Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Choosing the right time helps control the "detractors" in these New Zealand sunsets

Colin Southern is a 47-year-old photographer based in Nelson, New Zealand. "I like to think of myself as a typical photographer," he says, "a perfectionist bordering on obsessive/compulsive. Fortunately my military (avionics) career provided a technical grounding in the "physics" of digital photography (exposure - dynamic range - signal processing - noise etc) -- and I like to work with the very best equipment so that most of the limitations I have to struggle with are my own. I gravitate toward landscape photography, most often water scenes, which is why my Singh-Ray Vari-ND, Mor-Slo 5-stop ND and ND Grads are so valuable to me.

"Like most landscape photographers, I like to 'perfect' each and every image. No matter how lovely the light and/or how beautiful the scene, if there are any 'detractors' in the scene that don't add something positive, they need to be dealt with. One technique I use to accomplish this is to let the offending detractors drop back into nothing more than shadow detail. In many cases this can be achieved simply by chosing the right time of day to photograph the scene; whereas a sunrise capture may well accentuate detractors, a sunset capture (especially with strong back lighting) can well hide them in the shadows. This was very much the case with Haulashore Island, which in normal light presents a somewhat untidy appearance. Haulashore Island was so named because the early settlers to the region used to haul their ships out of the water and onto the island for maintenance.

"To capture this image, it only took three attempts on different days to find the lighting I was after. Technically, it's always difficult shooting into the sun. The sun's intensity and the glare reflecting off the water make it very hard for our eyes to see the scene, and the wide range of light intensity from full sun to shadow detail presents many exposure challenges.

"In this situation, I used a Singh-Ray 3-Stop Hard Edged Graduated ND Filter to knock back the light above the horizon by 3 stops and give the boat and water a chance to compete. I also used a Singh-Ray 3-Stop Reverse Graduated ND filter with the darkest portion directly over the sun to further control the intensity of this region of the capture -- the range of intensities are so severe that in one part we have highlights completely blown by direct sunlight, while at the extremes of the top half of the image we have shadows clipped to pure black -- all whilst retaining the required detail in the lower half of the scene. In such cases, camera metering can be heavily biased. So, to err on the safe side, I shot a 7-exposure bracket at 1-stop intervals to give me the best range of images to select from. The selected image was taken as a RAW capture at 1/50th second @ F16 with a ISO-200 setting on a Canon 1D Mark III with Canon EF16-35 F2.8L USM II Lens, Canon TC80-N3 Remote Release, and the above mentioned 4x6-inch Singh-Ray filters in a Lee holder.

"This second image is my 'boat in the water' image that I call 'Sunset over Wakapuaka Flats.' Over the years I've admired many great boat-in-the-water shots and have always secretly wished for one to call my own!

"I drive past this location often and have thought it would make a lovely sunset shot at high tide; but whenever there was a sunset at high tide the weather usually wasn't cooperating. However -- on this one occasion -- everything came together at just the right time. As I drove to the water's edge I saw the boat parked there and immediately visualised what could be a great image. The colourful sunset was partly due to volcanic eruptions in Chile (even though New Zealand is many thousands of kilometers away).

"For this shot I needed two Singh-Ray filters. First, I used my Singh-Ray 3-Stop Reverse Graduated ND filter to allow a perfect balance of foreground and background levels, and then I selected my Mor-Slo 5-stop ND filter which allowed me to make a full 5-second exposure. The long exposure being necessary because a rower had rowed through the scene just a few minutes before and there were still ripples on the water -- potential detractors -- spoiling the perfect reflection.

"So, even though I now have a 'boat in the water' shot to call my own, I think the more powerful message for us all is, if you come across a 'boat in the water' shot that you really like - or in fact ANY photograph that you really like... save it... print it... study it... think about the techniques involved -- and then go and shoot one of your own. When you've done that, analyse it... identify any weak areas... find out how to overcome them -- and then repeat the whole process over and over again. Before you know it you could well be taking shots just as good as the ones you admire."

You can see more in Colin Southern's online gallery here.

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