Friday, June 13, 2008

Creating these dramatic "timescapes" calls for the right combination of Singh-Ray filters

As a hard-working professional based in the Pacific Northwest, outdoor photographer Kevin McNeal says he is "constantly trying to find new ways to distinguish my work from that of all the other good photographers out there.

"Recently, I have been perfecting a new (at least for me) shooting technique using a combination of the Vari-ND plus one or more other Singh-Ray filters to produce what might be called 'timescapes.' The basic idea is that -- by stacking the filters together -- I block much of the light reaching the camera sensor and thus create much longer exposures -- as long as 10 minutes or more. I've found that, during these very long exposures, the filters dramatically enhance the mood of the colors and images I'm creating. The images with this story illustrate some of the combinations that work best for me.

"Many of my timescapes are shot in the magic hours around sunrise or sunset. When deciding what filters to combine with the Vari-ND, the first step is to evaluate the weather -- the amount of light, cloud cover, and the presence of wind can all affect the results I get. Next, I try to visualize what I'm trying to do in terms of colors, drama and tension. My basic approach is to then screw the Vari-ND filter onto the lens, then either my Gold-N-Blue Polarizer, LB Warming Polarizer, or LB ColorCombo filter goes in front of the Vari-ND, and finally a soft- or hard-step ND Grad is usually positioned out in front to balance the brightness of the sky.

"The Vari-ND is a variable neutral density filter that blocks out from 2 to 8 f-stops of light during the exposure -- enabling me to work with much longer exposures simply by rotating the outer ring of the filter. With the Vari-ND, I can make longer exposures even when the sun is well above the horizon. In some cases I can get an 8-second exposure with the sun still present, and when I add a Gold-N-Blue Polarizer in front of the Vari-ND, I can get up to thirty-second exposures even in bright sunlight. As mentioned, movement and light create the drama in these images.

"My favorite timescape subjects are scenes with water in the foreground and clouds streaking above. The longer exposure reveals motion in the image and creates an exaggerated sense of depth. At the same time, the polarizer adds color saturation and visual impact. When the Gold-N-Blue polarizer is combined in the filter set, the colors in the image become even more vibrant.

"I start with the Vari-ND mounted on the lens and then rotate the outer ring to block just the right amount of light. Once I have shot a few test images with just the Vari-ND, and have adjusted its density to capture the right amount of image motion, I then add one of the three Singh-Ray polarizers mentioned above.

"It is important when using any polarizer to remember to rotate the filter to achieve the look that's consistent with what you are trying to achieve. To make sure I am getting the polarizing results I want, I will temporarily set the Vari-ND at its minimum density of 2 stops to see the full effect of the second filter. Once I am happy with the color balance of the second filter, I will return the Vari-ND density back to where it was previously. After the first two filters are in place, I add a Cokin P holder with an ND grad in the filter slot.

"Exposures can be tricky and they often will be long enough that you will have to turn your shutter speed setting to Bulb. I set my camera's shutter in manual mode for a 30-second exposure at f/5.6. I shoot one frame and evaluate that exposure on my histogram. If the exposure looks good at f/5.6 for 30 seconds, I will then recalculate the right exposure based on an aperture of f/16 to be around four minutes. I subtract or add time based on the exposure from this formula. With the length of such exposures, noise can be a difficult issue in underexposed areas, so I always make sure that at least one of my bracketed images is not underexposed. Once I have calculated the right exposure times, I study the histogram to check proper exposure levels. In terms of image degradation, I have never noticed a quality loss when using any combination of Singh-Ray filters."

The one thing to be aware of, when combining several filters with a wide-angle lens, is evidence of vignetting at the edges of your image. Vignetting commonly occurs with wide-angle lenses that are 24mm or shorter on a full frame camera.

"Whenever there's enough twilight present, I often try to push my luck even further with even longer exposure times. This can be achieved by adding a Mor-Slo 5-stop ND filter, which helps me extend exposures to over ten minutes. This new filter from Singh-Ray adds another 5 f-stops of neutral density. At this point, it can be difficult to set up your composition because the added filters block out so much light your eye can't see anything through the viewfinder. Don’t hesitate to remove the filters while you compose the image first. After positioning the filters back in place, I will insert the Mor-Slo filter between the Vari-ND and the Polarizer and shoot away for some very long exposures.

"Combining filters can be difficult if any of your Singh-Ray filters are in "thin-mount " rings that have no threads on the front rim. My solution (shown in the photos below) to this is to use some kind of elastic bands to hold the Cokin P holder securely on the camera; your filters can then be squeezed between the holder and the camera. It is important that the tension of the elastic be tight enough to hold the filters in position. This method enables me to add or remove my filters quickly and securely."

Kevin concludes by saying "I caution any photographer to not mistake my timescape process for 'science.' There is no right or wrong way to proceed with your own ventures. By trying one idea and then another, however, you should soon find the way that works best for you. I hope my examples prove useful."

To see other dramatic images by Kevin McNeal, visit

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

It's early morning on the beach, and the Vari-ND helps us go with the flow

Outdoor photographer, teacher and author William Neill is known for his intimate landscape photographs. The strongest examples of this work can be seen in his Landscapes of the Spirit book. A few days ago, Bill captured this image near his California home with the Singh-Ray Vari-ND. The exposure was 15 seconds long, and -- as he says -- "the image would not have worked without the Vari-ND." It's his latest success in his ongoing "Landscapes of the Spirit" series, created by placing the camera on a tripod and shooting extra-long exposures that clearly convey the motion occurring within the image.

"On a family get-together over Memorial Day weekend," says Bill, "I found myself photographing at Carmel Beach and along the Big Sur coast. It was a wonderful chance to walk along the beach at dawn and sunset. This photograph is one of many made that morning using my Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter to achieve the longer exposures I needed to wash away distracting details. I timed the exposures for when the surf movements would create the most blur -- working the scene for about 20 to 30 minutes to capture the various wave motions.

"I often look for strong graphic elements to use in the foreground of a landscape image. In this case, that element becomes the main object." Bill used a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens and exposed for 15 seconds at f/32 at ISO 100.

Bill not only writes a monthly column "On Landscape" for Outdoor Photographer, he also teaches on-line courses for and maintains a great blog, Light on the Landscape.

William has just released a digital edition of Landscapes of the Spirit which is now available for downloading as a high-quality PDF for a mere $15.00. Check it out here.