A first try at long exposures

The Scottish highlands captured near Ben Vane, Loch Lomond.

In the closing days of last summer I bought a Haida ND1000 77 mm filter. Eager to finally get the beautifully blurred water and clouds I had always admired in many landscape photographs, I immediately mounted it on my lens and shot some test scenes in my parents’ garden and at a nearby lake. Back in Scotland I used it for some photos of Dundee’s (in)famous Tay Rail Bridge, but I was never quite satisfied with the images. Not due to the ND filter, no, that thing performed flawlessly. Rather I was lacking any situations, any images that really required the use of an ND filter. What I wanted to shoot was waterfalls or little burns (Scottish term for a small watercourse) against the backdrop of a magnificent landscape.

I do often get out into the stunning highlands, but it is always in a group with fellow hiking and mountaineering enthusiasts of my university’s outdoor club. No one really has the time to wait for half an hour as I scout a location, find a composition, set up my equipment and take shot after shot, and when the light is getting better towards sunset we are usually already sitting in the bus driving back to Dundee anyways. But about a week ago that changed. The trip was to the Loch Lomond area and the majority of us ascended Ben Vane. As we made our way down a snow-covered slope, I realised that the corrie (little amphitheatre shaped valley) below was quite beautifully set, with a burn winding its way through it, dotted with little sandbanks – or rather ‘rockbanks’. As we were waiting for some of the others to catch up I decided to seize the opportunity and dashed off.

I slid down much of the slope on my side, steering and braking with my ice axe. I could not pick my scene, I could not pick my light, I had little time to find a composition, essentially having to guesstimate a suitable position from the bird’s eye perspective as I was sliding down … I simply rushed down, ripped the gaiters and crampons off my boots, then hopped from rock to rock until I reached the rocky sandbank in the middle of the stream. I placed my tripod quite low, mounted the camera in portrait mode to be able to include as much of the foreground as possible (I really need to get a UWA some time soon), metered the scene, threw on my ND filter, adjusted the exposure, threw the sleeve of my goggles over the viewfinder to block out stray light and took a series of images. I also played with the focus, putting it on the rocks in one image and on the mountains in the background in another, in order to later stitch the two images together for a better depth of field.

By the time I had taken a couple of exposures the others had caught up with me, and as they turned left to walk out of the corrie I carried my equipment back to the banks of the river and followed them. Trudging behind them past a series of beautiful waterfalls, with the light getting better by the minute, I wished that at least once I could take a photograph of the highlands taking all the time I need, scouting for an hour to find the best angle, then just sitting down with a snack and some tea and wait for the magic light …

I had not really been able to evaluate the images on the spot and looking at the RAWs once I came home the first thing I realised was that 20 sec. had not nearly been enough to smooth out the water. With cascades, burns or the surf of the ocean even a couple of seconds are enough to achieve a good amount of blur, but this little stream had been flowing so slowly that 20 sec. resulted in a very uneven effect, with some surface areas being reasonably blurry while others seemed hardly affected. I should have probably aimed for something closer to 2 to 3 min., but with the prevailing light and considering my time restraints, that would not have been possible anyway.

I edited the images anyway and merged two of them to stack the focus. The final result is certainly not what I had hoped for, but considering the circumstances it could have been worse. Once exam season is over I plan to travel Scotland more extensively with some friends, and I will certainly make time, fight midges and be up all night to take some proper landscape photographs and give my new tripod and filter a proper test.

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