Friday, May 22, 2009

When nature photographers shoot for a "natural" look, they go to their ND Grads

During his thirty some years as an award winning outdoor photographer in Colorado, James Egbert has done a lot of thinking about his photography. "With the ever-growing abilities of digital cameras and computer software to make better images," notes James, "comes the point where more becomes less and less becomes more. In other words, instead of making things easier, I think that technology in some ways compounds the process of creating fine art images.

"When I first jumped into the digital fray, I thought I could just do everything like I did when shooting film. Needless to say I experienced many setbacks of one sort or another. While the basic concepts stayed much the same, my techniques had to change and the mental process of how to expose an image drastically changed. As you see by the three images I include with this story, I like to show the natural world just the way I see it. I strive to make my images appear as they did the moment I saw them -- as natural as possible. For many years I did this with film and I am now continuing to do this digitally. I want the process of making an image to be at least 80% done in the camera if possible, but some post processing is always needed to make them match the real scene I photographed. I feel this is the point where a photographer must choose either to be as 'pure' as possible or to become a photo-artist who relies largely on altering or enhancing each image in post production to match how they see it in their imagination. My own photography is firmly in the first category, relying mostly on composing and exposing each image as skillfully as possible using the basic rules of composition and exposure and then using my post production software simply to size, clean and proof my images before printing the final photograph.

"When I use filters, I use them to correct for the limited 'dynamic range' of my cameras with respect to accurately recording and balancing widely varying levels of light under various conditions. That's where my Singh-Ray Graduated ND Filters help my camera correct for its limitations. To simplify my technique even more, I now rely mostly on just two filters -- the Singh-Ray LB Color Intensifier and the Singh-Ray 3-Stop Soft-Step Graduated Neutral Density filter.

"The Intensifier does exactly what it's designed to do: adding a slight touch more color within the warm 'red rock' tones, but the ND Grad filter is the real magic maker. It allows me to achieve well-balanced exposures in high contrast lighting or in scenes with a high dynamic range. This is where some photographers choose to rely on their computer software and HDR techniques to correct their images in post production. Personally, I find that the results from such methods don’t look as natural as I want, and I end up spending even more time at the computer working on images I could have balanced just as effectively in a fraction of the time by using my filters. While I'm certain I could learn to achieve natural results with HDR software, I'm equally certain the multi-step technique -- while touted as simple -- would always require far more time to master consistently and predictably."

James has had his images published in Outdoor Photographer, PhotoWorld, several web-based magazines, books, and Kodak advertising. His 'day job' is in television news photography. You'll enjoy seeing his gallery of many impressive landscapes on his website.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Even if the light isn’t magic, there are filters to help get the image you "gotta have"

Although full-time freelancer Joe Dovala does much of his shooting underwater -- kelp beds, coral reefs and ship wrecks are favorite subjects -- he often photographs in the remote desert areas near his California home.

"While none of these three photos is likely to win any awards," says Joe, "they would not have existed at all without some help in front of the lens. I think that's a very important point. As someone who makes his living from a camera, any tool that helps create a better, more saleable image when I don’t have time to wait for 'magic light' is well worth knowing about and using. And even if you don’t rely on making income with photography, it’s nice to know that even without 'perfect' light you can still capture an image that has important meaning and value.

"Even though filters can often compensate for less-than-ideal light conditions, the results can also be less than ideal -- so I strive to keep trying and learning how to get the very best out of every filter. In the past, for example, I used only regular polarizers and neutral density filters. I still use them often, but whenever the light's not quite right, I’ve come to rely more and more on the particularly unique effects of my Gold-N-Blue polarizer and Vari-ND filter.

"The sandy soil where I shot this first image of the Jeep heading down a winding trail in the Mojave Desert near Amboy Crater has many reddish tones to it," says Joe. "The blazing high-noon sunshine was very contrasty and washed out most of the color. Realizing there was no chance that I could return later, I mounted the Gold-N-Blue Polarizer on my Nikkor 70-200mm VR to tweak the colors toward more of a golden-red hue which promptly gave the image new life. Simply dialing in a few levels of “gold” changed the image from a flat snapshot to an image that has sold.

Similar lighting issues occurred with this view of the Alabama Hills with Mount Whitney in the background. It was getting into late morning and the light had become austere. Again, on went the Gold-N-Blue Polarizer. Sure enough, I was ready when my dogs happened to position themselve for a different look of the Sierras. With the filter I was able to bring back that nice warm feeling of the half-hour before.

"Another great tool is the Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter. This all-in-one variable neutral density filter allowed me to add just the right amount of wave motion to this shot of the cliffs near the Great Ocean Road in Australia. There was still at least another two hours before the “magic light” would have started and we were on a schedule that forced us to keep going. Besides, driving on the left after dark in this area looking for a side road wasn’t something I wanted to do! It took a number of images to get the look I wanted but I was sure glad I had the Vari-ND with me. It helped transform the image from a straight documentary shot into a special image of a very spectacular scene".

"My Singh-Ray filters are not a correct-all solution, any more than Photoshop is, but I have discovered that knowing how to use the right filter at the right time can make a noticeable and profitable difference. For me, it just makes sense to create the best image possible while I am still looking at it through the viewfinder. Even a few seconds optimizing an image up front can save a whole lot of time later in front of the monitor; and often, software manipulation just doesn’t look as good."

Joe recently retired from a career in molecular biology -- at the age of 50 -- with plans to stay wet and sandy as often as possible. His images have made the pages of a number of publications. You can find more of his images -- above and below the waterline -- by visiting his website.