Friday, May 21, 2010

Hand-holding Graduated ND filters works for a photographer who's always on the go

It's safe to say that Utah photographer Adam Barker is almost always on the move... from place to place... from project to project. "Many fine photographers," says Adam, "favor a relaxed and unhurried approach to shooting landscapes. Find a nice spot, nail the composition, set up the tripod and... wait for the light. Sounds sensible, even to me. But what I have found is that as soon as 'that moment' arrives, pandemonium breaks loose. Every inkling of rational thought leaves my brain as a photo-op beyond imagination unfolds before my eyes. I frantically click the shutter and before I can catch my breath, it’s all over.

That was amazing, I whisper, as my pulse races. Now, what did I screw up?

"Let’s be honest; for some of us, landscape photography is by no means leisurely, and at times it feels downright exhausting. The more prepared we are, and the quicker we can move and adapt to changing conditions, the more likely we'll be to capture magic. For me, it’s as simple as that.

"To capture this first image (above) at night in New York's Times Square, I hand held my 4-stop soft-step ND Grad to partially vignette the image and hold detail in the very bright electric sign at the top of the frame. Employing Singh-Ray filters in my photographic workflow gives me an immense advantage when it comes to capturing scenes as they actually appear to my eye. The simple truth, however, is that using filters can also be confusing and, at times, awkward. Due to the diverse range of subjects I shoot, I have become accustomed to hand holding my ND Grad filters about 99% of the time. This means that regardless of whether I’m shooting on a tripod, hanging from a ski lift, balancing on an ocean-going skiff or wherever else my adventures may lead, I am not held back by trying to use one of the greatest tools in my kit.

Why do I hand hold my filters? There are several reasons.
"Speed -- in rapidly changing conditions, I want to be able to adjust my shooting position, composition, lens selection or any number of other components quickly and without too much hassle. By hand holding my filters, I’m able to adapt quickly to whatever happens during those fleeting moments of magic.

"Control -- many times I find myself shooting scenes with brightly illuminated areas of the image -- such as clouds in the sky or snow-capped mountains -- that may call for less exposure than other areas. By hand-holding my filters, I am able to manually dodge and burn the parts of the image that may require more or less filtration. This is an advanced technique of sorts, but I have found that it becomes more intuitive with time and practice. For example, as I was photographing this fly fisherman in early morning light in Belize, I was able to hold back the brilliant sunrise by hand holding my 3-stop Reverse ND Grad at a slight angle so that I did not darken the fisherman on the right side of the image.

"Versatility -- many of the active lifestyle images I shoot -- such as this backpacker crossing the stream below Mt. Timpanogos in Utah -- are done on unsteady surfaces and without a tripod. There simply isn’t time to screw on a filter holder -- and even if I were able to, my gradient transitions (where I want that filter line to fall) are never stationary. For this shot, captured with my hand-held 4-stop soft-step ND Grad, hand-holding allowed me to quickly micro-adjust the filter placement for each frame.

How do I hand hold my filters?
"Let me first say that all of the ND Grad filters I use are the 4x6-inch size. This larger size is much easier to hand hold in general, and nearly essential if you’re shooting wide angle lenses on a full-frame sensor.

"I generally grasp the edge of the filter between my thumb and index finger or middle finger. Taking special care not to shake the camera, I place the filter flush against the front element of the lens. If I’m shooting at longer focal lengths or with longer shutter speeds, I may remove the filter slightly away from the lens to avoid any sharpness sapping vibration. This image of New York's Hell’s Kitchen at dusk was captured during a 30-second exposure while I hand-held a 2-stop soft-step ND Grad. I manually moved the filter in the upper third of the frame to hold back the brighter light of the skyscrapers during the exposure.

Watch this quick video demonstration

This clip is a short segment taken from my new DVD from Master Photo Workshops, focused on capturing the complete outdoor image with landscape filters.

It’s important to note that hand holding is simply my preferred method of using Singh-Ray’s ND Grad filters. I do occasionally use a holder when the weather’s too cold to hand hold a filter or if I’m stacking a number of filters that would be too complicated to hold otherwise. There are countless other filter-holding methods out there (and several have been demonstrated on this blog). In the end, it’s most important that we each find a technique that works for us. The more comfortable you are with knowing how and when to use your filters, the better prepared you’ll be when that fleeting magic moment arrives."

To see more of Adam’s work or sign up for one of his workshops, visit his website. Or follow him on Facebook for daily photo tips and other insightful info.

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