Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

September 2004

Question of the Month

How can you capture an 'angel hair' effect with water, and still have sharp foregrounds -- leaves or flowers -- on a windy day?


As you probably know, 'angel hair' water is that cotton-candy look where rapids and rills blur into a soft white effect when slow shutter speeds are used. Sometimes very slow shutter speeds are effective simply in blurring color, making water patterns that are soft and pleasing. Foreground elements often show up sharper when framed by 'soft' water, and I've used this technique to isolate ice patterns against rapids and autumn leaves and other foliage against waterfalls and streams.

With a fast shutter speed the branches merge with the rapids in the background. But with a slow (below), the blurred water no longer competes, visually, with the ice-covered branch and the branch stands out nicely. This was done with film, and the images scanned.


Unfortunately, the slow shutter speeds required to obtain water blurs and 'angel hair' effects won't freeze a leave or branch or flower swaying in a breeze. I'm always bothered when I have a great landscape or a water scene that has a foreground blurred by wind. Now, there is a solution.

In this enlarged view you can see the problem -- I have a nice, soft background but the leaves are soft. There was the slightest breeze, and the branches swayed just enough so that the resulting digital image was soft.

The solution to this is simple. I shoot two images. One is done at a very slow shutter speed so that the desired water effect is obtained. I don't worry about any motion or blur in the foreground caused by the wind. That will be taken care of with the second image.

Below, on the Left is the 'look' I was after, but the leaves are soft (as the enlargement showed). The image on the right is razor sharp, but the faster shutter speed used also changed the look to the water that I wanted to achieve. Now, you might like that look -- it more closely approximates what are eyes see in real time, because we can't see 'slow' (well, most of us can't) but we can envision 'slow' and we can choose a shutter speed that will then render the effect.

Now, in the second shot I keep the exact same composition and FOCUS, and I simply change the aperture/shutter speed so that I have a sufficient shutter speed to freeze the foreground elements. It's very important to keep the focus the same; otherwise, if you change focus, the actual size (in the frame) of the foreground and background elements will change.

I'm shooting this digitally, but you could do the same technique with film, provided that you scanned the images, because the next step is to combine the two images in Photoshop. I open both images, and then holding the SHIFT key, I drag the sharp foreground image over and onto the 'angel hair' water shot that has the blurred foreground. Holding the Shift key maintains a perfect registration for both images.

In my Layers Palette I have two layers, with the bottom layer (the background layer) with the 'angel hair' and the second layer with the sharp foreground. On this second layer I add a layer mask, and painting with black to hide or mask out everything but the sharply focused foreground elements, I mask the image. The result -- the foreground is sharp, and the background is soft, a result of the slow shutter speed used for that image.

Of course, a background doesn't have to be soft or blurred -- it can be razor sharp, too, if the elements are static. The technique would work just as well if you find yourself in a situation where great depth of field is required but the resulting shutter speed doesn't freeze foreground elements.

Understanding masks is so important for effective work in Photoshop. My composites have become very easy since incorporating this Photoshop technique, and I'd encourage everyone to put in the effort to master masks. This concept is stressed in both our Photoshop 1 and Photoshop 2 courses.


Previous Questions of the Month




 Camera Techniques

 In the Field

How would you meter these images?

Why should you know Manual Mode? 

 The Sunny 16 rule -- is it worth knowing today?

  How do you shoot silhouettes?

 How would you meter these challenging images?

 Who should go Digital,
and when?

 What do we really think about digital photography?

 What do we think of the Canon D30 digital camera?

 How long will film be around?

 Is the Mark II the ultimate wildlife digital camera?
 How can you reduce contrast and the effect of wind for flower and macro photography?

 What is the best season to do a photo safari in East Africa?

 What is our initial Digital Workflow?

 What is our Digital Workflow in the Lab?

 Is Shooting in the RAW format worthwhile?

 Is an L-Shaped Camera Bracket worth the Money?
You bet it is!

 Using Zoom lenses with tele-converters and extension tubes -- can you use both together?

 What the heck is the Scheimpflug Law?

  Reciprocity Failure

 What is the Best Composition?

 Are Image Stabilization Lenses Worth the Money?

 Hyperfocal Distance

  How do you determine distances?

 Should you have a depth of field Preview button on your camera?

 Flash and Tele-flash Techniques

 What is the most versatile remote release camera firing system?

 What the heck is a Plamp?

 What is the best flash for closeup and
macro photography?

 How do you shoot high-speed action images?
 How did I photograph that flying wasp?

 What is the Fotronix's
Flash System?

 What Film Lab do we use, and why?

 Is Digital Manipulation - a benign alternative to interacting in the natural world?

What is the Big Lie?
Tfhe truth about Kenya's Tourism--it is SAFE!

 How can you attract insectivorous birds to your feeding stations and bait sites?

 How do you make things happen in wildlife photography?
 What is our Favorite bird-shooting location?  What are our Five Favorite Shooting Locales?  Which binoculars do we just love to use?

How Easy is Whale Photography?

 What is the best
Game Caller?

  How do we carry our film when traveling?
 Is NANPA for you?  What is NANPA and how will it benefit me?

 Is it time for a summer NANPA Summit?

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