Friday, September 03, 2010

How Michael Kish gets more drama in his images by "squeezing more light levels onto the sensor"

"As a professional nature photographer, I’m always in search of dramatic light," says Michael Kish. "After all, it’s actually the light on the subject that we are capturing. I may find a grand scene laid out before me, but if the light illuminating the scene isn’t interesting, then the photograph won’t be either.

"The most dramatic light nature has to offer is usually found early in the morning or at day's end. Interesting and dramatic light, however, is also the most problematic to control. The most common problem is 'squeezing down' and recording the greater dynamic range in such scenes. That's because the sensors in our cameras can only capture about 7 to 8 f-stops of light, whereas the range of exposures between the brightest areas of the sky and the dimmest areas in the foreground in a dramatic landscape can often be closer to 10 or 12 f-stops.

"So how do I control the brightness of a scene's high dynamic range? I could take multiple images at three or more different exposure settings and then use HDR software to combine the 'best exposed' parts of each image into a composite photo. The problem with this technique is that nature doesn’t hold still just because I'm photographing it. HDR rendering might work for some types of photography but I find there are too many variables involved with nature photography that affect the outcome of my images. I like to get my images right in the camera -- as they're captured in the field. I do this by using Singh-Ray Graduated ND and Reverse Graduated ND filters to balance the various exposure levels within the scene. And how do I know when to use an ND Grad filter? Whenever the brightest and the darkest areas of the scene are more than five or six f-stops apart as indicated by my camera's spot meter or histogram.

"I often combine two or more filters to achieve the look I’m going for. The image you see at the top of this story was made on the Oregon coast near Coos Bay. In order to capture this fleeting moment, I had to overcome several lighting challenges. The light from the sun was very bright in comparison to the foreground illumination. With my camera's spot meter, I made one light reading of the rocks in the foreground and another reading of the sky off to the right where the sky and horizon intersect. The exposure difference was about 5 stops altogether, which prior experience told me would require a Graduated ND filter that could hold back about 4 stops of light. For this image I used two ND Grads: a 3-stop Reverse Grad and a 1-stop soft-step. The filters were stacked together with the edges of their gradients placed where the water and sky meet on the horizon. With this combination of grads I was able to hold back the bright sky while maintaining a sufficient exposure for the foreground elements. I could have used a 4-stop Reverse Grad but the transition from water to sky would have been too abrupt. Using the 1-stop grad along with the 3-stop Reverse, made it easier to feather the transition from water to sky and thereby create a more realistic image without any abrupt transition from light to dark.

"This next image is one of the most dramatic images I ever captured. I feel extremely blessed to have witnessed this awesome display in the Painted Hills of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in central Oregon, near the town of Mitchell. On this particular day I wasn’t really expecting such a dramatic scene to unfold. The entire day was clear and sunny. I wouldn’t have guessed a thunderstorm was brewing. In fact, I almost left about 2 hours before I made this image because the light didn’t look very promising. But for whatever reason, I decided to wait it out, and I’m glad I did!

"In order to make this image happen I needed to focus on the intensity of the clouds. My main concern was to get the clouds dead right. They were moving and the light was changing rapidly. Without even thinking, I pulled a 3-stop soft-step ND Grad from my cargo pocket (I carry all of my grad filters in my cargo pockets for quicker access.) and hand held the filter in place over the horizon while moving it up and down slightly during the exposure to better feather the transition line. In a situation like this where I must make quick decisions, it's very impractical to use a filter holder or even my office clip method to attach the filter to the lens. I needed to act fast and hand holding the filter was the best option. Within minutes the clouds broke up and the drama was over. A fleeting moment is precisely that, fleeting -- fortunately I was able to capture this one.

"In this early morning image of Bandon Beach, I had to deal with two challenges. First, the sky, and then the water's surface. The sun was rising behind me, off to my right, which created some dramatic side lighting. I knew right from the start I needed to capture as much detail as possible in both the beach and the grass in the foreground. If I had just taken the picture based on the evaluative metering in my camera, with no filters, both the sky and the waves would have been overexposed, which would have washed out both color and detail in those parts of the image. Instead, I used my in-camera spot meter and measured the light on the grass in the foreground and then made a second light reading of the beach right where it meets the water. The difference in exposure levels between these two locations was about 2 f-stops. I then made a third light reading of the sky off to the far right of the image on the horizon where the sky meets the water. The difference in exposure from the first reading and the third reading was just under 4 f-stops of light. I decided to use one filter for this particular situation. I positioned a 3-stop soft-step grad at an angle right in line with the edge of the beach. I hand held the filter and moved it slightly up and down during the exposure to better feather the transition between dark and light. This took care of the sky, but the water was still a little washed out. I was able to recover the few highlights that were overexposed in my raw processor, but most of the heavy lifting was accomplished in the field using my ND Grad.

"The Sierra Nevada Mountains are simply amazing! This past March, I made my first trip ever to see them while I was on a photo trip in California. I was completely taken by their rugged beauty! Fortunately, I already have a return trip planned for this Autumn! The sunset on my last day was the best one of the whole trip. The valley was somewhat hazy but nonetheless it was a memorable sight to behold.

"With this image, I needed to hold back the sky a bit and I needed to deal with the haze that had formed on the mountains. I used my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer to cut through the haze as well as a 2-stop soft-step ND Grad to hold back the sky. I positioned the transition line of the ND Grad right above the silhouetted rocks in the foreground. Normally I would spot meter a scene like this, but I instinctively knew by judging the light that I needed about 2 f/stops of neutral density. Over time, I have become more skilled at 'reading' the light and can make faster decisions. This image was relatively easy to photograph due in large part to my Singh-Ray Filters. Having the right equipment and knowing how to use it makes all the difference!

"If you have never been to the Tom McCall Nature Preserve, located on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, a bit west of Rowena Crest, by all means make an effort to visit this marvelous place. This image was taken there about an hour before sunset. This presented a problem because the sun was still above the horizon and caused the clouds to be extremely bright and well outside my camera's dynamic range. The foreground was also very bright. The trees you see in the middle of the frame were in shadow and weren’t really affected by the bright sunshine. So my focus was to hold back the light on both the foreground and the sky while at the same time leaving the trees in the middle part of the frame unfiltered. Tricky! Well, not really. I simply used two filters. I positioned a 3-stop soft-step ND Grad over the sky with the transition line falling just below the ridge in the background. I then placed a 1-stop soft-step ND Grad turned upside down with the dark side over the grass in the foreground with the transition line meeting just below the trees in the middle of the frame. By doing this I was able to compress the dynamic range just enough to retain detail in the foreground and in the brightly lit sky. I wouldn’t have even tried photographing this scene in my early days -- before Singh-Ray filters -- because one part of the image would be either completely overexposed or underexposed. In-camera light meters are easily tricked in situations like this because the light intensity varies greatly throughout the image.

"And how do I attach my ND Grads to my lens? There are several articles on this blog that discuss various ways to do it. Some photographers mount a filter holder on their lens while others prefer to hand hold their filters. I find both methods work great in certain situations, but most of the time I use my 'office clip' method described briefly in my August 18, 2009 entry on this blog. As I said earlier, knowing when and how to use ND Grads will prove extremely valuable whenever you're in the field photographing, but don't wait until you're on your dream vacation to start learning."

Michael is based in Oregon and conducts frequent workshops along the west coast. You'll find more information and more images posted on his website and blog.

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