Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Photographing the ocean calls for caution as well as all the filters you can bring with you

In addition to teaching photography to high schoolers, nature photographer Brian Rueb is now teaming with fellow Singh-Ray blogger, Stephen Oachs, to help launch the Aperture Academy in Campbell, California. "Fortunately, I can still find some time to do my own shooting, too. On a recent visit to the northern California coast, I had the chance to use several of my Singh-Ray Graduated ND Filters to create these images. Sadly, however, it was the last trip for one.

"I don’t think any place provides more dramatic photo opportunities than the Pacific coast. In my opinion, however, the ocean is also the most difficult place to photograph. When working in a river, lake, or near a waterfall, the water flows in a somewhat predictable pattern and safety is not as big an issue. The ocean, however, is constantly changing and the churning waves and currents don’t remain the same for more than a moment. Every potentially great image also holds the potential for disaster if you’re not paying enough attention to the incoming waves and slippery rocks you’re standing on. Using filters in such conditions calls for added caution.

"The image above was captured shortly after the sunlight had left for the day. There was a dense fog bank in the area, so I knew a fantastic sunset was out of the question. On days like this I opt to go for different compositions by shooting 'square format.' My DSLR camera won’t, obviously, shoot square frames, so I have to do some visualization ahead of time. In this instance I really liked the rocks, and the details I saw on their living surface. A Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo filter allowed me to slow down the exposure time enough to get a glassy smooth surf. I added my 3-stop soft-step ND Grad to balance out the sky, which was considerably brighter than the foreground. The polarizer in the Vari-N-Duo filter helped bring out added detail in the rocks and gave the image more depth.

"This next image was taken on my second night of the trip. The fog had vanished along a section of the coast and a wonderful sunset appeared. If you’ve tried photographing the northern California coast during the late summer you know how rare great sunsets are. I like to have my Singh-Ray filters always ready to help capture such shots. I can easily balance the exposure range within the scene by using ND Grads to reduce the time spent on the computer when I get home. For this image I also used the Vari-N-Duo -- not as much for additional neutral density as for the its polarization feature -- which gave the colors a bit more pop and increased detail in the clouds.

"Capturing this next image was a bittersweet experience which taught me a great lesson. There is always some debate among photographers about how to hold an ND Grad filter. Do you put it in a filter holder or hand hold it? For a hard-step filter, I like to use a holder so I can line up the horizon with the gradient line on the filter and create a better exposure balance. If I’m using a soft-step, it usually means there are sea stacks or some other item that I’m trying to allow more light to reach. So by hand holding a filter, I can position it in a way that renders the best exposure. In this case I had been using my 3-stop soft-step ND Grad filter and even though the scene would have been great for a hard-step, I opted to keep the soft-step to try and maximize the light on the foreground rock.

"Wearing hip-waders and placing my tripod firmly in the sand, I set up the composition. I must say I was pretty happy with what was showing up on my viewing screen. The waves rolling in were at about low-calf level. However, just after this shot was composed -- as I was looking at my view screen -- the wave you see in the image came in. It was much larger than anything before or after. Water went from gently lapping my legs to rising very quickly, well passed thigh level, filling up my waders with water. I’ve trained myself to save the camera at all costs so I grabbed my gear with one arm and a nearby rock with the other to prevent a total wipeout.

"The hand that had been holding the ND Grad suddenly had to quickly grab the rock for survival and my filter was swept to sea. I was SO bummed! I felt glad I got the shot and managed to save myself and my gear, but I truly loved that filter. It was as valuable to my image making process as any other piece of equipment in my bag. It had been everywhere with me.

"The ocean presents endless compositional possibilities and is a perfect subject for all kinds of filters. This photo was made just 30 minutes after losing my 3-stop soft-step grad. Once I was able to shed the soaked waders and mentally regroup, I changed my location and used the 3-stop Daryl Benson Reverse Graduated ND filter which worked perfectly with the bright sun near the horizon and the nice straight horizon line. Here again I opted for a square composition.

"We learned two good lessons on this trip. First, remember to carry all our filters with us to the ocean when we're looking for dramatic images... they each serve a purpose. The more important lesson, however, is to always pay attention to the constantly changing surroundings and the potential safety risks to our filters, lenses and even our lives when photographing the ocean." In addition to teaching landscape photography workshops for Aperture Academy, Brian is currently planning a two-month trip to photograph Iceland in 2010 and begin work on his first book. You can explore his ever-expanding gallery on his new website.

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