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Composition Decisions: Sunbeams to Enhance Clear Waters

Ethereal sunbeams shining on the clear waters of a subterranean river, surrounded by lush green foliage. A poetic sight that inspires many photos, so how do you make yours different? A landscape photographer shares the shooting decisions she made to showcase the water clarity. (Reported by: Chikako Yagi, Digital Camera Magazine)

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 45mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/5.6, 1/25 sec, EV -0.7)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight
Other equipment: PL filter
Location: Enbara River, Yamagata City, Gifu Prefecture, Japan


Decision #1: To make the water the main subject, and the sunbeams to support

Sunbeams are an awe-inspiring sight. When I saw them shining through the dense forest foliage, I was tempted to make them the main subject of my shot. But I decided to challenge myself and see how I could use them as a secondary subject to enhance the clear river water flowing through the forest instead.

There are countless ways you can shoot a scene. The elements that inspire you don’t necessarily have to be the main subject—why not see how you can use them to elevate something else?

If you really do want to make the sunbeams your main subject, one object that can help is…a normal, everyday black umbrella! Find out more in:
2 Everyday Items That Could Transform Your Photos


Decision #2: S-curve composition so that key elements are not clumped in the centre

There are three key elements in my image:
A: The river water (main subject)
B: The sunbeams (supporting subject)
C: Spider web (visual interest)

Incorporating the spider web in the top left corner creates an S-shaped visual path that allows the viewer’s attention to flow smoothly from the sunbeams at the back to the clear waters in the foreground. This also creates a sense of perspective and depth.

What if I just shot with everything in the centre?

This is how a normal shot of the scene would have looked, with all the key elements in the centre. To me, this isn’t visually interesting: the scene looks flat, and the sunbeams don’t really stand out.

How do you create interesting images with centre composition? Find out in:
Composition Basics (3): Centre Composition, Symmetrical Composition


Decision #3: Use a PL filter to increase light and water clarity

No PL filter

With PL filter

Without a polarising filter (PL filter), the light reflecting off the foliage and water surface makes the image look smooth and velvety, which is also a very appealing look. However, using a PL filter intensified the blues of the water and the greens of the foliage, which makes the sunbeams stand out. It also makes the river look clearer—you can see almost all the pebbles at the bottom. All these elevate the beauty created by the combination of the light and water.

With a bit of help from Picture Style settings, you can even adjust colour profiles on the spot. Transfer the images to your phone via the Camera Connect to share them right where you are—who said that camera images have to be “later-grams”? See:
Picture Style Techniques to Level Up Your Landscape Photography
Camera Connect: When Photography Just Gets More Fun


About the location and timing: Enbara River, Yamagata City, Gifu Prefecture, Japan

Enbara River is said to be one of the most beautiful subterranean rivers in Japan. It is most often photographed in summer, where sunbeams and river mist occur more frequently. Sunbeams like the one in the main image occur most frequently in July and August between 6 and 9am in the morning. As the river flows through the mountains, sunlight hits the area only from around 6.30am, much later than places on lower ground. The nearby rocks are covered with moss, and visitors are advised to avoid stepping on them for to preserve the beauty of the landscape.


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Chikako Yagi

Chikako Yagi

Chikako Yagi was twenty when she started teaching herself photography using a film SLR camera. She left regular employment to become a full-time landscape photographer in 2016. An apprentice of renown photographers such as Kiyoshi Tatsuno and Tomotaro Ema, she is a member of the Shizensou Club, which was founded by the former and is one of Japan’s most famous landscape photographers’ clubs. In 2013, she was selected as one of the Top 10 Photographers of Tokyo Camera Club.
Instagram: @chikako_yagi