Friday, October 02, 2009

New photography school will show students how filters can help improve their images

Five short years ago, Stephen Oachs began seriously pursuing his interest in photography. Since then he's become a fully qualified and successful professional who has earned many photo credits and awards. "What I've learned about photography," he says, "has been acquired the hard way -- from a lot of trial and error, visiting various photo websites and reading books. Following the growing success of my workshops, I recently decided to open the Aperture Academy in Campbell, California in November. This will be a place to display my work and offer a variety of educational opportunities for every level of photographer -- from beginning students to advanced photographers. The staff includes a talented group of professional photographers with both the photographic know-how and the teaching talent to go with it.

"I've often been asked, 'How do you achieve such fine landscape images?' My answer is always the same. I've learned to use the right equipment and get as much information as possible about my intended location before I go there to shoot. I've also learned that I can capture images with Singh-Ray filters that I could never accomplish with post processing. That's an important part of what we'll be teaching every student.

"We know there are many aspiring photographers who buy their new digital SLR and get seriously bitten by the photo bug. After weeks or months of shooting, however, their results still aren't quite what they want. Their images are not as colorful, the lighting is not as balanced, and when they try adjusting images in their computer they often lose the true natural look of the original scene.... it's become unreal. What's more, they've spent more time editing images at their computer than they have making them in the field.

"What can these aspiring photographers do? A few options exist. One is to do a lot more research and keep up with their Photoshop practice until their methods become more efficient....which can take months or years of more trial and error. Or they can dramatically reduce their learning curve by taking a workshop with photographers who have already crossed those mine fields, done the research, and learned from those mistakes. We bring to our workshops considerable experience both in the field and behind the computer. By far the most intriguing concepts for students are the proper use of filters in the field and how to post process the resulting images efficiently.

"When workshop participants find that using a few filters also cuts down the time they need to spend on the computer in post processing, they get even more excited to learn about filters. Filters will allow a photographer to do a number of incredible things to improve even the toughest scene. Singh-Ray LB Polarizing filters will cut glare in streams and lakes and let you reveal the rocks on the bottom to add interest to a composition, something you could never achieve in post processing. On the flip side, a turn of the polarizer brings out reflected colors in the sky to create better exposure balance and color saturation in the image. I particularly enjoy showing students how neutral density (ND) filters -- especially the Vari-ND -- can help them extend exposures and create glossy, ethereal ocean scenes and add a sense of rush to that waterfall image. Here again we're revealing effects unattainable in software applications. Just as important are the various Singh-Ray Graduated Neutral Density filters which will help balance the tricky lighting situations one often finds, especially at sunrise and sunset. Learning to use all of these filters takes practice and experience. I've seen a growing interest from photographers at all levels who want to learn how to use all these filters."

The three images featured with this story are some of Stephen's recent work: the top image was captured using a Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo at Oneonta Falls on the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. For the view of the iconic coastline at Bandon, Oregon, Stephen used the Singh-Ray Mor-Slo ND filter along with his 2-stop, soft-step ND Grad. To capture the image of Mossbrae Falls in California, Stephen improved the light balance by turning his 3-stop, soft-step Graduated ND filter upside down. How's that for a twist?

Why not stop by his new website to see more of his outstanding images and find out about courses and workshops to be offered. We'll look forward to more blog stories and images from Stephen following the opening of his new photo center.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Singh-Ray Polarizers and Graduated NDs make the scene in Great Basin National Park

About a month ago, Texas photographer Ernesto Santos posted his review of the Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo with images taken during his recent visit to Great Basin National Park in Nevada. In the following story he tells us -- and shows us -- much more about that trip.

"When we think of scenic destinations -– especially all those in the American West -- it's not likely that Great Basin National Park ever comes to mind. On average, only 90,000 visitors come to the Great Basin in any given year. Moreover, half of these visitors come mostly to visit Lehman Caves which is a popular attraction, but only a small part of the vast geologic basin. Starting in southern Oregon and Idaho, it rolls across most of Nevada and western Utah, this huge area includes several sub-desert regions.

"But the Great Basin can also be defined as an area with no drainage or outlet to the ocean. Eons ago much of the area was covered by a great inland sea -- the Great Salt Lake in Utah being the only puddle remaining today. The Great Basin is marked with hundreds of individual mountain ranges primarily trending north to south with many smaller “basins” in between that catch and hold the snow melt from the mountain peaks and the scant rain that falls during the summer. The rainwater that doesn’t seep into the ground evaporates under the brutal sun and heat of the lower elevations.

"The flat basins interspersed within these mountain ranges are little more than endless miles of sage flats occasionally giving way to beautiful alpine forests on the mountain sides. Once you get to Great Basin National Park, it only takes a short drive before you are up and out of the desert floor and into the brisk air above 8,000 feet. Here the landscape quickly takes a turn for the dramatic with conifers, quaking aspen, and the storied patriarchs of the west, the incredible bristlecone pines.

"We see one of these stately monarchs in this photo. At an elevation of about 11,000 feet, it was a struggle to hike up to photograph what are some of the oldest living organisms on Earth. They are truly something to behold and I immediately felt compelled to do them justice – photographically speaking. My pre-visualization of this scene was of a clear and crisp image of this Methuselah with deep rich colors created by the thin atmosphere and clean mountain air. The rich green of the pine needles, the deep blue of the high altitude sky, and the ruddy complexion of my ancient subject all sparkled under the sun which was to my left and slightly behind me. I attached my Singh-Ray LB ColorCombo to my 24-70mm lens and dialed in just enough polarization to cut out the glare on the surfaces and slightly boost the colors. I kept a close eye on the sky in the viewfinder of my camera to make sure it didn’t go totally black. When using a polarizer at these altitudes you have to be very careful not to turn the sky too dark.

"As I walked around the bristlecone pine grove, I came to one particular tree that obviously had suffered through thousands of years of heat, frost, and ferocious winds. As I studied the twisted and knotted trunk, a blast of wind came roaring over the nearby ridge nearly knocking me off my feet. When I recovered I could imagine this old tree snickering, wishing it could say to me, 'Imagine what it’s like enduring those constant wind blasts for a few thousand years? You’d probably look worse than I do.' So in his honor, here is a close up portrait of this noble tree. The Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer enabled me to remove any trace of glare and capture the true color of the swirling wood grain.

"The highest peak in the Snake Range in Great Basin National Park is 13,063 foot Wheeler Peak. The only paved road inside the park starts at the desert floor and climbs to a high campground at the trailhead to the summit of this mountain. Along the way there are many pull-outs where one can scan the desert floor below and the surrounding peaks.

"One evening I saw this half moon rising above Wheeler Peak and, after quickly slamming on the brakes and bailing my gear out of the car, I captured this image. I used a Singh-Ray 2-stop soft-step Graduated Neutral Density filter to hold back the final throes of twilight and bring out some of the details at tree line out of absolute shadow. As I made the ½-second exposure, I held the ND Grad in my hand and moved it up and down to soften the transition of the filter’s density on the exposure. The twilight glow, the moon, and the glaciers on the peaks make for a very delicate composition.

"While hiking the trails around the high country campground, I came upon two mule deer feeding in the lush meadows. These summer bucks with their velvet antlers and molting coats were so busy taking in the bounty of the short summer season they hardly noticed me. This gave me plenty of time to slowly inch up until I was able to get a full frame shot of this young buck. I had a Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer on my 70-200mm zoom when I took this image. Thanks to the 'lighter brighter' light transmission of this filter, I was able to select a shutter speed of 1/800 of a second. That gave me plenty of speed to freeze the buck’s movement and still get the benefit of the polarizer. The filter deepened the color of the green grass and eliminated the shimmer on the deer’s coat from the bright sunlight. The warming effect also did well to reduce the blue cast of the shaded light. With a 'standard' polarizer the deer’s coat would have been recorded as gray -- not the rich brown we see here.

"One afternoon the thunderstorms rolled in hard and heavy to discourage any travel up the park road to Wheeler Peak. That meant I would enjoy an afternoon engaged in one of my favorite past times -- shooting in dangerous weather! I never recommend going out, especially with a tripod, when the storms are directly overhead and posing an imminent threat. However, the times just before and just after a downpour can be very productive for the landscape photographer. In this scene, I had pre-visualized images of the old car as it sat in the middle of the sage flats near the park entrance. Inside this old jalopy, I found a cow skull and forelegs propped up to suggest a desert-weary driver. I took advantage of the fantastic atmosphere and used my Gold-N-Blue Polarizer to give the scene an added twist. I felt I was in a bygone age.

"Finally, as the storms blew away and the day was ending, I waited for what I knew would be a spectacular sunset. As the remaining storm clouds were breaking up, they lit up as if they were the glowing embers of the previously roaring storm. With the light quickly fading, I selected two of my Graduated Neutral Density filters, a 3-stop soft-step and a 2-stop hard-step. I stacked them in my hand and held them over my lens as I captured the image you see at the top of this story.

"If you ever make it out to this wonderful national park, you will be richly rewarded for your efforts. The desert, mountains, subterranean caves, alpine lakes, glaciers, plus the wonder and weathered beauty of the bristlecones all come together to make lasting memories and great photographs. Just don’t forget your Singh-Ray filters."

To enjoy more of Ernesto's images and follow his travels, visit his newly updated website and check the gallery of fine art prints, including a number of recent award winners.