• billboard

Photographic Flow

David Akoubian captures waterfalls and waterways with the Tamron SP 24-70mm VC lens.

By Jenn Gidman
Images by David Akoubian

For more than three decades, David Akoubian has headed out into the mountains, forests, and deserts to capture his breathtaking nature photography, both in the American Southeast (his home is in Georgia) and across the US via his various workshops and seminars. One of David's favorite subjects: the streams, rivers, and waterfalls that permeate the landscapes in front of his camera. David used the Tamron SP 24-70mm F/2.8 VC lens for this particular series of photos, taken throughout the Peach State, as well as in Kentucky and Tennessee. Read on for his tips on creating mood and drawing viewers into your images through composition.

Seek out optimal water flow.
Right after a real heavy rain, there tends to be too much water, so I don't usually go out to shoot the day after a big storm. A normal flow pattern in a stream or waterfall is typically what I'm looking for.

© David Akoubian
Bad Branch Falls, Rabun County, Georgia: 24mm, F/16, ISO 100, 4.0 sec.

The way I prejudge the flow: When I'm going through the previsualization process, I find that if I squint, it almost shows me what the water is going to look like at a 1-second exposure. The reason for this is that the human eye sees at roughly 1/60th of a second, so when you squint, you allow much less light in than you would with your eyes fully open—you basically simulate a 1-second exposure. If I'm squinting and I want all of the lines to connect a bit better, I'll consider doing a 2-second exposure—instead of shooting at F/11 or F/16, I may go to F/22 to double the exposure. I have to sometimes explain to people that my glasses are just fine when they see me go into squint mode.

Decide what mood you'd like to show.
There are really two main ways that people photograph water. When you stop the movement of the water, it tends to show strength. For example, when I photograph the huge waterfalls out West, I'll sometimes use a faster shutter speed because it stops the motion and shows the power of the massive water coming through.

© David Akoubian
Greenbrier section of Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee: 24mm, F/22, ISO 400, 30 sec.

However, when you slow your shutter speeds down, you create a more relaxing feel, and that's the mood I tend to like, especially with smaller streams with the moss-covered rocks and other elements around them. I like my images to have a soothing effect on the viewer. To achieve this mood, I prefer to shoot on overcast days, even with fog or just after some rain. I use a tripod to achieve my desired shutter speeds of 1 second or slower.

© David Akoubian
Tremont section of Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee: 24mm, F/16, ISO 100, 2.5 sec.

Don't forget to spot-meter.
The idea of photographing on an overcast day or even in the rain is because it keeps contrast low, allowing you to capture more detail in the water. When you slow water down, the air bubbles are what cause that white, milky effect you often see. You can't really worry about controlling that because you'll lose that detail in the shadows. What I'll do, then, is find something like green moss on a rock or even a rock itself, spot-meter and expose for that, and then let the water do whatever it's going to do.

© David Akoubian
Spruce Flats Falls, Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee: 27mm, F/16, ISO 100, 2.0 sec.

Use a circular polarizer.
This reduces the glare on rocks and leaves, which there's often plenty of around water. On days when it's overcast, you may not realize that even without direct light, you're getting a lot of reflection off the foliage and the rocks themselves. The added benefit of the reduced glare is better saturation of the foliage and slower shutter speeds. The clouds may take away much of the contrast, but the polarizer helps put a bit of it back in and separate those rocks really well from the water, as well as separate the foliage. Your greens will suddenly become super-rich.

© David Akoubian
Spruce Flats Falls, Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee: 24mm, F/16, ISO 100, 2.0 sec.

Look for natural curves in the landscape and elements that can add depth.
The two types of compositions you can use for waterfalls and waterways are symmetrical—using a bull's-eye format to balance the picture—and asymmetrical, which means purposely creating some type of tension in the image by placing emphasis on not necessarily your subject, but something in the foreground that catches your attention. You then use that manufactured tension, along with an S-curve, say, to lead up to the big waterfall or the subject you want the viewer to end up on.

© David Akooubian
Anna Ruby Falls, Helen, Georgia: 24mm, F/11, ISO 100, 0.6 sec.

It's typically a wide-angle lens like the Tamron 15-30 or the 24-70 (which is the one I use most of the time) that allows me to place something prominent in the foreground. A rock, for instance, may only be 2 feet by 2 feet, or even smaller, but by using a wide-angle lens and placing it in the foreground, that rock looks much larger and grabs the viewer's attention. Then you just find a curve or other visual draw to work the viewer up the frame to the waterfall or other main subject.

Mix things up with downstream shots.
When I'm shooting downstream and adjusting my polarizer, I'll often get some color from the sky, or especially from the trees up high that can reflect down into the water. If I were to polarize that out, you wouldn't see it. So, many times when I take these downstream shots, I may use only half-polarization to pull those rich greens and yellows and everything else into the water. It offers a totally different feel and mood, because you don't get that white, continuous pattern through the scene that you do when you photograph upstream.

Eliminate distracting elements in-camera if possible.
Photographer John Shaw always recommended taking a step away from the viewfinder and articulating what it is you want to take a picture of. Then, when you look back through your viewfinder, if you see distractions to that visual you just described, you can change your position or angle of view to get rid of them.

© David Akoubian
Greenbrier section of Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee: 24mm, F/22, ISO 400, 10.0 sec.

Digital cameras make this task easier. I'll compose a shot through the viewfinder and set everything up, define verbally what I'm looking at, then check out the scene in Live View. Live View typically shows you exactly what the sensor is seeing; the viewfinder may be showing only 90 percent of what the image is, meaning maybe I didn't see that tire on the side that's marring the image. I'll zoom in using Live View, check my focus and other settings, then take the picture. I do this all in-camera to save time in post-processing later.

To see more of David Akoubian's work, go to www.bearwoodsphotography.com.


The Tamron SP 24-70mm (A007) lens comes with a $200 mail-in rebate thru 7/1/17.