Friday, February 26, 2010

When he travels the world, this photojournalist packs only essentials -- including his filters

Born and raised in Belleville, Kansas, veteran travel photojournalist Jim Richardson has covered the world for National Geographic magazines since his first story appeared in 1984. "When I captured this image, our location was 54° 24' 55.885"N, 9° 5' 38.520"E. So we were due west of Ballyshannon, Ireland, and the sea had turned to glass." At the time, Jim was with a group aboard the expedition ship National Geographic Endeavor. "Most of the guests were tucking into breakfast (or still asleep) while a mere handful of us were on the foredeck marveling at our good fortune. Away to the northeast the Irish coast peeked out occasionally from behind the low cloud banks. All that was missing was a Viking longboat, fresh down from Orkney looking for loot. But those of us there on the deck were content with the glorious scene as it was.

"I know where I was because I had my GPS unit hooked up to Nikon D700. When I shot the picture it recorded the location. It's a tool I carry all the time now and I'll never again go out in the field without every camera connected to the circling GPS satellites. It's a tool I can no longer live without.

"The other tools I always, always carry in my bag are a number of Singh-Ray Galen Rowell Graduated ND filters. One of the things I look for when choosing a camera bag is how they will accommodate the Singh-Rays. They have to be up front and handy. I can't be fumbling around in odd pockets when the great light strikes.

"That's how it was on this morning. The sun was threatening to peek out at any moment and I had no time to lose. As I remember it was a two-stop hard-step ND Grad that did the trick. (Might have been a three-stop soft-step. Sorry, I don't take notes at moments like these. I just try to make the picture work before it goes away.)

"My intent was to make the water the main actor in this little drama. Which is much the way it looked to my eye. But I realize our brains -- not our eyes -- do the actual seeing and, in the process, our brains do a lot of unconscious exposure compensation. Sort of like there's an infinite set of ND Grads working to keep the brightness extremes of the image in the visible range. Our brain does all the heavy lifting while our eyes get all the credit.

"So really, the two stops of density introduced by the ND Grad just reduced the brightness of the sky down to what it looked like to me and the other folks standing up there on the deck. Later, when we were comparing pictures, most of the guests marveled that my picture looked like what they saw while their pictures had dark water and blown out skies. 'How come?' they asked. 'Because I carry around those little rectangles of half-grey optical resin,' I answered.

"That, too, is the other point of this scene. Somebody will always say 'Well, yes, I can do the same thing in PhotoShop or Lightroom. I just use the digital ND filter feature.' Well, no, we can't actually. One of two things will happen in a situation like this, and maybe both. First, without the ND grad, I will blow out the highlights around the sun to such a degree that I will end up with a large, unnatural looking white blob where the clouds ought to be. I can darken it down, but I can't get back any of the detail in the clouds.

"Second, if I reduce my exposure to save the clouds, I'll get very dark water. Translation: I underexposed the water. Now when I use my software to lighten up the water I'll get noise. Probably lots of noise. And with noise I lose the beautiful, creamy smoothness that drew me to the scene in the first place. There are just a host of situations where getting the exposure right in the first place is the best route to real image quality in the end.

"The morning I captured this scene on Loch Ness was a similar situation. Only this is a panorama that I stitched together in Photoshop. Then I used the tools in Nikon Capture NX 2 to pull back some of the detail in the forested hillsides. When I'm doing that, I need all the quality in the files that I can get so that I have maximum flexibility to make the image work right. Standing on the back deck of the Lord of the Glens that morning, I was hoping I could capture an image with the breadth and depth of what I was seeing. Most likely I did this with my three-stop soft-step filter. All the frames in the pan were verticals and I used the feathering of the filter to keep from being too obvious about it.

"One side note about panoramas: Since I work for National Geographic Magazine, there is a real limit to what I can and can't do for the magazine. In my recent story on the Hebrides Islands of Scotland, we published two stitched panoramas. But we still included a note with the caption alerting readers that they were assembled images. Just two years ago, when we ran my night panorama of the Milky Way for the Flint Hills story, we did not stitch it into a seamless pan. We left the segment lines showing. At the time we were concerned that readers might feel deceived by the stitching. The situation is evolving, but we still need to be careful what we present to our readers and how we achieve those images. That's one reason why I generally limit my filter set to ND Grads and polarizers.

"Fog is another situation that regularly calls for a bit of filtering in my book. Certainly this scene in Polperro, Cornwall, would have lost a lot of its murky gloom without the benefit of my two-stop soft-step ND Grad. If I look at the water splashing on the rocks, I would guess that the sky at the top of the image was just as bright, in absolute terms, as those splashing waves. But if I had left it a straight exposure like that all of the mood of the images would have evaporated like the fog. Either that, or the foreground rocks would have been much, much darker with very little color. This is much closer to the image my brain was 'developing' than my eye was 'seeing.'

"On another evening there in Polperro, I walked out of our cottage (the one closest to the water right there in the middle of the image) and popped over the hill to the left where I could get down to the rocky shore looking out over the English Channel.

"Here is where I called on another filter that has earned a permanent place in my bag: my Singh-Ray Mor-Slo five-stop solid ND filter. With it in place, I could easily slow down my exposure to 30 seconds for the blurred-water look I wanted. And with its thin mounting ring, I can use it on my Nikkor 12-24 f4 without any cutting into the corners. That's important to me, since I shoot so often with wide-angle lenses. I also used an ND Grad on the sky to pull it down.

"Besides the filters I've already mentioned, I also carry the Daryl Benson Reverse ND Grads. Sometimes I use them as intended, to bring down the bright area along the horizon at sunset without overly darkening the upper sky. But just as often I use them because they have a subtly different transition gradation from light to dark. Sometimes they are just right for bringing down a slice of sky up towards the top of the frame when the hard-step ND Grads are too 'sharp' and the soft-step ND grads aren't producing enough effect. That's why I usually carry five or six different filters.

"I've been around the ND Grad game for a long time now. Seems like twenty years since I picked up my first ones and I've seen a lot of them come and go. What sold me on the Singh-Ray filters is the neutral grey. I mean the really, truly neutral grey. I remember getting magenta skies or green clouds with other filters. I don't deal with that any more. I don't have to.

"Finally let me offer this. I work alone in the field. I work out of a camera bag and I'm much like Bob Krist: I don't want to carry everything and break my back anymore. Those days are gone. Equipment really has to earn a place in my bag. I don't carry anything for fun. It has to produce images and earn its keep if I'm going to carry it. When I'm in the field, I'm there to work and my equipment has to work hard every day, too. I'm still carrying my Singh-Ray filters."

Next time you're in Lindsborg, Kansas, be sure to stop by Jim's Small World Gallery. It's on Main street. To follow more of Jim's many current photography projects, you'll enjoy looking at his website and his highly informative blog, Working Photographer, which "looks at the turbulent world of editorial photography through the eyes of someone been working at it for forty years -- and hopes to stay active for a lot longer."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Singh-Ray Filters helped him capture the unique nature of Volcanoes National Park

With very little active lava currently flowing in Volcanoes National Park, outdoor photographer Joel Addams decided to focus on the old textures and 'lavascapes' that have formed during the past several hundred years on the southern side of Hawaii’s Big Island. “I found it similar to the desert landscapes back home in Utah," says Joel. “The textures and treeless areas are overwhelmingly black. The cracks and the ropey formations in the old lava provide easy foreground anchors and leading lines as far as the eye can see. The park was established in 1916 and has been honored as a World Heritage Site since 1987."

Joel has been photographing on the islands since June of last year, mostly on Oahu, and he was excited to see the variety of climates and landscapes of the Big Island through his lens. “People on Oahu continually urged me to start photographing on the Big Island of Hawaii, knowing that 14 different climate zones gave the island an unparalleled variety of photographic opportunities in such a small space. Volcanoes National Park on the southern side of the island was my favorite, but little did I realize that it was on the 'windward' side, meaning that it catches most of the rain sweeping in from the east. The park's rainforest, dry tropical forest and desert climates are all easily accessible via a network of well maintained trails.

"Before any shooting starts, it's necessary to have good rain protection for yourself and your equipment. The first day I was out, I just couldn’t stop shooting. My camera was fine inside its protective cover, but I was soaked to the skin within minutes. After six days of shooting, I read somewhere that the national park received over seven feet of rain per year. On the positive side, there was always hope the clouds would come and go.

“As I mentioned in a previous Singh-Ray blog story, shooting in Hawaii calls for the frequent use of a Reverse ND Grad filter. Volcanoes National Park, with its flat terrain and horizons resulting from the leveling effects of the lava, offers yet another opportunity to use this filter. The shot below at sunrise is a perfect example of the dramatic differences with a steady, hand-held Reverse Graduated Neutral Density filter. Don’t forget to properly expose for the foreground first and then place the filter in a holder attachment or “hand-hold” it in place. Using the hand-held technique allows me to quickly move the filter to any position necessary to fit the skyline. (click the image below to see the "before and after")

"In addition to the flat lava skylines, I was intrigued by the unique new challenge of photographing a black landscape. I shot for several days, approaching the dark tones of the lava in a very straightforward manner. I simply tried to keep them black. One day as the rain was pouring down, however, I searched for some new approach to the endlessly black and rather drab views. Suddenly, the black shiny lava reminded me of the black pearls I had seen while traveling in other countries. I remembered seeing a hue of blue in the pearls and pulled out my Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue filter to see the effects.

“I was fascinated by the brilliant blues and golds that shimmered off the wet lava. To me, the black was actually enhanced by colors, as if they naturally exuded that spectrum of light anyway. A simple twist of the Gold-N-Blue filter, and I could chose not only the hue of the lava, but also the intensity. The filter was so interesting that I decided to shoot a series of images of lava in sort of a study on texture. Everywhere I went over the next few days, I would try the Gold-N-Blue filter, sometimes coupled with an ND Grad filter to hold back the light in the sky.

“Here again, Singh-Ray has developed filters that result in very little, if any, post-processing and give me the satisfaction of crafting a well-balanced photograph in-camera. While my arsenal of ND Grad filters, LB Warming Polarizer, and LB ColorCombo were all very helpful within the green world of the nearby jungles, it was the Gold-N-Blue that made my experience with Volcanoes National Park extraordinary. I realized that I had discovered a new solution for future applications."

Joel is now back home shooting the winter season in both northern and southern Utah. He continues to exhibit his work, and will teach a four-part series of day-long courses in Moab, Utah, and Zion National Park in 2010. You can also find Joel's report on his recent trip to Haiti as part of the Utah Hospital Task Force by visiting his website.