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.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

By working with large-format film, he learned to photograph "with clear intent"

Arizona photographer Laurent Baig feels right at home in his natural surroundings. "I first realized I'm an 'outdoor junkie' when I was 24 years old and moved to Tucson," he says. "A friend introduced me to the world of hiking and mountain biking, and a couple years later I discovered climbing. Rock climbing soon became my life, and I spent almost every weekend for several years climbing in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and California. Then I began taking a camera on my adventures and discovered I had a passion for composition and light. While most photographers have gone from film to digital photography in order to 'free' their creativity, I changed from film to digital and then back to large format film after seeing an exhibition of prints at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum near Tucson. I was blown away by the detail and clarity of large-format images.

"In my days with 35mm cameras, and with my first digital cameras, I would run around trying this and that composition only to return with many rolls or CF cards filled with uninspiring images. Soon after I discovered 4x5 film photography, I learned to slow down. I now concentrate on 'making' one image rather than taking many. I'm still just as excited about creating new images, but before I set up the view camera, I now look and look and look. This slower, more deliberate pace has helped me step up the quality of my images. And, since I'm using film, I'm careful to use one of my Singh-Ray Graduated ND filters whenever I include the sky in my image. As I'll explain later, I now use a digital camera again as a 'back-up.' No matter what other cameras may be in my future, however, it's been my work with 4x5 film that's taught me how to photograph with clear intent.

"Galen Rowell taught outdoor photographers how to expose land and sky more successfully through the use of the graduated neutral density filter. Today, we're still using these filters with great success. I've wanted for many years to make an image of Yosemite's Lembert Dome. I got my chance in July of this year. Seeing some soft clouds in the sky, I knew the chance for sunset color would be good. I'd been having a problem with smoke from several fires in the Sierra which really diffused the light. Still, I composed my image and kept my fingers crossed. In order to keep the sky from blowing out, I selected a 2-stop hard-step ND Grad. I wanted to keep the gradient line of the filter just above the the peak of the dome and Tioga peak in the background, so I stopped down the lens and rotated the filter while raising and lowering it to find the right position on the ground glass. I waited for the light to be just the way I wanted it and then exposed the film.

"Photographing the nearby mountains in Southern Arizona is a challenge for me. So many 'typical' mountain landscapes feature either an alpine tarn or a creek with some rocky peak in the background. Unfortunately, the prickly nature of the desert, also makes it difficult to make grand scenics without being too generic. I've hiked this Pontatoc trail a few times and I knew -- with the right light and clouds -- I'd be able to make an interesting image. When a late spring storm brought some clouds to Tucson, I knew I had my chance. The challenge was to make a meaningful composition. I studied the land then boulder hopped up to a vantage where I could see that the saguaro cacti, in late light, would form diagonal lines leading off to the left. The next thing was to see if the canyon would fill with shadow and create a line leading back into the image. I wanted capture the dramatic sky and clouds in this image, and experience told me that a 2-stop hard edged Graduated ND filter would keep detail in the clouds as I exposed for the foreground.

"Quite recently, I've started using a digital camera again to help me experiment in the situations where 4x5 film is too costly to 'just try things.' This image of Weaver's Needle in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona was a case where I'd run out of film. A summer monsoon storm passed by the backside of the needle just at sunset and lit up the entire area in a warm glow. I wanted to capture that warm glow, but I also wanted the contrast of the smooth gradient of sky versus the craggy ground below the needle. So I set up my digital camera and started hand holding and bouncing a 2-stop hard step ND grad. Why bouncing? I've discovered that, by blurring the edge of the gradient, I can hold back the light in the areas I need to -- moving the filter up and down during the exposure. This technique is especially useful where vertical rocks, towers, trees or other things stick up into the sky as we see in this image."

Laurent is now well on his way to success as a fine-art landscape photographer. "While we will always pursue that unattainable goal of perfection," he says, it's nice to know my prints are already gracing the homes of friends, family, and extremely satisfied clients." There's much more of his work to enjoy by visiting his website and blog.