Friday, May 29, 2009

The more challenges we can solve with our filters, the more fun we seem to have

Arizona landscape photographer Steve Kossack applies years of experience and constant enthusiasm to the challenge of leading photo workshops throughout the American west. "Whenever filters are discussed in our workshops," says Steve, "the topic always brings out various opinions and views. Some seem to believe filters are magic, but others think they have no need for them now that the digital SLR camera is standard field issue. Some are just mystified or ambivalent about using filters -- which is reason enough to be attending a workshop. Earlier this month as we worked through a most rewarding workshop in Monument Valley, many of our Singh-Ray filters got a real workout. Here’s a look.

"One highlight of our workshop was this sunrise shot from the dunes of the Totem Poles. This classic image was helped immensely by the reflected light from the sand but we also had to control that same bright light striking the face of the rocks. Since I wanted to avoid the slight image distortion that would be caused by tilting the camera body upward, I simply raised the front of my 45mm Canon T/S (tilt/shift) lens fitted with the Singh-Ray LB ColorCombo filter. This image was the final shot of the morning. Before the sun rose and offered us this lovely image, I had begun the day using the LB Color Intensifier. It was the natural choice since there was no need for a polarizer and the 'lighter, brighter' Intensifier would not seriously slow the already long shutter speed. As the light became brighter the glare from the Totem Pole rocks became an even greater problem but the sand was still in deep shadow and reflected the blue of the sky. The LB Warming Polarizer was next out of my vest and it was about then that I also began using a 2-stop, soft-step Graduated ND filter, then switching later to a 3-stop, soft-step ND Grad and finally ending with a 4-stop hard-step that held the detail of soft glow in the sand.

"This iconic southwestern image was set up to be an action shot! I shot it that way to start. The sheep were herded down from under the arch in the shadow and then turned, on the run, away from us. My Canon 85mm 1.2L prime lens framed the scene perfectly and the light allowed both a very high shutter speed to stop the action and an acceptable aperture to hold focus in both the foreground and the arch. The LB ColorCombo was used here even though the objective was to freeze motion. I simply set the orientation of the filter's polarizer to cut the glare of both the sand and rock and then spot metered the sand. The intense color of the clothing and the richness of the arch detail was the great reward here!

"Perhaps a controlled burn around the Grand Canyon area or something like it in the atmosphere made our visit up on Hunts Mesa a hazy one. Still this unearthly place is not to be missed under any circumstance. A bad sunset or sunrise here is much better than an average one most anywhere else! I ran up against two major problems while there. I’ve already mentioned the haze and the second problem was a sustained wind that developed in late afternoon. Trying to narrow the composition and eliminate the sky as much as possible was my thought as I hiked to a point some distance from where I had started. I lined up the monuments and then went about stabilizing my 300 2.8L. An ISO of 800 was used to obtain as short a shutter speed as possible. I then started shooting with an f/8 aperture to hold as much depth of field as possible while still keeping the shutter time short. The haze problem was somewhat solved by using a drop-in 52mm Singh-Ray LB ColorCombo filter. This gave a needed contrast boost that carried the composition. As I left I was fairly certain that a good image was not possible, but I had a lot of fun trying! This one was a surprise.

"These final two images have much in common. Both were taken with Canon T/S lenses (45mm on the left and 24mm on the right) fitted with my thin-ring Singh-Ray LB ColorCombo. The thin filter ring has no threads on the front which reduces the chances of vignetting. Both frames were shot with the lenses shifted off-axis to their limits. The 45-mm lens was shifted up to capture as much of the side framing rock as possible and to eliminate the unnecessary foreground. The 24-mm lens was shifted to its full drop to capture the cactus in bloom while still framing the arch. With the ColorCombo mounted in a standard filter ring, these views would not have been possible because of vignetting. The combined benefits of the filter's polarizer and color intensifier are obvious here. An entirely different composition would have to be taken in both cases without the slim LB ColorCombo!

"Doing fine art landscape photography in the field becomes a passion for some of us. It’s the thrill of the hunt and the excitement of the chase. One more thing is very clear to me, filters are a mainstay in my photography because, when all is said and done, they add so much to the fun!"

You can see just how much fun Steve is having these days by visiting the extensive galleries on his website.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Don't overlook the important "flip side" to positioning your Graduated ND Filters

California freelance photographer Brian Rueb recently joined with another Singh-Ray blogger, Stephen Oachs, to help lead their current series of workshops. "In our workshops," says Brian, "by far the most popular topic of interest among students is the use of filters -- especially the various Graduated Neutral Density filters. It’s always fun to watch as students discover how the ND Grad helps balance the wide range of exposure levels in their image. Suddenly the image looks like it should on their screens… and there’s no more losing the critical details of a great sunset or flowers in the foreground. Even for me, seeing how much improvement Graduated Neutral Density filters can make in their images is always an exciting moment.

"In thinking back to my own beginnings as an outdoor photographer, I was often frustrated by extreme exposure differences between the sky and the foreground. In order to get a balanced exposure without an ND grad it took a very evenly lit scene. Then, as soon as I began using Graduated ND filters, it changed everything. The filters promptly became the most important tools in my camera bag. However, the more I used them, the more I found that certain lighting situations perplexed me until I eventually realized that filters -- like other tools -- can be used differently in differing situations.

"For example, the above image was taken on a cold morning in Yosemite National Park. The clouds and mist, combined with the backlighting, created an amazing atmosphere around Half-Dome. I really liked the patterns that the tufts of grass created in this meadow. I travel with a pair of hip-waders that allowed me access to areas such as this where water would otherwise present a problem. Once I had the composition I liked…I had another problem. The snow in the foreground was so bright that any exposure that allowed detail in Half-Dome totally blew out the foreground. This was a perfect opportunity to take the Singh-Ray 3-stop, soft-step ND grad, and flip it upside down with the darker area on the bottom. This allowed me to create an exposure that held details in the bright foreground, and kept the upper half of the exposure in balance. Snow is a tricky subject to photograph without looking harsh or blown-out. A filter can really give you extra help in balancing those exposures. I used the polarizer in the Vari-N-Duo to warm the scene up, and control the shine on the water.

"I captured this next image as a storm passed over the Sundial Bridge in Northern California. I put on my hip-waders and reached a spot in the river where I could set up a composition, and eliminate some of the distracting tree branches that enter the frame when shooting from shore. Due to the cloud placement, the setting sun was causing the dramatically dark clouds hovering over the bridge to lose detail in my exposures and the water was just too bright, so again I flipped my Singh-Ray 3-stop soft-step ND grad over to balance the exposure for the water and the bridge and give the sky the added drama it needed.

"When helping students discover how to use Singh-Ray filters in our workshops, Stephen and I find that they are so delighted just to be able to balance their sky and foreground exposures that they often fail to think of their filters in any other way. We try to remind them that combining several filters, flipping filters at different angles, and even moving them gently during an exposure can often give very unique and different takes on their scenes. Sooner or later, though, many of us figure out that the only limits filters really have are those we place on them."

You can find more about the workshops plus more examples of Brian's photography on his new website and his Flickr portfolio.