Friday, April 03, 2009

You're never too young to learn how the Vari-ND can improve your images

When 18-year-old Alex Mody was just launching his career as a nature photographer, he decided to embark on a a 100-day photo/camping journey across the U.S. and briefly into Canada. So he traveled westward from his home in Northern Virginia, making frequent stops along the way to photograph the scenic wonders... West Virginia and the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Wichita Mountains of Southeast Oklahoma, the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico, the Canyon Country of Arizona and Utah, Grand Teton/Yellowstone National Parks, and many other interesting places in between.

In mid-January, Alex successfully completed that 100-day journey. As he says, "I’m fairly new to photography, having only been shooting 'seriously' for the past year and a half. During the trip, I had the chance to photograph many different landscapes and types of wildlife and learn so many valuable lessons. For example, I used a variety of Singh-Ray filters which were very instrumental to my success. I hope to share some of what I saw and learned with readers by way of this blog. For starters, here are three images I’ve selected that share a common theme... they were all made with the Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter.

"I made this first image early in the trip, in mid-October on an overcast day in the Potomac State Forest of western Maryland. When water levels are just right, this waterfall has a giant swirling eddy at its base. Upon arriving on the scene, I knew instantly that I’d want to frame the eddy below the falls and use a long exposure to blur the swirling leaves. Once I set up my gear and metered the scene, I found that at ISO 100 and f/16, the longest shutter speed I could muster was merely one second. I mounted my Vari-ND filter on my lens and dialed the density almost to the 'maximum,' which allowed me to use a shutter speed of 30 seconds, and ultimately, to make this image.

"About a week later, I captured this image along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. I had actually finished shooting the sunset from a nearby overlook and was en route to my campsite when I discovered this scene. Realizing that I could blur the moving clouds by using a long enough shutter speed, I quickly set my gear up. Using my Vari-ND and a 4x6-inch Singh-Ray 2-stop hard-step ND Grad proved to be the right combination for this scene. It enabled me to achieve a sixty-second exposure in bulb mode, which made for an interesting effect on the blowing clouds.

"Just a few days before Christmas, I made this image from Grandview Point in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. I had previously photographed a rather clear and uneventful sunset that evening. Not being one to give up easily, I hung around for a few minutes and, almost as if they were on cue, a small group of fast-moving clouds moved in. Remembering what I had done in October on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I attached my Vari-ND filter to my lens and dialed it about halfway. This time, I used a 3-stop hard-step 4x6 ND Grad as well. I pulled off a 45-second exposure in bulb mode, which in my opinion, blurred the clouds just right. Overall, I’ve found the Vari-ND filter provides many creative options. It really helps achieve a dreamy feel to what might otherwise be considered “ordinary” scenes.

"I began taking photographs on trips to Shenandoah National Park with my Grandfather and on family vacations. That experience soon led to a very strong interest in the natural world and it wasn't long before I was really inspired to become a nature photographer. Now I'm trying to take advantage of every photographic opportunity that comes my way, hoping that I can eventually share my enthusiasm and perspectives with many others."

To enjoy more of Alex's photography, you can find his steadily growing website and blog here.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Morocco's golden light is a perfect match for the Singh-Ray Reverse ND Grad Filter

As a young, but determined globe-trotting photographer from Salt Lake City, Joel Addams recently visited Morocco. "It was almost sunset and we were nearing our Berber camp in the Erg Chebbi desert in eastern Morocco, when I yelled to the camel driver," Joel recalls. "The sun was nearing the horizon, making the Moroccan sky rich blue and the high dunes a golden orange. I was missing too many great shots of the camel train and desert from the single vantage point high atop my lumbering animal. The driver clicked in that special way, and my camel pitched forward and then back and plopped to the ground.

"As the camel train came to a halt, I looked up and noticed the sun exactly hitting the horizon. 'Move fast,' I thought. I was reaching for two things: my tripod and my Singh-Ray Reverse Graduated Neutral Density filter. The harsh desert sun was going to ruin the shot I had planned with the camels resting in a line in the foreground and the setting sun, and my Reverse ND Grad was about to save it and enhance it.

"The Reverse ND Graduated filter is the perfect choice whenever the sun is nearing the horizon -- at dawn or dusk -- because the strongest light is, of course, where the sun is. I needed more density to 'hold back' part of this light, to properly balance the foreground exposure with the sun and bright sky above. I focused on the camels and set the exposure for them. I held down my shutter release (by remote) as I hand-held the Reverse ND Grad filter and positioned it to cover the sun. Then I released the shutter again to take the picture. I released the shutter twice because I was using mirror lockup to keep the camera as steady as possible and we see the final result above.

"'Why is this city blue?' I asked a nice Arab woman as we surveyed the mountains around Chefchaouen in northern Morocco. I had never seen anything like it; the term 'blue-washed' was the only appropriate word I could find to describe the rich pastel-like blue that seemed to color most buildings in the old city (the 'medina'). Islamic colors are often green or red, and the woman explained that many Jews had lived here after their expulsion from Spain in the 15th century. Whatever the reason, this city was a photographer's dream, tucked into the Rif Mountains with plenty of charm and lots of color.

"I awakened early in the morning and took a position on top of my hotel room, waiting for the sun to rise and hit the sparkling, yet rough city. To my surprise (as often is the case), the best picture of the morning was a backlit image of the city, with a fine layer of wood-fire smoke curling over the buildings. To enhance the smoke, which was an important and moody part of the scene, I again reached for my Reverse ND Grad filter. I wanted to expose the backs of these buildings with their rugged textures, but preserve the light in the sky behind the buildings -- and especially the smoke.

"After composing this scene, I again focused on a foreground element, set the aperture at f/11, and exposed for the backs of the buildings -- knowing I would overexpose the sky if I did not use my Reverse ND filter. Again, I released the shutter once, positioned my filter to cover only the highlights of the smoke and sky, and released the shutter again to exposing the image, and return the mirror. The natural blues of the buildings were enhanced by the shadow light (usually a cool blue anyway), and the resulting picture has become one of my favorites from the trip.

"The city of Fez is a conglomeration of old and new, of both Arab style and French modernization. It is literally split in two parts with wide boulevards and Parisian-style shops and restaurants on the west side and the 'Medina' with its Middle Eastern flavor of tight alley ways, high city walls, and organized chaotic market streets. Before we left the city on an overnight bus, my friend and I decided to go and see the Medina from a famous overlook. The shot was obvious as we arrived. A group of boys had climbed the walls and the evening sun was perfectly hitting them and leaving the pattern of the old city in relative shadow.

"After a couple of shots, I thought that I could isolate the boys on the wall even better with my Graduated Neutral Density filter. The background obviously had less light, but I really wanted to reduce it further with the filter. I even set a wide aperture to try to blur the city behind as well. Using the same procedure described above, I achieved just what I wanted. The result exemplifies the Middle East well, a mix of the ancient past of the wall and the youthful boys.

"For me, photography will always be most rewarding when I can find interesting light to illuminate my subject, whether from the front, sides or the back. So many of these instances occur at times when the full dynamic range of the light cannot be captured on our sensors as well as our eye and brain can see it. The Singh-Ray line of Graduated ND filters is extremely useful whenever those highlights need to be controlled. Choose the Reverse ND Grad filter when the sun is low and brilliant, and use the standard Graduated Neutral Density filters when the bright areas are higher in the sky or whenever a subject can be naturally highlighted by holding back other areas of the frame.

"Most importantly," adds Joel, "we need to keep exploring for ourselves all the possibilities of the light and find our own ways of crafting an image that's uniquely our own. My creative process goes into high gear when I am in the unknown -- either with a language, an environment or situation. That's why I plan to continue visiting new places in the world and narrow my future work even more to international fine art photography. You can travel along with Joel by exploring his increasingly scenic website: