Friday, September 04, 2009

Before choosing which ND grads to start with, it's worth asking a few questions

In the course of his frequent workshops, exhibits and photo trips throughout the West, Utah free-lancer Adam Barker talks with lots of photographers. "Since I started using, bragging about and writing blogs about Singh-Ray Filters," says Adam, "I've been getting many questions about which ND Grad filters are the most useful ones to start with. That’s always a tough question to answer, because there are many variables to consider. I always begin my answer by asking a few questions of my own.

"What type of outdoor photographs do you most often shoot: landscapes, action sports, lifestyle, architecture, or perhaps commercial projects? Where do you most often shoot: sea coast, desert, mountains, forests, or around the city? What types of exposure balancing challenges do you often find yourself dealing with? Do they most often involve moderate or extreme differences in dynamic range?

"What type of horizons do you most often encounter? Are they mostly straight across the scene and uninterrupted, or do they more often include uneven shapes such as mountains, rocks, tall buildings, or other protruding subject matter that could be adversely affected by a 'hard-step' gradient?

"By now, my reason for asking these questions should be obvious. Depending on where, how and what you intend to shoot, your ND Grad choices will likely differ somewhat from mine. I live and shoot a great deal in and around Salt Lake City, UT. This means lots of mountains, mountain lakes, streams, with vibrant sunrises, and sunsets. I also shoot a great deal throughout the greater American West -- think Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park, Arches, and Canyonlands. My filter set was chosen to answer my own expected needs when shooting in these areas.

"In addition to various kinds of landscapes, I shoot a great deal of active lifestyle, travel and action sports photography. I use my set of Singh-Ray filters for all of it -- even the commercial stuff. So please keep this in mind as I stick my neck out to try answering the one question still on your mind.

"In addition to Singh-Ray's LB Warming Polarizer, my idea of a good starter kit would include three types of Graduated ND filters: the 2-stop hard-step, the 3-stop soft-step and the 3-stop Reverse ND Grad. By using these three filters individually and in combination, you should be able to do most of the exposure balancing required for your outdoor photography. Once you have become skilled with these filters, you will know if and when you need to add others to handle special circumstances.

"You can see in this image of Devil’s Castle in the Alta Ski Area -- with its relatively straight horizon line and moderate range of exposure levels between foreground and background -- a perfect candidate for the 2-stop hard-step Graduated ND. The vignette caused by the (particular orientation of the) Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue polarizer was a welcome touch that added to the moodiness of this image and aligned perfectly with my vision for the final result. It helps to have an idea of how you prefer to post process the image as you’re shooting it.

"In this early morning image of Utah's popular Emerald Lake and Mt. Timpanogos hiking area, the dawn color in the clouds begged to be balanced by a soft-step Graduated ND filter. Compositions like this require practice, and a knowledge of how to use the filter in a way that gives you the best and most natural results. By holding the 3-stop soft-step grad at an angle over the sky, I was able to concentrate the densest part of the filter over the part of the image that needed it most. I often employ a dodging and burning technique when shooting images like this by moving the filter back and forth and up and down. This further reduces the chances the transition will be noticeable. In general, exposures with uneven or partial horizon lines are best handled with a soft-step grad.

The image appearing at the top of this story -- taken at Dry Fork Canyon in northern Utah -- is a typical example of when to use a Singh-Ray Reverse ND grad. I am always reaching for mine whenever I plan to shoot into the sun at sunrise or sunset. As I’ve discussed in previous blog posts, there are a variety of other important ways to use this versatile filter as well,

I hope these suggestions will help those photographers who are about to start using a basic set of ND Grads. I think most would benefit by having at least one hard-step and one soft-step filter -- of either two or three-stop density. It's worth remembering that you can readily combine two Singh-Ray ND grads together to achieve even greater density -- without losing any resolution or color quality of your image. The determining factor lies mainly in how different the filtered and unfiltered parts of your image are in terms of light value. For example, when you shoot lava rock seascapes in Hawaii, you will likely need more density to balance the very vibrant sunsets and sunrises with the dark lava surface in the foreground. By putting some thought into how and where you'll shoot most of your images, you'll be ready to choose the ND grads that will work best for you for many winning images to come."

You'll find many more examples of Adam's landscapes and outdoor action photography on his blog and website. Details on his Fall Foliage workshop and other projects are listed, too. Any social media fans can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Since every photograph tells a story, we might want to consider how well we tell it

Since early July, when Master Photo Workshops released the 100-minute DVD featuring veteran landscape photographer and Singh-Ray blog contributor Steve Kossack, we've heard lots of positive feedback -- especially on his discussion about why certain images have become his favorites. So we asked Steve to review a few of the images made in the course of his demonstrations for the DVD. Here's what he had to say about the four images below.

"Well, I'll start by saying it was a fun trip for me -- doing an in-the-field workshop exclusively for the video team directed by Gregory McKean. We followed as our theme the DVD's title, Every Picture Tells a Story. So let's talk about the stories I tried to tell by these images produced in the process.

"If we believe in putting the horse before the cart, then we need to begin each photograph by asking -- and answering -- the question 'what is the story?' before deciding how we will say it. These are the two basic steps that prescribe every photograph I make. When I take my workshops into the field, I feel I am revealing a part of myself. It’s almost like asking 'how do you like my place?' Even if they like the location, the challenging part has just begun. I try to explain why I brought them to this place and how we can all go about setting the story of this place into pictures. Let's revisit four of the places featured in the video.

The Wave of Sandstone and Light
"Everyone should see and experience this amazing place in southern Utah called The Wave -- not just this spot but the entire area. With or without photo gear in hand, this is one of the great places anywhere on Earth. No matter how many times I’ve been here, it always holds the power to surprise and delight! The story here on this day was the light and the weather that created that light. This is a good place to be a couple hours after sunrise and to have patience if bad weather is passing through. By waiting for the shadows to deepen and the cloud pattern to open just above Top Rock pictured here in the middle distance, I set up my composition low and wide to show how I think the formation got its name and then opened the view even more to show the lines moving away. The Singh-Ray ColorCombo helped both the color saturation and contrast in the clouds. It also helped control the reflected glare in the highlights. A 3-stop soft-step ND Grad was used to balance the exposure in the shadows with the highlights on the right side and in the sky. I intentionally burned the left corner to aid the eye in finding Top Rock and the cloud opening quickly.

Coyote Buttes
"Telling the story of this place in the spectacular wilderness spanning the Utah-Arizona border is to follow the continuous surface erosion and its constant shifting through flash floods into the canyons and washes. A favorite topic of mine has always been the struggle for life that goes on here. In this case, it's been an unsuccessful struggle for the tree in the foreground. The story contains all the elements except the floods themselves, which I think adds both mystery and anticipation. In order to straighten the buttes overhead at this low angle, a Canon tilt/shift lens was used along with the ColorCombo to heighten contrast in the clouds. A 2-stop soft-step ND Grad was then placed in front of the ColorCombo to further balance the exposure. Of the various images taken during our DVD shoot, this one is perhaps the strongest of the storytellers.

Cactus amid the Color
"In the DVD we demonstrated how this image of a small subject in a small place was visualized and made. A simple scene to be sure, however achieving this image took some deep thought as well as trial and error. Looking at all the elements dictated a slow study of what those elements were and how to accentuate them. As we went through the filter kit trying to bring forward different parts of the 'life on the rocks' story, we discovered several possibilities. In this image, we finally came up with an added touch of contrasting color in the overhead rocks by polarizing the reflected light with the Gold-N-Blue Polarizer.

Horseshoe Bend in Another Light
"The DVD also includes a visit to this bend of the Colorado River that's long been an icon of the American Southwest. Having seen so many images of this spectacular scene for many years, visiting photographers can find our preconceptions of Horseshoe Bend to be both an advantage and disadvantage in terms of telling our own story of what we are suddenly seeing with our own eyes. In most pictures, the story involves not only the rhythmic bend of the river or how deep the canyon is, but also the continuous variations in weather, time of day and the ever-changing light that's not at all controllable.

"For me the weather and position of the sun on this day made the reflected blue light the key aspect of this story. The composition was adjusted to show more sky than I would usually include. This eliminated some of the foreground but I was careful not to exclude the rock faces that give the visual perspective needed for scale and scope. The clouds set up perfectly for counter balance. They appear to be moving left to right, which is usually the way we see, and the river appears to moving with them -- although, in reality, the river flows in the opposite direction and the clouds had very little movement and I realized the low light would end long before another composition was possible. Exposing for the water reflection was the main challenge. I balanced everything from there. An LB Color Intensifier was used in this frame to avoid losing the reflected blue from the water. I wanted to balance the cold blue with the warmth of the sunlit cliffs. A 4-stop, hard-step ND Grad was used to hold back both the sky and light of the cliffs in the distance."

You can see more of Steve's story-telling landscapes of the American West and check out his schedule of future workshops by visiting his website.