Friday, February 15, 2008

This top-notch photographer answers four common questions about ND Grads

We recently asked Oregon-based outdoor photographer Marc Adamus what questions his photo workshop students have about using Singh-Ray Graduated Neutral Density filters. If you've visited the galleries on his website recently, you know why Marc is such a good photographer to ask. In April, you will also see his work on the cover and inside the special "Nature" issue of Popular Photography.

"Here are four of the questions I'm asked most often by students," says Marc. "My answers are better understood when I can show "example" images like the two we see below."

Q: You have said you prefer to use Graduated ND Filters to control an image that has a wide range of exposure levels instead of such Photoshop techniques as blending multiple image files together. Why?

A: "First of all, I think it's always nice when we can have a photograph that looks great without doing a lot of work on the computer first. I know it is for me.

"From a technical standpoint, Graduated ND Filters do offer several advantages over combining exposures either from the same RAW file or multiple files. Often, when I’m trying to tame a very abrupt transition from bright to dark -- such as along the horizon line -- some edge flaring or light bleeding can occur, even with the best lenses. Using a hard-step ND Grad filter smoothes over this transition line almost seamlessly in many cases and saves me additional work. I can’t count how many times I’ve tried blending multiple images together only to spend hours attempting to get things to look natural. It’s just simply not as easy as it sounds!

"I also find there's an advantage to using Graduated ND filters when I’m shooting a moving subject. I’m not referring just to wildlife here, I’m talking about wind, waves, water or whatever motion you want to capture –- or not capture -- in your images. If something is moving around that affects your transition line from light to dark, then a Graduated ND filter is needed. If you don’t use one, you may never be able to combine multiple exposures together because of the movement between frames.

Another situation where you’re not going to want to use image blends is at twilight, or night. Long exposures like this one captured after dusk are great fun and can yield amazing results, but you can’t get results like this image without using an ND Grad. I used a Singh-Ray 2-stop hard-step to pull out the reflections of cloud motion while keeping the highlights in check and maintaining great color. My exposure time was nearly ten minutes!

Q: Why would I want to use the oversized 4x6 Graduated ND filters?

Often, when I’m in the field shooting great light, I have very little time to fuss with equipment. I like to streamline my shooting process as much as possible. The ability to simply take my 4 x 6-inch ND Grad out of its case and hand-hold it over the lens -- as well as any ring-mounted filters I have on the lens -- is important to me. The larger size also avoids getting fingertips in the picture. The extra time and effort it would take to attach a filter holder on the lens might occasionally be costly, and holders don’t attach to my wide-angle-specific filters such as the my thin-mount LB Warming Polarizer.

Q: You have said you often move the filters during the exposure. Why?

The ability to move your hand-held Graduated ND filters during the exposure can be beneficial for a number of reasons. First of all, I only employ this technique when my exposure time is over 1 second or so for obvious reasons. Shutter speeds of more than a second are used for alot of my photography though, as I love shooting the soft twilight of the 'magic hour' as well as capturing streams and other water in slowed-down motion. By moving my filter during the exposure, I can either avoid or at least reduce the appearance of any obvious transition line caused by the edge of the gradient. Sometimes, there are important areas of detail right along a transition line from light to dark, such as a treeline on the horizon. If I move the grad just a little up/down during the exposure, it softens the effect of the grad in those areas.

Moving my ND Grad filter can also prevent flaring when shooting directly into the sun or light source when compared to shooting in the same light with a fixed filter. Sounds strange, but it truly works. If you’ve ever tried shooting directly into the sun with a fixed filter, you may have noticed excessive flare spots. Moving the filter gently during the exposure helps me reduce this problem.

Q: I see there are also “Reverse” Graduated ND filters. What are these and when would I need them?
"The term 'Reverse' does not mean you’re buying the same filter turned upside down. It means that the transition from light to dark is very strong right in the middle of the filter and then becomes progressively lighter again toward the top edge. Why? Because, in many sunset or sunrise scenes, the area of greatest brightness is often right along the horizon itself. When you have a very bright horizon, the Reverse ND grad may do the best job of controlling those strong highlights without causing the uppermost part of the image to go unnaturally dark. For example, a 3-stop Reverse ND Grad filter was used for this image and for many of my landscapes that include a rising or setting sun."

In a future posting, Marc will discuss several more questions about using Graduated ND filters that he encounters frequently. If you're impatient, check out the April issue of PopPhoto and be sure to stop by Marc's website for more great information and images, or his gallery on

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Yes, it's the same place, but it's a different day!

"Returning to the same locations has always paid dividends for me," says professional landscape photographer and workshop leader Steve Kossack. "At this well-known spot, high over Death Valley at Aguereberry Point, I’ve been rewarded in the heat of summer and the cool of winter. Spring brings wildflowers to the valley floor in some years and the fall signals the end of the severe heat and more manageable photography temperatures. I'm always eager to revisit the wide open vistas of these ridges in all seasons -- anytime I can get there.

"In these three Aguereberry Point images," says Steve, "we see how the the passing weather sets the stage for a beautiful and distinct image any time you're there.

"This first image is the result of fortunate timing and the use of a device called a lightning trigger. While watching an approaching storm, my excited anticipation of being able to capture a lightning bolt in daylight suddenly became a reality. The trigger prompted me to frame the composition at a very wide angle because the sensor scans a wide area of the sky. This wide-angle view provided enough space for the lightning bolt to fill the entire left half of the frame, a big benefit I did not anticipate at the time! The trigger also calls for a slower shutter speed than I would normally use, so I chose to use only my LB Color Intensifier and retain as much depth of field (smaller aperture) as possible. Using the Color Intensifier provided the added benefit of heightened earth tones while maintaining that necessary shutter speed. I especially like this filter's small filter factor -- it's only about 1/3 to 1/2 of an f-stop."

"This 'Moonrise at Sunset' image is the tighter composition I would have liked for the lightning bolt shot, but as you can see, it would have not worked! Here the focal point is the moonrise and the composition was narrowed and lowered. The stage was set and the curtain rose! The LB ColorCombo was chosen this time to heighten the contrast and deepen the color. My favorite moon exposure filter is the Singh-Ray 5-stop, soft-step ND Grad. I find the filter perfect for this situation and, in my workflow, easier and more predictable than stacking filters. The detail retained in this moon is the proof!

"This third 'Sunset Storm' image was my reward for knowing the “when and where” of this same location. Arriving on the heels of a quickly passing storm, I had no time to get where I wanted for the set up. Instead I settled for a perch above and quickly rethought the composition. Since the color was the focal point I needed only to adjust the angle and isolate the scene. The solution was a longer lens and the use of the Singh-Ray LB Color Intensifier and 2 stop, soft-step ND Grad to “snap the clouds” from the quickly fading light."

This location is always part of Steve's Death Valley 5-day workshop. The entire lightning-shot sequence, by the way, can be seen in Steve's new Death Valley DVD.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Sometimes you want the lighter touch of the Singh-Ray 1-stop ND Grad

In his travels, Texas landscape photographer Ernesto Santos has witnessed a wide range of challenging outdoor lighting conditions and has learned to use his Graduated ND filters to capture the most he can from each scene -- in the camera.

"While building a collection of Graduated Neutral Density filters," says Ernesto, "most aspiring nature photographers will get the standard recommendation: 'start with a 2-stop soft-step and a 3-stop hard-step.' No doubt, this is sage advice and a good way to get started. For the majority of lighting situations these two indispensable filters are probably the most used filters in my bag. I often use them individually, but sometimes, under very contrasty conditions, stacked together.

"There is, however, another ND Grad filter in my bag that has proved 'indispensable' for the success of many of my landscape photographs. That filter is the Singh-Ray 1-stop hard-step Grad ND.

"Over the years, I have often come across landscapes such as this one captured on a very stormy morning last spring in the Grand Tetons. You can see there is only a subtle variation between the luminance of the terrain and the sky. Such situations usually occur in the twilight hours -- when the distant sky is cloud-covered on the side of the rising or setting sun, but the sky in the immediate vicinity has intermittent cloud cover. In these conditions the light can take on very soft tones, often maintaining an almost equal balance of luminosity with the earth below. During this atmospheric phenomenon you can often shoot without using any ND Grad filter. However, when such a scene includes a lot of very light tones or bright reflections from a stream, river or other body of water in the foreground which disturb the tonal balance of the overall scene, I will simply use my 1-stop ND Grad turned upside-down to hold back such distractions and bring extra punch and saturation to the sky.

"In this second early morning shot, it was important to balance the exposure of the light-colored timbers of the cabin with the dark sod in the foreground. To do this I used my spot meter to take a reading of the grasses and then opened my lens a half stop. If I had metered for the cabin the texture of the grass would be lost in shadow and the sky would have opened up a bit, losing saturation. As the emerging sunrays broke ever so lightly through the gathering storm clouds there was just a hint of alpen glow on the Teton peaks. My two goals were to retain detail in the grass and improve on the saturation of that little bit of pink glow on the peaks. The first goal was achieved by the spot metering of the grass and the second goal by using the 1-stop hard ND Grad to preserve the colors on the peaks and to bring some additional saturation to the cold blue tones of the morning sky."

You can learn more about Ernesto and enjoy more of his images at his website.