Friday, January 22, 2010

Braving the dreary winter in South Texas with just a handful of Singh-Ray filters

Award-winning photographer Ernesto Santos lives in McAllen, Texas, and each day brings him closer to his goal of launching a full-time career in nature photography. "Life in deep-south Texas has its advantages, but few of them have much to do with outdoor photography.

"It’s the dead of winter here. With the season comes an overall desaturation of color throughout the Rio Grande river delta. And it is always flat, flat as far as the eye can see. Not having any dramatic landscapes or colorful flora this time of year made it somewhat of a challenge when I decided to visit the secluded grounds of the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge near the town of Alamo.

"Santa Ana NWR is one of several sanctuaries in this area set aside for the hundreds of bird species that inhabit south Texas. Unfortunately for me, I’m not in that game -- leaving me and my Singh-Ray filters to make something interesting out of the monotonous landscapes to be found here. On one recent afternoon, I went out to the refuge and hiked to one of the waterfowl lakes. We call them lakes down here but they are much more like an everglade with the water probably not more than a few feet deep and sprawled out over a wide area.

"In this first image of Willow Lake, I took a preliminary shot to check exposure levels and the general composition. No filters were used here and I processed the image from the raw file with only slight adjustments to tone, contrast, and saturation levels. As you can see the image is well exposed and the cloud formations are interesting, but after only a brief view the eye wants to move on.

"Now let’s go to the image at the top of this story. It's the same scene but it was captured with a Singh-Ray 2 stop-hard Graduated Neutral Density filter. Aside from adding the filter, the only differences between these two shots are that I tilted the camera upward slightly and lowered the tripod a foot to include a bit more foreground and accentuate the cloud formations. I mildly post-processed this image to its final state, adding a little more color and contrast.

"When faced with a situation like this, I always try to bring out the drama in the sky. After all, that’s what grabbed my attention when I first saw this scene. The use of the right ND Grad is important here too. If I had used a 3-stop it would have darkened the clouds excessively making the scene unnatural in appearance. Notice also how the correct strength and placement of the filter brings back a significant amount of detail in the distant daylight. Now, instead of having a white blob of clipped highlights, the eye can focus on the details far in the distance. With the addition of the Grad ND, this image now pulls the viewer in, inviting us to examine the long tubular pillows of cloud. Suddenly the grasses beckon and the eye skips along the water’s surface all the way into the distant daylight. A successful image, I must say, in spite of the season.

"With the promising shot of Willow Lake stored in my memory card, I continued on, surveying the banks of the lake. Standing on a berm to get a better vantage point, I noticed that there were multiple stands of soft rushes at one end. Within these stands were large flocks of American Coots, more commonly known around here as 'mud hens.' With only a 70-200mm lens and a 1.7x teleconverter I had little success getting close enough for a full frame shot of the coots. I was dejected and ready to get back on the trail when it suddenly struck me. As the cold breeze lightly swept over the water the rushes would sway ever so softly creating a dreamlike effect. I thought to myself, 'Hmmm, it's time to pull out my Warming Polarizer,' as the revelation of pre-visualization hit me. Maybe -- if I framed a shot in close using my 70-200 mm, opened up the aperture for a shorter depth of field and attached my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer -- I could make something of this. The dream effect was what I was after and I think the image presented here of the soft rushes represents my vision of the moment very well. I positioned the camera so that the delicate blossoms dominated the frame and became a recurring visual cue. The Warming Polarizer added the warmth I needed to accentuate the golden blossoms and bring a rich green to the stalks. A little contrast adjustment and the addition of a subtle vignette in post processing completed the composition.

"In a small hamlet along the Rio Grande there is a little attraction that carries a big distinction. Los Ebanos, Texas, is where one can find the last remaining hand-drawn ferry in the entire United States. It trudges along day after day, seemingly lost in time, taking passengers on foot or in cars across a narrow section of the river into Mexico or the United States. Here in this image is a somewhat pedestrian representation of what is not the most photogenic of subjects. Modern cars sitting on top of an old rusting barge along a thin strip of the river is not that exciting.

"So I stood there on a landing on the U.S. side trying to make sense of this hold-over from the last century, taking a few shots from different angles but with little to get me excited. Eventually, I boarded the ferry on the insistence of the friendly crew. As I rode the barge back and forth a few times, I focused my camera on them, soon realizing the real story here is not the rusting hulk and the tensioned ropes that keep it from floating down the river, but that of the people -- those who operate the ferry, those who depend on it daily for transportation, and the occasional group of sightseers who are eager to get into Mexico for some food and cold beer.

"I decided the best way to photograph the ferry was to somehow communicate the nature of its existence over all these years. I thought about it intently and eventually came up with what I hope represents the essence of it all -- motion and people. So here in this final image is a shot I took as the ferry landed on the U.S. side and the passengers disembarked. I had set my tripod low to the ground on the previous landing of the ferry making sure that I framed the stenciled name in the bottom half of the frame. Hopefully, the next time it came around there would be enough passengers on foot to get a shot of their feet in blurred motion. I attached my Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo and dialed in enough density to achieve a half-second exposure using an aperture of f/8. I also added some polarization to help saturate the scene, particularly the stenciled lettering. The keys to making contrived shots like this successful is to set up accurately ahead of time, wait for the action to happen, and then shoot frame after frame, non-stop, until the action ceases. With a little luck at least one frame will work visually and contain all the elements you were after.

"While other commitments have kept me from photo travel over the last few months, I have gained a little more appreciation for my home turf. After visiting the local naturescapes over and over, I thought there was nothing new to see or interpret. However, once armed with a few Singh-Ray filters and a fresh perspective, I realized I had been wrong. With results like this I don't mind being wrong once in a while."

To see more of Ernesto's images from his home territory and beyond, visit his website and check the gallery of fine art prints, including a number of recent award winners.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Workshops can be an excellent way to learn more about filters -- especially if you're the leader

Living in Port Ludlow, Washington, outdoor photographer and photo writer Rod Barbee conducts a number of in-the-field workshops in various parts of the Pacific Northwest each year. "A couple of the workshops I led last spring and summer seemed to have some very definite filter themes going on," says Rod. "And, as usual, the instructor always learns, too."

"Our first workshop was in the Palouse Region of eastern Washington State. This is an area known for rolling farmland, rustic barns, and great light. Sometimes the weather likes to play a part, too. This year we spent some time trying to capture the movement of wind. Here’s where the Vari-ND Variable Neutral Density filter really came in handy and several of my students gave it a try. They came up with some really nice images -- some of their images even won awards at a regional contest!

One of my students spotted this scene with the fence post and barbed wire (his version won an award). The wind was blowing hard enough to make it really worthwhile trying a long exposure so I used my Singh-Ray Vari-ND to obtain a shutter speed of four seconds. I really like the idea of this old fence surviving year after year in all sorts of conditions, including the almost constant wind.

I do a lot of hyperfocal landscapes with a sharp foreground and background. After awhile I was looking to change creative gears. Again, taking advantage of the wind and using the Vari-ND filter, I was able to do something a little different with the foreground of this barn image.

"Of course, there was more to photograph than barns and wind. I liked the contrast between the red in this old abandoned truck, the blue in the sky, and the green of the wheat in the background. My LB ColorCombo really does a great job in subtly boosting these colors and making that contrast an even more important part of the image.

"At my Mt. Rainier workshop, the theme was Graduated Neutral Density filters. There were fields of flowers and Mt. Rainier. Reflections in lakes and Mt. Rainier. More fields of flowers and Mt. Rainier. You get the idea. The challenge is that Mt. Rainier, having a lot of snow on it, is very bright when compared to the foregrounds. We spent quite a bit of our time photographing landscapes and learning to choose and use graduated ND filters.

"One of my students, in that 'a-ha' moment that all instructors like to hear, said that you simply couldn’t take these landscapes pictures in one shot without ND Grad filters. And that realization, that neither film nor digital sensor are capable of containing the light range in many of the dramatic scenes we want to photograph, is a huge leap in any photographer’s progression. We mainly used Singh-Ray 2-stop and 3-stop soft-step Graduated ND filters. Some people used the P-size holder while others chose to hand hold the filters. Since none in the group were really used to hand holding ND grad filters, they found that using my 4x6 Singh-Ray grads was easier than using the smaller P-sized filters. Hand holding these filters does take a bit of practice and the larger ones make it easier to keep your fingers out of the picture.

"This scene from Reflection Lake is pretty typical of the light conditions you can get in the morning and a perfect time to use a Graduated ND filter. As you can see in the 'no filter' image, Mt. Rainier gets completely blown out if the exposure is set for the foreground. Since no one in my group really wanted to have to spend a lot of time in Photoshop, they preferred getting the image they wanted in the camera rather than having to rely on post-processing and image blending. In this case, a two-stop filter did the trick.

"In this photograph of Myrtle Falls, I had a couple of things I wanted to accomplish. First of all, the foreground waterfall area is in different light than the brighter mountain so I knew I’d need an ND Grad filter to capture the entire scene. Secondly, I wanted to slow the shutter speed to give the waterfall that silky look, which meant that I needed my Vari-ND filter as well. In the end, it worked out well. I’ll need to do a little post-processing in the computer to get rid of the unsightly ropes along the bridge but other than that, this image was pretty much done once I clicked the shutter.

"Color seemed to be the theme in Oregon’s wine country workshop last fall and the LB ColorCombo was my filter of choice. It really gives a nice, natural punch to the fall color along this country road near one of the wineries. I’ve been using this filter a lot lately for any scene that has an abundance of colors. To me, it helps give my digital images that 'Velvia pop.'

One thing to keep in mind when using any of these filters is that they don’t create great light or locate dramatic scenes. You can’t just slap on a filter and figure you’ve got a winner. What these filters can do for you is to help you solve lighting problems in the field and expand your ability to capture great light and great scenes.

And here's my favorite workshop image of 2009
"At last year’s Mt. Rainier workshop when my group and I left for Upper Tipsoo Lake to photograph the sunset, I had something very specific in mind. I was hoping for more clouds around Mt. Rainier. I also wanted amazing sunset colors with deep reds. And I wanted it all reflected in the lake, too. I wasn’t asking for much, was I? Anyway, so much for preconceptions.

"When the magic light I was counting on didn’t materialize, we went exploring and climbing above the lake to see what that might offer. But I wasn’t excited by what was going on in the sky; I was still stuck in my preconceptions. However, I was there and the foreground light was looking nice so I gave it a try.

"By now it’s just a matter of habit for me to get the best possible image in the camera, even if I’m not all that excited about the picture. As the sky here was so bright, I knew I’d need to either take more than one exposure and blend them in the computer or use a graduated ND filter. Since at the time I was admittedly disappointed in the sunset I decided to 'just' use a graduated filter (I think it was a three stop filter).

"What do you know? This image ended up being my favorite of 2009. There must be a lesson in there someplace about turning lemons into gift horses or some such. What I can say is that I’m very glad that I’m such a geek about image quality and getting good results in the camera. I’m also glad I carry a set of Graduated ND filters. Otherwise, I might have just simply ended the evening by grumbling over the disappointing sunset rather than capturing my favorite image of the year.

"Sometimes a favorite image just sneaks up on you."

For further information and motivation, visit Rod's website to learn more about his upcoming workshops and projects.