Friday, March 06, 2009

Singh-Ray Filters help make the most of Thanksgiving in the Desert - Part 1

Nature photographer Ernesto Santos enjoys living in warm and sunny McAllen, Texas, but he also relishes any opportunity to photograph anywhere else he can get to in the western U.S. "It was late last summer," Ernesto recalls, "when my wife broke the news to me... 'This Thanksgiving let’s go to Las Vegas, I want to see some shows.'

"The tiny gears in my head immediately started turning so fast I almost lost my equilibrium. No, I wasn’t thinking about hitting the blackjack tables -- I only gamble with my camera settings. I was mentally mapping a photo itinerary that would include Arizona and areas in Nevada within a day’s drive of Sin City. The only thing remaining was convincing my wife that it would be much better to drive than to fly, and it didn’t take much to get her to agree. Whenever possible I prefer driving to my shooting locations so I can go hog-wild and bring all my photo gear with no worries about carry-on limits and beastly baggage handlers.

"So November soon came and we began driving the endless track just to get out of Texas. Living in south Texas means that half of the length of any road trip is spent getting to a neighboring state. The only advantage is that it gives me plenty of time to contemplate my opportunities. As I formulated my plan of attack, my bundle of Singh-Ray filters were ready and waiting somewhere in the pile of baggage in the back. I considered all the variables I could identify into my permutations. My major concern was the drab condition of the desert in late November. Winter was setting in and it is typically very dry, so there would be no colorful blossoms or fall foliage. I had a plan though.

"When we got to Tucson, we made stops at Saguaro National Park, the incomparable Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and San Xavier del Bac -- the most beautiful Spanish mission in the U.S. For the image above, captured during a spectacular sunset on the grounds of the mission, I used the Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer. The polarizer brought out the reds, yellows, and pinks in the sky very well.

"This image is of the Signal Hill area of Saguaro National Park, well known for the rock art created by the prehistoric Hohokam people. In late November, the desert is visually subdued and frankly not very exciting. If I were able to pick the best time of year to visit this park, it would be in the spring. Like any serious photographer, however, I'm learning to make the most of whatever opportunities I find -- regardless of the weather or time of year. I've also learned that, to give my images an edge, it's important to use all my tools to the fullest. That's the reason I rarely leave for a shoot without all my Singh-Ray filters. They can literally make any trip a success, regardless of the compromises I have to make. For this image, I used the Singh-Ray LB ColorCombo on my Nikkor 24-70 mm f/2.8 (which reproduces excellent color). It proved to be the perfect combination to capture the saturated greens and bold blue sky in this scene.

"Moving on to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, I discovered a very gracious lady giving a presentation on the many raptors living at the museum. She gave me enough time to quickly attach the Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer to my 70-200 mm zoom to take this close up of a barn owl. I think the soft warmth added by the filter greatly enhances this portrait. And because I was shooting my camera hand held it was great knowing that the lighter brighter Singh-Ray polarizer would save me almost a full f-stop.

"When we left Tucson and headed toward Las Vegas, we stopped for a couple of days in Phoenix, where we took time one afternoon to hike in the Superstition Mountains of The Lost Dutchman State Park. This park is also well known for spring wildflowers, but in the typically dry winters of Arizona, the landscape can lack color. My solution was to wait for the “golden hour” and bring along my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer. Here I chose a less-than-friendly cholla cactus as the centerpiece of this image with the Superstition peaks in the background. The warm aura of the setting sun accentuates the needles of the cholla and gives the scene a nice glow. I once again used the Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer reduce the glare of the late desert light and add more clarity and saturation to the peaks and sky in the distance."

Part 2 of Ernesto's Thanksgiving travel story will feature shots from a much more desolate place -- the Valley of Fire in Nevada, which is only a short drive from Las Vegas and offers some great Mojave Desert scenery. Part 2 will be posted next Tuesday, but in the meantime, visit Ernesto's website here.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

How to use your camera's spot meter to quickly choose the right Graduated ND

Following on our February 27 blog story illustrating the fundamental differences between Solid Neutral Density filters and Graduated ND filters, outdoor photographer and photo writer Rod Barbee sends this related story on how he determines which graduated ND filter to use for a particular scene. As Rod says, "By using my camera's spot meter, I can -- in a matter of seconds -- accurately figure out which ND grad to use for any landscape. As I was making this image at Seal Rocks State Park on the Oregon coast, recently, I thought it might help future workshop clients and others to follow along as I quickly determined which of my Singh-Ray ND Grads would be the right one for the job.

"Even with today's sophisticated metering systems there's no camera that will give you a good, fully balanced exposure if the range of light in the scene is beyond the ability of the film or digital sensor to record it. The key to capturing many outdoor landscape scenes lies in understanding and working within the limitations of your film or sensor. This means interpreting what your in-camera meter is telling you, and using Graduated Neutral Density filters to balance the brightest areas in your scene with the darker, more shaded areas. Typically the light intensity of the sky and sunlit mountains in the distance may be too many f-stops brighter than objects in the foreground, so the camera can only record one or the other properly.

"If you’re trying out your ND Grads for the first time -- or you’ve never had success with them before -- don’t worry, it’s not difficult. Let's start by discussing how to determine if you need to use a graduated ND filter at all and which 'strength' (1-stop, 2-stop, 3-stop) you'll need for a particular scene. The best way I've found to do this is by using my in-camera spot meter with the camera set in the 'manual' exposure mode. Here are the basic steps I used for this one 'typical' landscape described above:

"First, set your lens to the aperture that's most appropriate for what you’re trying to accomplish -- let's say we want to use f/22 to get sharp focus from foreground to distant mountains. Then, set your foreground exposure by spot metering an important element in the foreground and make it the tonality you would like it to be -- let's say midway on our meter's exposure compensation scale. Now turn your shutter speed dial to set the metered foreground exposure. This will be the final exposure setting to be used to capture the image.

"Next tilt your camera upward so that the spot meter is measuring the brightest part of your sky and/or bright objects in the background. Make sure that the area you’re spot metering will actually be in the final picture. What does your meter show? Chances are it’s going to 'peg' to the maximum value, indicating that your background is a lot lighter than your foreground. That’s why we’re going to use a graduated ND filter. If you meter the background in a scene and the meter already shows the tonality you want it to be, you don’t even need to use an ND Grad.

"Let’s assume the meter pegged. With your spot meter on the background, change the shutter speed, counting the number of whole stops it takes to bring the background to the tonality you want it to be. You’ll be changing to a faster shutter speed. Count in whole stops because ND Grad filters are only available in whole-stop increments. The number of additional f-stops of density you need to balance the sky directly determines which Graduated ND filter to use. In other words, if you needed to change your shutter speed by two whole stops to balance the background to the tonality you want, you need to use a 2-stop filter. Most modern cameras have shutter speed increments of 1/3 or 1/2 stop. You’ll need to be aware of this while counting; one click may not mean one stop, it may only be a third or half of a stop.

"The following illustrations will show you exactly what I see in my viewfinder as I use my spot meter. This first one shows the red box of my spot meter being aimed to read the middle gray tone of the foreground rocks. I’ve pre-set the aperture at f/22 to achieve the desired depth of field and I have changed the shutter speed to 'zero out' the meter -- meaning that I turned the shutter speed dial until the meter's exposure compensation readout appeared in the middle of the scale, just below the '0'. Before we take the final photo at this aperture and shutter speed setting, however, we want to first see what will happen to the bright sky area.

"This next illustration shows what happens when I tilt the camera back to spot meter a bright part of sky that will be in the background. Notice what the meter reads? It shows a reading of more than +2 f-stops, meaning that if I took the shot at these settings, the foreground would look fine but the sky would come back as a washed out white. Not what we want.

"So now I know I’ll need a graduated filter to control the background. But which one? Here’s where I start changing shutter speeds and counting in whole stop increments until my in-camera spot meter indicates the tonality I want for the background. In this case I want the light-toned sky to look like it does to my eyes: a light tone. That’s about one stop lighter than medium, or +1 on the in-camera meter scale.

"For this scene, when the meter indicated +1 1/3, as the third illustration shows, I had changed the shutter speed two whole stops (1/4 second to 1/15 second). I wanted the sky to be about a stop lighter than medium and this is close enough. Since it took a two stop change in shutter speed this means I need a two-stop graduated ND filter.

"After determining which filter to use, remember to change your shutter speed back to the original setting used for the foreground exposure -- 1/4 second in this example. Remember, the camera's meter settings expose for the foreground through the clear lower half of the filter and the filter's gradient area controls the exposure for the background. Now you're ready to carefully place the appropriate Graduated ND filter in the proper position in front of your lens and take the picture. Because of the unevenness of the rocks on the horizon, I used a soft-step filter.

"What’s most important to grasp here is how using the spotmeter in my camera enabled me to determine the difference between what the initial background reading is in relation to the foreground (which was way too bright) and what I wanted it to be for a more balanced overall exposure.

"By now you're getting the idea that you can control how your landscape images appear; you can make all the choices. By using graduated filters, you can balance the range of exposure in a scene to capture better and more natural looking images right in your camera -- on the same piece of film or just one digital capture. I should add that Singh-Ray makes a range of different gradient densities and patterns which gives me various choices to handle many different lighting and composition challenges.

"If your goal is to take control of your photography and to create great landscape images, then graduated neutral density filters are indispensable tools to have in your camera bag."

For further information and motivation, visit Rod's website at to learn more about his upcoming workshops and projects.