Friday, December 05, 2008

To get the very best images from Graduated ND Filters, remember to play the angles

Living in the San Francisco South Bay area allows Stephen Oachs many opportunities to photograph the Central California coast, which includes some of the most rugged and beautiful landscapes on the planet. "A quick 30-minute drive puts me in Santa Cruz, the portal to the Monterey/Big Sur coastline," says Stephen.

"One of the challenges of photographing the California coast is fog. During the summer months, high pressure systems cause the fog to lodge all along the shores, hindering optimal conditions. However, when winter arrives, the fog dissipates, making it an opportune time to capture the stunning light.

“After monitoring the arrival of winter weather patterns for awhile, I headed to a couple of my favorite locations, Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz and Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur.

"I really enjoy shooting at sunset at Natural Bridges, an impressive land bridge formed by tidal erosion. When capturing the image above, the shape of the beach, along with the ‘bridge,’ created a challenge. When using my ND Grad filters, it can be difficult to keep the scene looking natural while still balancing the light. For this scene, I found that slightly turning my Galen Rowell 2-stop soft-step ND filter on a 10-4 o'clock angle (with the filter's mid-line following the edge of the tide), allowed the light diffusion to appear natural. I have often added a 2- or 3-stop solid ND filter in conjunction with a soft-step ND Grad, and since the second filter is solid, the rotation/angle of the graduated filter still works fine."

Another of Stephen's favorite locations is Pfeiffer Beach, in the heart of Big Sur. “Pfeiffer is a pristine area graced with some amazing rock formations. A short hike down the beach brings you to an amazing opening where the surf crashes relentlessly through the arch and onto the rock-lined beach. For a photo here, my goal was to arrive in late afternoon when the sun would blaze through the opening in the rock and illuminate the sea mist.

“As I set up for the shot, I realized the light was going to be very tricky, given that the rock face was fairly dark in contrast to the white surf and the light shining through the portal was extremely bright. It was a canvas of harsh contrasts and distorted light. I resorted to a combination of a 2-stop solid ND filter and a 2-stop soft step graduated ND filter, and turned the mid-line of the filter on a 11-5 o'clock angle across the middle of the bright opening. This allowed me to balance the light, as well as achieve a slower shutter speed to catch the surf as it splashed up into the sunlight.

"I often experiment by turning my Graduated ND filters at different angles. In some cases, where the foreground may be brighter than the distant background, I have even used them upside down. By orienting the filter's mid-line to suit each scene, I've found that many times I can give my images a turn for the better. And, a little luck never hurts.”

Stephen's dramatic landscape images are currently winning recognition and awards in several photo publications and contests. The best way to follow his success is to visit his blog and his impressive website gallery.

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