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Photography Tutorial: Capturing Driftwood and Reflections in Torres del Paine

This is a step-by-step guide to how I created this image of driftwood in front of the mountains at Torres del Paine National Park. It describes the whole process, from finding the composition on location to completing the final edit.


driftwood in a lake in Torres Del Paine

Torres del Paine is an incredible place for photography, and this is an iconic composition with the mountains reflected in the water and a piece of driftwood leading us into the image. I was eager to create my own version of this photograph while travelling in Chile, and it took 10 days of visiting the lake before conditions appeared. This is how I made it.


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On Location

reflected mountains in Torres del Paine

Around Torres del Paine National Park, there are several positions to capture the mountains reflected in the water. However, the road winding along the eastern edge of Lake Pehoe is the best for capturing the whole range, and this is where I spent the most time.


I needed to get on location very early, not just for the best light, but also because it's the time of day when the air is most likely to be still and the water calm. Whenever capturing reflections, I always try to arrive on location at least an hour before sunrise to get in position and capture the pre-dawn light.


On most of my visits to this spot, there was at least a little wind and movement in the water; it took more than a week of attempts for the lake to form a mirror and produce the image I wanted.


Composition

set up of camera capturing a landscape photograph

To capture this composition, I needed to find a balance between the driftwood and the mountains with their reflections. I could magnify the foreground by using a wide (15mm) lens and keeping the driftwood close to the camera, with the tripod low and pointing slightly downwards.


However, my two subjects were very different sizes, so I spent time moving around and changing focal lengths to balance the driftwood and the peaks. If I got too close to the driftwood, the mountains looked small and lost their sense of scale. Too far away, and the foreground was lost in the frame and didn't hold its own as a subject.


One extra consideration was that driftwood floats, so I needed to keep it close enough to shore to balance it on some rocks and prevent any movement in my image (and also stop the driftwood from floating away!).


I carefully positioned my camera and the driftwood, then used a 0.8-second exposure at f/7.1 and ISO250 to capture the raw image. The most important setting was the aperture, which I wanted to keep between f/7.1 and f/10 to maximise the sharpness in my final image.


diagram showing a landscape photograph composition

Edit

The raw image from the camera was high in contrast with a dark foreground and bright sky but had little detail in each part of the photograph. Using editing, I wanted to extract the detail and colour from the scene.

raw photograph of a landscape photography scene

I started by making global edits to the image, brightening dark tones and reducing bright ones to create a more even exposure.

driftwood in a lake in Torres Del Paine

Next, I targeted my adjustments, darkening only the sky to recover the colours of the early morning. This created a more even exposure that matched how I perceived the scene on location, without the extremely dark and bright areas.

driftwood in a lake in Torres Del Paine

Finally, I worked on small sections of the composition to enhance the features and guide a viewer around the scene. I removed the blue haze from the mountains to make them stand out as a vivid subject. I brightened the branch to highlight it as a second subject. Finally, I lowered the saturation in the red clouds to ensure they did not distract attention. Red is such a powerful colour that this change completely altered the atmosphere of the photograph.

diagram of the editing of a photograph

Final Thoughts

driftwood in a lake in Torres Del Paine

This spot is among several along the east edge of Lago Pehoe in Torres del Paine, but one of the better places for reflection shots because the shoreline is protected by a peninsula, creating a bay of still water. Keeping the camera low and close to the water helps to ensure the reflections fill as much of the scene as possible.


I recommend finding your own piece of driftwood and placing it in the composition, even if that feels like an alteration of the natural scene. If you do happen to find a branch in the water when you arrive, it's unlikely it would have washed up naturally and was probably arranged by a previous photographer.


Mapping links:

Here is the exact location where I made this image, and here you can find free parking.


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