-150mm F2.8 EX DC HSM II lens at 103mm. F/11, 1/10 second, ISO 100. Gitzo GT2451EX Tripod with Gitzo GH2780QR head. Cable release. Processed in Sigma Photo Pro 5.3; Photoshop CS5; NIK Viveza and Sharpener Pro plug-ins applied. Photo copyright David FitzSimmons 2013. All rights reserved.

If you are not careful, this compressing of dimensions can result in images that seem depthless and uninteresting, but, if you manipulate perspective in ways that provide clear shapes and interesting contrasts, your images can create depth through a implied movement. In the case of photographing rivers, lines are the single most important geometric feature.

S-Curves

Perhaps the best known lines rivers form are S-curves. Winding waterways, photographed from just high enough to pick up the sinuous shapes of a river’s course, can create pleasing, placid images. Combined with landscape camera orientation—implying serenity—curving lines create calmness. Viewers’ eyes travel slowly through S-curves, recreating the three-dimensional experience of being at the water’s edge. Viewers travel with their eyes along the sinuous surface of the water, a viewing experience that adds depth to an images width and height.

In Kenai Fjords National Park, just off Exit Glacier Road, a mountain stream slips over rocks and disappears behind a dense forest of conifers. A half-S-curve leads to a second, hidden half-S-curve, implied below the shroud of fog. Such hidden elements create a sense of mystery and create movement for viewers’ eyes. Seward, Alaska, USA. Sigma DP2 Merrill. 30mm f/2.8 lens. F/16, .5 seconds, ISO 100. Gitzo GT2451EX Tripod with Gitzo GH2780QR head. Processed in Sigma Photo Pro 5.3; Photoshop CS5; NIK Viveza plug-in applied. Photo copyright David FitzSimmons 2013. All rights reserved.

In Kenai Fjords National Park, just off Exit Glacier Road, a mountain stream slips over rocks and disappears behind a dense forest of conifers. A half-S-curve leads to a second, hidden half-S-curve, implied below the shroud of fog. Such hidden elements create a sense of mystery and create movement for viewers’ eyes. Seward, Alaska, USA. Sigma DP2 Merrill. 30mm f/2.8 lens. F/16, .5 seconds, ISO 100. Gitzo GT2451EX Tripod with Gitzo GH2780QR head. Processed in Sigma Photo Pro 5.3; Photoshop CS5; NIK Viveza plug-in applied. Photo copyright David FitzSimmons 2013. All rights reserved.

 

Half-S-Curves

A variation on the S-curve is the half-S-curve, that is, the single sweeping line. Whereas full-S-curves show a river’s bending back and forth and comprise the greater part of the movement in such images, half-S-curves initiate movement in images and then allow movements to continue beyond the half-S-curves.

Sometimes half-S-curves lead to an second hidden half-S-curve, completing a  full-S-curve. While not as simple and serene as full-S-curves, half-S-curves allow viewers to explore the mystery just around the corner. In other words, full-S-curve river images are nearly perfectly peaceful right up front while half-S-curve images that lead to additional half-S-curves in the background are both calming and vital. They require additional, active eye movement on the part of viewers to discover continued parts of the waterways.

Famous for its salmon and grizzly bears, Russian River Falls is beautiful in and of itself. Shooting from waist-level emphasizes the cascading water in the foreground and the half-S-curve leading into the mountains behind. Russian River Falls, Alaska. USA. Nikon D800E. Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 IF EX DG HSM lens at 24mm. Sigma PZ filter. F/16, 1 second, ISO 50. Gitzo GT2451EX Tripod with Gitzo GH2780QR head. Cable release. Single image processed in Photoshop CS5, resulting in four TIFFs across 4.5EV, combined as HDR in Photomatix Pro 4.2 using Exposure Fusion. Processed further in Photoshop CS5, NIK Viveza plug-in applied. Photo copyright David FitzSimmons 2013. All rights reserved.

Famous for its salmon and grizzly bears, Russian River Falls is beautiful in and of itself. Shooting from waist-level emphasizes the cascading water in the foreground and the half-S-curve leading into the mountains behind. Russian River Falls, Alaska. USA. Nikon D800E. Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 IF EX DG HSM lens at 24mm. Sigma PZ filter. F/16, 1 second, ISO 50. Gitzo GT2451EX Tripod with Gitzo GH2780QR head. Cable release. Single image processed in Photoshop CS5, resulting in four TIFFs across 4.5EV, combined as HDR in Photomatix Pro 4.2 using Exposure Fusion. Processed further in Photoshop CS5, NIK Viveza plug-in applied. Photo copyright David FitzSimmons 2013. All rights reserved.

Rivers-as-Pointers

While full-S-curves and half-S-curves are common geometric forms used in river images, the third design element for river photography is the use of the straight line. Implemented poorly, a straight line in a river scene can be terribly boring, but if the straight line leads to a second subject—often stronger than the river itself—then a river-as-pointer can be highly effective.

One of the most common ways to use rivers-as-pointers is with rapids or waterfalls. An angular cascade running as a straight line may not be the most pleasing photographic subject, but adding a strong subject near the end of the line can transform one the mundane geometric forms of a line segment into a highly effective design element. Rivers-as-pointers can lead viewers’ eyes to interesting trees, colorful leaves, well-positioned wildlife, or other nearby points of interest.

In order to emphasize the river-as-pointer, a polarizer filter increases contrast and allows shutter speed slow enough to blur water movement, transforming the river from a highly detailed subject, which attracts viewers’ attention more fully, into a graceful line leading to your main subject. [For more on selecting the proper shutter speeds to create pleasingly creamy water flow, see David’s “Shutter Speeds for Waterfall Photography.”]

While Bridal Veil Falls along the Columbia River Gorge is beautiful to behold, it’s unbending cascade is not highly photogenic. That is, a straight line of water by itself does not a picture make. To create a more effective image, I blurred the waterfall into a soft, wide line, which leads to a brilliant yellow maple leaf resting on a slump block in the foreground. Bridal Veil Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon, USA. Sigma SD1. Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 EX DC HSM lens at 10mm. F/16, 4 seconds, ISO 400. Sigma Wired Remote. Sigma Circular PZ filter. Gitzo GT2541EX tripod and Manfrotto Proball head. Processed in Sigma Photo Pro and Photoshop CS5, NIK Viveza and Sharpener Pro plug-ins applied. Photo copyright David FitzSimmons 2013. All rights reserved.

While Bridal Veil Falls along the Columbia River Gorge is beautiful to behold, it’s unbending cascade is not highly photogenic. That is, a straight line of water by itself does not a picture make. To create a more effective image, I blurred the waterfall into a soft, wide line, which leads to a brilliant yellow maple leaf resting on a slump block in the foreground. Bridal Veil Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon, USA. Sigma SD1. Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 EX DC HSM lens at 10mm. F/16, 4 seconds, ISO 400. Sigma Wired Remote. Sigma Circular PZ filter. Gitzo GT2541EX tripod and Manfrotto Proball head. Processed in Sigma Photo Pro and Photoshop CS5, NIK Viveza and Sharpener Pro plug-ins applied. Photo copyright David FitzSimmons 2013. All rights reserved.

Next time you photograph a river scene, think about how best to represent it to your viewers. Envision the scene graphically, geometrically, and two-dimensionally (perhaps covering one eye). As you decide what to frame out, imagine what the viewing experience will be of what you frame in, as your audience meanders along full-S-curves, explores the hidden mysteries beyond half-S-curves, and follows your rivers-as-pointers to a remarkable riparian landmarks.

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