Friday, January 30, 2009

Capturing both the warm and cool colors in winter landscapes is why you take along Singh-Ray filters

Snow time is always exciting for outdoor photographer Kevin McNeal in Olympia, WA. "Winter in the higher elevations of the Olympics" says Kevin, "never disappoints those of us looking for lots of fresh snow. However there are some major challenges -- such as the colder temperatures, the quite often restricted access, and the need for extra gear -- that seem to discourage all but the most determined photographers. It's quite common for me to trek long distances -- often in waist-deep snow -- to reach new vantage points I've never photographed before. One of the challenges, I will admit, is simply to get there. However, the toughest challenge of all is to control the light and return with each image actually captured as I've visualized it. That's why my LB ColorCombo and ND Grads from Singh-Ray are so essential for all my winter landscapes.

"In the image above, for example, the LB ColorCombo helped maximize the contrast between the warm pinks reflecting off the snow and the cool vivid blues of the sky along the horizon and in the shadows. I like the way the LB ColorCombo brings out the soft pastels colors. I also used a two-stop soft-step ND Grad to retain detail in the clouds.

"This second image, taken as a snowstorm was breaking in Olympic National Park, captures the pastel sky softly illuminating the fresh snow. A soft-step ND Grad retained the color in the sky and the soft edge of the gradient fit well along the uneven mountain peaks. I used my LB ColorCombo to increase the color saturation in the foreground just enough to balance the colors in the image and give added impact. When photographing bright snow scenes, it is important to avoid overexposing the highlights in the snow. There needs to be sufficient tone and detail -- especially important are the specular highlights in the foreground snow that add depth and contrast. This is where ND Grads really help by balancing the exposure level of the bright sky and other areas of bright reflected light with the texture of the snow. It's well worth noting that the rectangular shape of the Singh-Ray ND Grads allows me to raise or lower the filter into the proper position for any and all compositions.

"Here's an image showing magenta skies looming over the peaks in Olympic National Park. Again I used a two-stop soft-step ND Grad to hold as much color in the sky as possible. To really bring color depth to our winter images, we need to capture the patterns and texture of the snow as it's lit by the warm rays of the rising or setting sun. This magical 'window of opportunity' only occurs briefly twice a day.

"It is during this magical time that I try to capture the warm and cool tones together as the sun is bathing the overall landscape in warm light while the shadows keep their cool tones. The LB ColorCombo can really give the photographer a big advantage by bringing out as much of the warm light as possible to contrast with the cooler tones. Without my ND Grads and LB ColorCombo, I would not be able to retain the textures of the snow while holding back the highlights. Selecting the ND Grad with the right density depends on how strong the highlight areas are. The time of day also determines the strength of the sun’s rays and the filter density necessary to balance the scene. When the sun is near the horizon and strong light is bouncing off the foreground snow, a Reverse ND Grad may be needed to control the flare from the sun in the foreground.

"When photographing the warm morning light on this open field off the Olympic Peninsula, I wanted to accentuate the softness of the light by creating a soft 'painterly' feeling. The mixture of warm and cool tones together in the image adds visual interest. In winter, it is not uncommon to travel long distances to reach our destination. The need to find the right subject and light together is never an easy task or a certainty. Scouting various viewpoints to find foreground elements in the scene that best complement the subject is what makes a great winter image. It is important, when nature provides such magical moments that you have the necessary filters ready to capture the scene in your camera the same way you visualize it.

To see more of Kevin McNeal's work, be sure to stop by his website.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

When searching for fall colors in Texas, head for Ernesto's hideaway canyon

Even though landscape photographer Ernesto Santos has been busy lately changing employers, he's still living in warm and sunny McAllen, Texas, and he says he's "getting closer and closer to my goal of retirement and pursuing a full-time career in nature photography. That's why I've finally gathered a few of my images from last fall to illustrate why I love my home state.

"Driving through the vast desolation that dominates my native West Texas landscape, the last thing you would ever look for is rich foliage in autumnal shades of red, orange, ochre, and gold. Frankly, most of the scenery is almost monochromatic in tone - a dull buff shade, and yet for me it is certainly one of the most beautiful places on Earth. As a hopelessly devout and fully certified desert rat, I know where to look for blazing fall color in these northern reaches of the vast Chihuahua desert.

Before I reveal that secret, here is my first shot from a trip to West Texas last fall. I spent the better part of my first afternoon at Guadalupe Mountains National Park waiting for the right light to accentuate this field of huge boulders with El Capitan peak in the background. Just when the sun was about to begin its decent over the horizon, I got in position behind these Volkswagen-sized sandstone concretions to capture the sun’s final glow striking the tops of the rocks and the fossilized, sheer marine reef cliffs of the Guadalupe Mountains. Using my Singh-Ray 3-stop Graduated ND filter, I was able to sustain the glow of the sky and cliffs while also exposing for the shaded pockets in the foreground. By adding the Singh-Ray ColorCombo Polarizer, I boosted the sun’s fading glow to perfection. Since the sun was at a 90° angle to the camera lens, the polarizing effect was maximized. I find the desert is a wonderful place to explore and rekindle the creative urges within. At first glance, it can seem like there is nothing out there to romance with the camera lens. But when I look closely and study its secrets I discover its hidden beauty.

And now my secret is revealed. A few weeks each year, if conditions are right -- meaning if we get enough rain, and the cold snaps arrive at just the right time, and if there are no high winds to knock off the leaves, and on and on -- something extraordinary happens in the isolated McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains. Here we see a bigtooth maple struggling to survive by hugging a large granite boulder on the canyon slopes. The sunlight here was shaded by the canyon walls creating a perfect scene in shadow. To keep the shaded image free of any blue color cast, I used the Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer to great effect. Along with achieving the correct white balance in-camera, the polarizer ensured that I would get a pleasing warm tone to the colors in the leaves.

This worked so well that I decided to continue to use the LB Warming Polarizer for more other shots of the foliage. Here is a shot of the canyon floor covered with fallen leaves. You can see why McKittrick Canyon is truly an idyllic place where 2,000-foot canyon walls rise toward the radiant blue Texas sky protecting the gradual slopes in a rather open canyon that are perfect for easy hiking in the exhilarating weather in the fall months of October and November.

This last shot was taken with a macro lens and the LB Warming Polarizer. It is easy to see how the filter brings out the subtle shades without over-saturating the warm tones. We can see this particularly well in the areas where the leaves still have a bit of chlorophyll. The canyon trails take you through a range of flora that is rarely found anywhere else in the world. Amid the soaring center spikes of the Texas agave and the spiny pads of prickly pear cacti are stands of hardwoods that remain from the last ice age. There are forests of bigtooth maple, Texas madrone, walnut, gray oak, and ponderosa pine to name a few. Each fall the bigtooth maples are the stars of the show. Displaying a full array of fall colors, these trees are a rarity this far south -- not seen in most other areas of the Chihuahuan desert. The canyon's micro-ecosystem provides the perfect place for this species to live and grow, as they have done now for hundreds of thousands of years. And when all the conditions are right, the fall colors are spectacular.

Ernesto's website is also a good place to see more colors and pick up a lot of useful ideas. Visit him soon.