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Photographing the Cascades at Blenheim Palace

As I develop my blog, one of the ideas I wanted to explore was to try to give back to the local and photography community, in the form of tips and advice. One such opportunity presented itself this week as I stood in front of the Cascades at Blenheim Palace, trying to find a compelling composition. The Cascades is a beautiful waterfall at South-West end of the Blenheim estate, to get there you follow the lake side walk from the formal gardens area. So, in the first of my "advice" series, I thought I would share my process for finding and composing nice images of the Cascades, I hope you find this useful!

The majority of good photography, particularly landscape/naturescape photography, typically involves having a good plan. I find my iPhone is a great tool to use in prepping and location scoping. With the Cascades and Blenheim being so close to my house in Woodstock, it was easy to use my phone on a recent walk to try out some compositions, before coming back with my camera equipment. Equally though, even shooting normally, your phone camera can give a good idea in terms of testing quickly composition for how they might appear on a 2D screen, without having to get everything set up. I'm also aware that many of you reading may only have a phone or a compact camera, so for the most part all of the compositions I describe below can also be taken on your regular camera, minus some bells and whistles.

Another aspect of planning, is understanding what photography equipment I need to conduct the shoot. For this setup, I knew my focus would be the waterfall and I wanted to capture that dreamy, blurred water look you see in nicer landscape pictures. The blurred effect is made possible by a piece of darkened glass placed over the camera lens, called a filter. The filter acts much like sunglasses for your camera, allowing the shutter on the camera to stay open longer and therefore capture the image over and over again, blurring the water. In my photography, I use Lee Filters and in this shoot, my Lee Filters Big Stopper and Little Stopper were ideal choices. With long exposure photography, the use of a tripod is essential, along with some kind of remote control device, so you don't knock the camera as you click the button to take the shot. Lastly, I grabbed my Nikon D750 full frame camera, and my 35/50 and 85mm prime lenses. 

So, onto the location. After a little time spent sizing up the options, I settled on four possible locations. Using a tripod with your camera has an added bonus effect: the lack of convenience forces you to really think about what you are doing and in general, the slowing down effect allows you to observe more small details, which may have been missed otherwise. In terms of finding compositions, I like to think about techniques such as the law of thirds and other compositional practices, to add interest to my images but mostly I just go with I like! At this point, I will just mention time of day, as light is the number one maker and breaker of a good photograph. The Cascades is in an awkward position this time of year for sun coverage, with the start of the day being quite dark and towards the end of the afternoon (3pm onwards), the sun can actually be behind the waterfall, meaning it is in shade. I would suggest using an smart phone app like the Photographers Emphermis to plot the right time to get the sun. Timing your shoot with when the light on the Cascades is at its best will really help to bring out the detail in your images. In my case, most of my shots were from the early afternoon and in an ideal world, writing this in April, I think I may have gotten better results if I had been a little it earlier, such as 10am. I'll see if I can get back at sunrise or early morning also and see how it looks.

LOCATION ONE - Google Maps

My first location was just in front of the blocks surrounding the pipe and next to the river. In this composition, I focused on capturing the interest of the reeds in the foreground, placing the bridge just about the middle, and the waterfall in the top third of the image. Portrait orientation was key here to capture the detail but it also works landscape without the reeds. I chose my 85mm lens for this as I wanted to have the waterfall be dominant in the picture versus zoomed out and smaller in the image. Using an 85mm lens or higher, also closes the gap between the shooting location, reeds, bridge and waterfall, making it appear closer than it really is, again for effect. Using my Lee Filters Big Stopper, I tried 1s, 2s, 3s and 4s exposures at a low ISO and a aperture of between f8 and f11. I found going longer in exposure just killed the detail in the waterfall, with 2s appearing to be the optimum. I also chose the big stopper over the little stopper to maintain that balance of reasonable aperture and shutter speed, with low ISO. With the little stopper, I felt I'd need to get up to f16 or higher to maintain the shutter speed I desired, primarily because it was a really sunny day!

Here is my set up from the first location:

And here is the final from the first location:

LOCATION TWO - Google Maps

For location two, I moved closer to the bridge and Cascades. I really wanted to maintain the composition ideas I liked about the first location, mainly the foreground interest from the reeds. Moving closer, I had to switch to a wider angle lens, allowing me to fit everything in but my basic set up from earlier remained pretty much the same. I kept my two second exposure time and tweaked the aperture to play with the correct exposure. I think this is my personal favourite of the four locations but everyone has their opinions! The motion blur effect of the Big Stopper is very apparent in this image, both because the waterfall is blurred but also because the river, which we see more of in this image.

LOCATION THREE - Google Maps

At this third location, I am just the left of the pump house and just before the bridge, right by the fence you see on the google maps image. In fact, I even rigged a neat off-angle tripod balance, with one tripod foot on the fence and the other two on the wall. In this location, the waterfall is completely the focus, you won't get the bridge in but that's ok. Again, my setup didn't really change much at all, I may have played with the ISO a little but everything is still around f9, 2s, ISO 100/200. I'm also still using my 35mm lens in my image. It might be a good candidate in this location to have a wider angle lens, possibly a 20/24mm to capture more of the sides but overall I'm pretty happy. 

LOCATION FOUR - On the far side of the bridge

In its current configuration, as of April 2017, the main tract of water coming over the Cascades is on the palace/right side, so I was conscious there may be a composition which highlighted this more. I tried standing in the middle of the bridge but it didn't really interest me as much as being out to the side, so I positioned myself on the far side of the bridge and shot back towards the falls. Again, no real difference of note on the settings. Here is the result:

PROCESSING IMAGES

I always shoot these kind of images in RAW format, allowing me the most flexibility in terms of processing. Shooting in RAW and using filters really demands the use of image processing software like Adobe Lightroom, which is what I use in 80% of my work. I only use Photoshop for the really hard bits. I found I did do quite a bit of processing with these images, to achieve the look I was going for. In general, I reduced highlights, brightened shadows, bumped up contrast, clarity, vibrance and saturation a little, added green saturation and corrected the white balance, which had been tinted adversely by the use of the Big Stopper.

One other challenge you might face at a location like this is tourists and visitors getting in your shot. To combat this you have three main choices and I'll list these in order of level of effort and knowledge required. The easiest way is to use patience, I found for the first image, there were ebbs and flows to the visitors, so I just set up my tripod and had my camera ready, then I just waited (and waited) until there was a clear path. With the second image, I was less fortunate as by now it was getting towards the middle of the day and it was starting to get busy. In this case, I am fortunate to know how to use Photoshop, and know how to take multiple images and then merge them together. In this case the tripod is a really help because everything which is static, such as the bridge, stays in the same place. I simply divided the image into 4 or 5 areas, and as soon as one area was clear, I took the image and then repeated for the other areas; then used Photoshop to piece it back together into a single image. I wouldn't advise you run out an buy Photoshop just for this but if you are interested in how it works, here is a basic video.

For the fourth image I was really running out of time and it was getting really busy, I would look down the path and just see more and more people coming down the hill! In this composition, the viewing area in the top right was constantly busy, so I just grabbed what I could and then decided to fix it in Photoshop later, using a combination of tools but mostly the clone stamp tool, you can see a nice tutorial on this technique in this video.

Before (left) and after (right) - using Photoshop to take out some tourists

FINAL THOUGHTS

So, in summary, plan your shoot and know what you need to bring. If shooting the Cascades is something you really want to try, then perhaps aim to make it your first stop on your Blenheim experience, that way you'll likely get the best light and miss the mass of people later in the day. For shooting the Cascades, a tripod would be a really helpful thing to have with you as, even without the filters I use, you can still get some basic blurring of the water on even a slightly advanced camera but only if you have a tripod! 

I hope this guide has been helpful, if you have any thoughts or comments feel free to leave them below or on Facebook. Do also let me know which of the images is your favourite. In my local Woodstock Facebook group, I posted all four images and the picture from location three was the winner, with a one and two just behind.