21 Dec 2013

Timing is Everything - Capturing the Perfect Moment

I recently read something a photographer wrote about how photography is all about getting the light, composition and moment just right (which makes it sound quite simple). Those three factors come into each photo and determine whether it's a good one or not (although a little post-processing can sometimes help if one of those is slightly off). This rang very true with me - especially when it came to the moment aspect - in relation to a photo capturing movement that I took in Iceland back in March (which I like to call "The Octopus" and which was featured as National Geographic's Photo of the Day in June). I guess it's common sense that the "moment" should be the crucial determinant in capturing a shot involving movement.

The three photos below should illustrate the point quite clearly. Each one has exactly the same composition (the tripod wasn't moved between shooting the three shots) and the lighting was the same (not great!). I took the photos using the same ISO (100) and the same aperture (f/16 as I wanted the whole scene as sharp as possible). In order to expose the shot correctly, the camera's meter then altered the exposure length depending on the amount of white foam/black sand present at each moment (I was shooting in AV mode). I had a neutral density filter on (can't remember if it was the 3- or the 6-stop one), which allowed me to capture a longer exposure than without; this was perfect for capturing a slight movement in the water trails. I'd already spent a good few hours in the same spot on a number of different occasions experimenting with various exposure lengths - from split-second to capture the power of the waves, to 30-second shots to show the tranquility of the scene, and many lengths inbetween. To me Jökulsárlón beach represents both a mixture of power and tranquility, so the 1-2 second exposure length range gave a nice combination of both of these things.

Trying to capture the wave movements was very hit-and-miss, although it did get a little bit more predictable once I'd taken a few shots. I became a little better at working out when the wave was going to break and how long the water would hang around before trailing back to the sea, over the icebergs or rocks. Whether glorious trails were produced was partly a matter of timing, but definitely involved some luck too. I was using a 2-second timer on the camera in order to prevent camera shake, so I had to factor that delay in too before pressing the shutter. Pre-empting wave behaviour is a fun thing to try!

Here are the results and you can see how the before and after shots just don't do it. I've done a little post-processing on each of them, boosting the contrast and saturation a little.

Photo 1 - 0.8 seconds - the wave was "hanging around" before its return to the sea. I actually quite like this shot, but there's no "wow!" about it.
Photo 2: The Octopus itself - everything was just right! 1 second exposure taken 7 seconds after the first one.
Photo 3: Too late! A 2-second exposure (now the foam had gone), taken 8 seconds after the Octopus; the moment's gone, the trails have gone - no more Octopus!

So, the moral of the story? Well, if you're capturing movement in photography, then timing really is everything. A moment like this happened in that second and that second only. The next second it was gone. The next wave was different; the trails would never flow like that again. Each piece of ice is unique and is eventually moved, taken away or broken down by the force of the waves. I took a good few hundred photos on that beach over a period of a few days, and although I was pleased with many of the images, none of them quite stood out like The Octopus.

More photos of my trips to Iceland can be found on my website, including more photos of waves on Jökulsárlón beach.


  1. Thanks Sophie for the blog.... and the great photos... Have a great Xmas