Behind the Photo – Mokoroa Falls

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Hayley at Mokoroa Falls

This is the first in a new series where I will cast an analytical eye over some of my favourite images. The aim is to help you become a better photographer by exploring some of the principles behind the photos.

Think you can’t learn this stuff? Then you will find my post The Photographer’s Mindset interesting. None of the concepts I’m going to explain here are terribly complicated. I believe in keeping things simple. I don’t have lots of gear and I work mostly in natural light. All you need to take a photo like the one above are a good camera, a wide-angle lens, a tripod and a cable release. The equipment is simple – the vision behind it a little less so.

Mokoroa Falls

This photo came about because I’d already taken some nice photos of a girl underneath a waterfall and wanted to explore the theme a little more. I was living in Auckland, New Zealand at the time and anyone familiar with the city will know that there are several beautiful waterfalls in the Waitakere ranges to the west. One of them is Mokoroa Falls, the waterfall in this photo.

I found my model Hayley on the Model Mayhem website. I explained my idea and she was up for it, so we chose a good day, met up and headed for the waterfall. It’s roughly a 30 minute walk from the car park to the falls, and there was no-one else around. I had an idea of what the falls looked like as I had looked it up online but they looked even better in reality than the photos I had seen. All that remained was to set up and take the photos.

Behind the photo

These are the some of the factors behind the image:

Lens choice: I used my 17-40mm zoom lens to take the photos. On my full-frame EOS 5D Mark II this is a wide-angle zoom. The equivalent focal lengths on an APS-C camera would be around 11-25mm. While I like prime lenses I couldn’t do without this wide-angle zoom as it lets me frame images precisely in situations when I am unable to move closer to the subject. That happened here – I had to find a place to set up my tripod, and a place for Hayley to sit in the waterfall, and these were dictated by where the water was falling. Using a zoom allowed for precise framing.

Shutter speed: I used a shutter speed of 1/2 second. Long enough to blur the water for a dreamy effect, but short enough to give Hayley a reasonable chance of keeping still. I took several photos in each pose to increase the odds of getting a sharp image as it was inevitable she would move at least a little during some of the exposures.

This is a good example of using the shutter speed setting creatively. I used shutter priority mode to start with and set the shutter speed (1/2 second). At ISO 200 I needed an aperture of f9.5. Once I had established the exposure settings (by taking test photos and looking at the histogram) I switched to manual mode and locked them in. This prevented the exposure settings from being influenced by the balance of white and dark tones in the image. As long as the light levels remain unchanged, this works.

Light: I aimed to arrive at the waterfalls in the morning when I was sure that they would be in shade with the sun behind a nearby hill. Luckily I was right. I couldn’t have taken this photo in sunny conditions. There would have been two much contrast. In flat light I could easily capture the tonal range of the entire scene.

Composition: Hayley ended up on one of the thirds. This was largely coincidence, partly determined by the fact that there was only one place she could sit. The important thing was to keep her off-centre as this encourages the eye to wander around the image and adds a sense of dynamism.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time I took the photo, but there seem to be a series of natural triangles in this image. The largest is created by the way the eye moves from Hayley to the waterfall and back again through the image:

Hayley at Mokoroa Falls

The others are smaller triangles created by the shape of her body (you might even be able to see more triangles):


Post-processing: Fairly straightforward, I processed the image in Lightroom and used the white balance slider to impart a cool colour cast. Waterfalls often look good with a blue cast.

Here are some more images from the shoot:

Hayley at Mokoroa Falls IMG_5874 IMG_5882

Understanding EOS

Understanding EOS

If you own a Canon EOS camera and want to learn how to take photos like this, then you should take a look at my newest ebook Understanding EOS. There’s a £2 discount until the end of the month – click the link for details.

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