Friday, July 31, 2009

Capturing the mist that isn't really there is no longer a mystery

Landscape photographer Colin Southern is based in Nelson, New Zealand. "Every serious photographer," says Colin, "knows there will be times when their best laid plans for a great image will fall through. That's when I find myself having to switch to 'Plan B' at the last moment. ('Plan B' being essentially 'The lights fading - think of a plan quickly!') This first image falls squarely into that category.

"Not wanting to come away empty handed, I instinctively set up a composition that I'd used before. Later, when I shared this image with some friends, most found the misty effect quite stunning, which came as somewhat of a surprise as this type of shot is actually quite easy to achieve by following a few simple guidelines. Here's what I mean.

Step One: Choose a wide-angle composition
"Wide-angle lenses make things look smaller and further away -- so to make the rocks in the foreground look more significant, I know I must get the camera really close to them. For this shot I had the centre of the lens approximately 50 cm (20 inches) above the ground with the tripod legs in the water. I like to place the horizon line about 1/3 of the way down from the top on the frame. I then lower the camera until the foreground takes on a meaningful size. It really helps if you have a camera with LiveView or attach a right-angle finder to your camera. Wide angle lenses make this kind of agressive composition possible -- and ensuring an image with a dramatic perspective. I also set the focus on a point a few feet away and then switch the lens to manual focus because depth of field is seldom an issue at smaller apertures with a wide-angle lenses.

Step Two: Control the wide dynamic range
"Shooting into the light like this means that the detail in the rocks facing the camera are buried deep in the shadows - so shooting RAW is necessary, but it's still not enough. The very best way to reduce the extreme dynamic range of scenes like this is to use either a Singh-Ray Graduated Neutral Density filter or Reverse GND filter. I think that the common thought with many is that you install the filter so that it reduces the intensity of the light coming in from above the horizon, but in my opinion, with this kind of shot it's better to lower it even more so that it covers everything except the rocks in the immediate foreground -- the camera needs all the help it can get to record those foreground shadow details!

Step Three; Expose for minutes, not seconds, with multiple exposures
"The 'mist effect' is generated by waves surging over and around the foreground rocks. To get this effect you need a long exposure (ideally 2 to 4 minutes). But long exposures with falling light levels are tricky things to calculate (if you get it wrong you may not have time to reshoot). With the tide coming in, there's every chance that you'll get water splashes on your camera and filter. The trick here is to leave the camera on Aperture Priority mode (adding or subtracting exposure compensation so that highlight detail is retained) -- and then taking a series of shots. For a more extensive explanation of this step, refer to my post of September 26, 2008.

"The next question is usually, 'but how many?' Enough so that the total exposure time of all images adds up to the 2 to 4 minute target that we're aiming for. This shot consisted of 9 frames of 10 to 13 seconds each. The joy of this technique is that the camera will automatically compensate with longer exposures as the light levels drop -- you also can use a higher/noisier ISO setting than you normally would as the combining of the images in post-processing averages out the noise -- and if you get water splashed on the filter at some point you may already have enough images to still get a worthwhile result.

Step four: Combine the images in Photoshop
"First step is dealing with the RAW converter. If you're using a later edition of Photoshop (CS3 or CS4), then you'll probably need to use the fill light control quite agressively -- and be sure to adjust the colour temperature and saturation for whatever looks good.

"To combine the images, just open them all up, and then use the move tool to drag the remaining images into the first one (this stacks them as layers), and then change the opacity of each layer --100% for the lowest, 50% for the 2nd to lowest, 33% for the 3rd to lowest, 25% for the 4th etc. If you have too many images to do all at once, just combine them in, say, groups of 8, and then combine the resultant images in exactly the same way.

"I took this next image, 'Bar Code,' shortly after the one above. An initial composition meant walking quite some distance over mud flats -- but the further out I went, the deeper each step started to sink into the soft mud. I quickly realized a hasty retreat was the better strategy! After moving further around the coast, I spotted a better place, but the ideal composition meant standing in about 2 feet of mid-winter seawater well over the tops of the gumboots. I used a Singh-Ray 3-stop hard-step Graduated Neutral Density filter for knocking back the power of the lights above the waterline to balance them perfectly with their reflections. It also meant that I could expose for 2 minutes instead of 15 seconds.

"For shots like these, the size of the "stars" is inversely proportional to the size of the aperture used -- so these lights were shot at f/32 to emphasise the star patterns. Correctly exposing scenes like this can be tricky as cameras will often try to protect highlight areas to the point where the majority of the image (the mid-tones) are severely under-exposed. I find that it's usually best to simply choose an exposure that "looks about right" on the review screen (the highlights are going to blow anyway). It's often easier to start with a wide aperture - work out the correct exposure - and then double the exposure time for each f-stop you close down the lens. Post-processing is fairly straight forward - don't be afraid to raise the black clipping point to give the image more contrast - and adjust saturation and sharpening to suit."

To see many more scenes of Colin's New Zealand countryside visit his gallery images now posted at www.pbase.com/cjsouthern. You can also contact Colin at the Cambridge in Colour Forum if you have any questions or comments.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What makes the versatile LB ColorCombo so essential when shooting in Hawaii

Every winter, Kevin McNeal travels from his home in Olympia, Washington, to visit a different island in Hawaii. "My goal," says Kevin, "is to produce images that catch the unique spirit of each of these breathtaking islands. Reproducing the full vibrancy and colors of Hawaii would not be possible without the right tools, and by far the most important tool in my kit is the Singh-Ray LB ColorCombo. Using this one essential filter -- in various situations ranging from the bamboo forest seen above to close-up shots of tree bark to vast scenics at sunrise -- I'm able to create images of Hawaii that capture right-in-the-camera all the magical colors and visual impact I'm shooting for.

"This winter I visited the island of Maui to shoot the east side of the island known as 'the long and winding Hana road.' I quickly discovered that it is indeed a long, winding road surrounded by lush green forests -- and waterfalls at every turn. What distinguishes the island of Maui from other islands is its highly diverse landscape. Everything from coastal beaches, wild flora, and even tropical rainforests can be seen on the island. It was my goal to capture the endless moods of Maui and illustrate how its profound colors leave such a lasting impression on every visitor. I felt it was most important to bring out in my images all the color vibrancy that my eye was seeing.

"What makes the LB ColorCombo Polarizer unique is that it combines a warming polarizer and a color intensifier in one filter. When photographing this image of the white flowers along the coastline, I was able to capture detail in the foreground flowers and hold the warm tones of the sky. I needed the polarizer to accent the deep blues in the sky and also get vibrancy out of the immediate foreground. This 'lighter, brighter' polarizer also allowed me to use a faster shutter speed to freeze the foreground flowers. During my entire trip around the island, I found that this filter really brings out the detail and gives each image added color saturation. First of all the polarizer accentuated the warmth of the early morning and late afternoon light. Without it, I would have sacrificed too much color saturation and depth due to the specular highlights and haze. Most scenes I came across featured several important elements that lead the eye through the image, and I found that quickly adjusting the polarizer allowed me to capture the subtleties of the light and produce more vivid images.

"In shooting the eucalyptus tree image at the left, I wanted to really bring out the saturated colors in the tree and balance the colors with the colorful foreground plants. In order to get the most of the scene I waited until it rained and the trees were still wet. I knew the combination of the wet bark and the polarizer would produce the best saturation of the unique colors in the tree.

"Because the ColorCombo has only a 2-stop filter factor, I can use a fast shutter speed when trying to avoid foreground foliage from 'blurring' in the wind. I need the polarizer for color saturation but with other polarizers the extra filter factor can require a shutter speed that's too slow to freeze moving subjects. This extra brightness of the ColorCombo is especially helpful in the hours of low light when all the magic happens. The low-light hours are prime time for a landscape photographer and it's the time when I strive to combine the colors of the foreground flowers with the warmer colors of sunrise or sunset to balance the scene.

"This image of the Iao Valley Waterfall illustrates the most critical benefit of using the LB ColorCombo -- its ability to reduce glare from flora, vegetation and rocks that are wet.
This shot was taken on a cloudy day to get the longer shutter speed. As with most tropical places, Maui tends to rain a lot, which works in your favor when trying to shoot these rainforests in their prime weather conditions. Although not ideal for most people, wet conditions provide exciting opportunities for nature photographers. The camera really gets the best color saturation in these wet conditions. The polarizer accentuates this even more -- making images really stand out. The challenge in wet conditions is to minimize the glare reflected from the rain on the vegetation. Trying to correct glare from rain is not something that can be done in post processing and using the polarizer can save you from an unusable image.

"In this final image, the morning sun was making its way over the horizon as I was shooting up at Hakleaka Crater. Rather then go for the traditional image usually taken from this spot, I looked for patterns within the scene. I noticed the light making its way through the mist in the low part of the crater and decided to really bring out the rich sunrise colors. In this image, I was able to capture the experience just as vividly as I remember it.

"I should add a note of caution," adds Kevin. "Anyone using this versatile filter should remember one important point. The ColorCombo is not a 'point and shoot' filter that can simply be placed on our lens and then taken for granted. It's a polarizer -- if we want to get the best image, we must remember to adjust the front ring each time before we click the shutter. Take it from me, it's well worth the effort!"

You'll find more of Kevin's images from his visits to Hawaii as well as many other examples of his fine work at his website.