Friday, January 29, 2010

Wherever he goes, his Singh-Ray filters go, too, to help show Mother Nature at her best

When Chris Moore isn't busy as a physician and family man in Orange Park, Florida, he's very likely to be photographing somewhere -- either in some nature reserve near his home, or perhaps one of our National Parks or some distant beach in Asia. "This past fall was filled with travels around the world to photograph Mother Nature at her best," says Chris. "Wherever I am, my Singh-Ray filters have helped me capture the spirit and drama of the various landscapes more accurately and dramatically.

"In October I accompanied three other photographers to Death Valley National Park which is an extraordinary place. It's a large natural heat sink that reaches upwards of 130 degrees daily with only 2 inches of rainfall per year. The landscape is vast and empty, with very harsh light during the day. At dusk and dawn, however, the golden sunlight transforms Death Valley into one of the most beautiful landscapes I've seen. After the fiercely hot mid-day hours, the setting and rising sun light up the landscape in a magical glow. I used my Hi-Lux Warming UV filter to photograph the Mesquite Dunes (at top) and Racetrack Playa at sunset. The Hi-Lux gave the colors a nice pop and added a warming glow consistent with the ambient light.

"The following morning we woke early and set up at Zabriskie point. We were thrilled when the rising sun behind us created a magical glow of red and purple, reflected off the clouds from a distant storm. Sufficed to say, such serendipitous experiences, when the elements all seem to fall into place, is what I live for as a photographer. I used my LB warming polarizer and 3-stop soft-step ND grad filter, which I generally hand-hold and move slightly to created a nice blend at the horizon.

"A few weeks later, my wife and I took a two-week journey around Thailand, from the south tip of Malaysia to Northern Thailand and the jungles of Chiang Mai. Although I had to pack light, my Singh-Ray filters were always at my side. We took a charter out in the Phi Phi Islands, off Phuket. Referred to by some as the most beautiful beach in the world, Maya Bay did not fail to impress me. I used my LB Warming Polarizer to reduce the glare on the water and deepen the blue skies as I captured this 'khlong' docked just off the beach.

"Though not too far from home, Washington Oaks State Park in Palm Coast, Florida, is my favorite local destination. When the weather and tide are right, I wake early and make the one-hour drive in time to capture the sunrise. An incoming storm created some extra drama on this particular morning, with waves crashing on the rock-studded beach. I used my LB Warming Polarizer to strengthen the colors and contrast in the sky as well as my 3-stop soft-step ND Grad filter to balance the wide tonal range in this scene."

In December, Chris launched his new website, Exploring Light Photography as well as starting a blog which will help us keep track of his future travels and newest images. His next project will be a trip to Northern California and the Oregon Coast.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Mountaineers can easily learn to capture great landscape pictures with small cameras

Vern Dewit greatly enjoys hiking and photographing in the Canadian Rockies near his home in Calgary, Alberta. "One of my goals is to find the perfect photo gear for mountaineers." Lately, he believes he's getting close to the answer.

"Many hiking enthusiasts have asked me how I balance the lighting on those white clouds and blue lakes and still get brighter foregrounds in the same landscape shot while using my small-sensor camera instead of a complex high-dynamic-range (HDR) and digital blending techniques. The solution doesn't involve spending $5,000 on the latest 20+ megapixel full-frame DSLR and another bundle for the latest wide-angle lens. For me, the best approach has been to carry a smaller camera and get the best possible image quality by using Graduated Neutral Density filters from Singh-Ray to properly balance my exposures. I'm still able to get photographs I can sell or hang on my wall, and I'm convinced any small camera can be used much more effectively for successful landscape photography if the photographer learns to use ND Grads.

"I should mention that I own a full-frame camera, too, but I simply can't carry it comfortably while hiking 15 kilometers and 1500 vertical meters in a day! Even if I could, I would be too concerned about damaging it to fully enjoy using it. Carrying a cheaper and lighter-weight system -- along with a couple of filters -- makes much more sense for hikers and climbers. The issue that mountaineers run into as photographers, however, is that even though we get to see some of the most gorgeous landscapes on earth, it's very hard to take full advantage of these high-contrast views on a small sensor camera without either blowing out the highlights in the sky or clipping the shadows in the foreground. That's why the most effective solution is to use ND Grad filters. All the images in this story -- including this view of Mount Temple -- were taken with my Singh-Ray filters.

"So how does an ND Grad help a small sensor camera achieve less highlight blowouts and shadow clipping? As I am composing each scene, I position the gray part of the filter in front of my lens to partially block the overly bright sky light entering the lens. This gives me a better balance between the comparatively dark foreground areas in the scene and the very bright light from the sky, mountain snow caps and any other sunlit hot spots in the image before it hits the sensor.

"You may wonder if ND Grads will produce an unnatural looking photo, but in most cases they don't. However, I have found that there are a few tricks to getting it right. First of all, I base my exposure settings on the foreground, and then use the 'auto exposure lock' on my camera to keep that setting while I position the ND Grad to balance the highlight areas properly. Using the 'live view' feature on the camera makes it even easier to determine what strength ND Grad you need (1, 2, or 3 f-stops of light blocked) either by guessing or trying them out (start with the 2 stop filter). Simply hold the filter (or use a filter holder) and slide it up or down until the brightest areas in the sky become darker on the live view image and start to reveal more detail. When you're happy with the sky and foreground detail, take the photo. Trying a few different exposures and a different ND Grads will help speed the learning process. It will also help to read other stories on this blog dealing with Graduated Neutral Density filters.

"If you would like to capture more dramatic sunrises and sunsets, try Singh-Ray's more specialized Reverse Graduated ND. This filter holds back the brightness mostly near the middle of the filter and then graduates to the top of the filter instead of the other way around. This design makes sure that the direct sun doesn't overpower the scene. I used the Daryl Benson 2-stop Reverse ND Grad filter for the above photo of Pine Lake. Note how the foreground area remains well exposed.

"Using ND Grads may sound very technical and time-consuming, but in reality you will quickly catch on to positioning the Grad in front of your lens whenever the situation calls for it. I snap many pictures without the filter until I encounter that special scene where I know I want to get the exposure 'just right.' Then I slow down, take out the filters and go to work. Usually it's about a 2-5 minute step and I end up with some great shots.

"Here's an example of a blown sky. It's a nice image of Storm Mountain, but the clouds have lost some of their detail and the shadows are too dark. I'd be really disappointed if this was the best image I'd captured that day.

"The much-improved image of Storm Mountain at the top of this story was taken on the same day from the same location but only after I realized that I needed my 2-stop ND Grad to keep the sky from blowing out. Notice that the shadows are still retaining good detail but the sky isn't pure white (blown out) anywhere.

"One other hint for getting huge prints out of a small sensor camera is to not only use ND Grads filters but also shoot multiple side-by-side shots that can be stitched together in post production. This is a good way to greatly increase the number of pixels you capture for a given scene. I've stitched pictures from my micro 4/3 sensor to produce prints as large as 2 by 4 feet and they look great using this combined technique.

"Here's a picture of Mount Coleman taken with my GH1 plus the 2-stop ND Grad. I have been able to print this image very large, and it's now hanging on my wall. Next time you're wondering whether or not you should get a bigger format camera to capture the dynamic range of your landscapes, remember to try the much cheaper ND Grad approach instead. At the end of that hike or climb, your wallet and your legs will thank you!"

To see more of Vern's work, or learn about his adventures in the great outdoors, be sure to stop by his website and online gallery and do some exploring.