Friday, March 05, 2010

Veteran sports photographer also striving for success with his fine-art landscapes

As a professional sports and landscape photographer living in the scenic southern Bay Area of California, Don Smith leads a number of landscape photography workshops in the western U.S., including trips along the spectacular Big Sur coastline.

“My philosophy," says Don, "includes the concept that art is initially created in our mind. Cameras, lenses, and filters are my way of translating that vision into an image. I can teach anyone the craft side of photography in a relatively short period of time. The vision side takes a lifetime -- we never stop learning how to see.

“To that end, I feel it is extremely important to get the image right in-the-camera -- and that's where Singh-Ray filters help. As you can see in these images.

"The Big Sur coastline is like my backyard playground. I am intimately familiar with the entire 90-mile coastline, though I find myself shooting the bulk of my images within the first 37 miles south of Carmel. In the image above of the three rocks captured at Garrapata Beach at dusk, I envisioned soft tones for the entire image. Mother Nature provided me the warm sky; I simply needed to calm the water to complete the mood. I immediately went to my Singh-Ray Vari-ND Variable Neutral Density filter and played with various shutter speeds. I finally settled on this 30-second exposure using my 70-200mm lens on my Canon 1Ds MKIII. There really is no magic formula for water as conditions are never the same. My advice is to play with the motion until it feels and looks good to your eye.

"Here's another favorite location of mine at the northern end of Garrapata State Park. Undoubtedly this is the most photographed section of the entire 90-mile Big Sur coastline and for good reason. The rocky shoreline and dramatic backdrop of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range make for an unbelievably gorgeous setting. This is also the one section of Big Sur where the weather is impossible to predict. Clouds and fog can hug the headlands and can form within minutes.

"Winter in Big Sur generally means the absence of fog, and when storms pass through, extremely vibrant sunset skies can result. I have always found numerous photo opportunities at Sobranes Point featuring the Sobranes Arch. Using my 16-35mm lens on my full frame Canon 1DsMKIII camera, I was able to create the front-to-back depth I wanted to make this image work. Because of the extreme difference in contrast from the vibrant sky to the colorful non-native ice plant in the foreground, I used a 5-stop, soft-step ND Grad to balance the image. It was also important that I captured enough motion in the water to give the viewer a sense of the power of the ocean’s swells. Controlling the sky with the 5-stop ND Grad allowed for a 1-second exposure which provided the proper texture in the surging water.

"When I am not out photographing along the coast, I love being in the mountains. On a recent workshop that I co-instructed with Gary Hart, we had our group on location in the Alabama Hills above the town of Lone Pine at dawn. We planned to photograph the full moon setting just to the right of Mt. Whitney. As is often the case when photographing in the Eastern-Sierra, some lenticular clouds began to form near the crest. Seemingly within minutes, these lenticulars sprouted what appeared to be giant wings just as the rising sun began to paint them with its warm light.

"Not wanting to turn the foreground into a total silhouette, I opted to use my Singh-Ray 2-stop soft-step Graduated Neutral Density filter to blend the scene more to how my eye was witnessing it. And it worked beautifully! The soft-edge filter transitioned nicely into the shadowed foreground, but still allowed enough light on the foreground to record detail. I captured this scene again with my Canon full-frame 1DsMKIII, and 24-70mm lens. I also used my Singh-Ray Polarizer to help saturate the color on both the cloud and the snow-covered mountains.

"I am fortunate to live within a short drive of some of California’s most beautiful coastal-mountain scenery. This image of a mist bow in Big Basin State Park’s Berry Creek Falls was really a fortuitous moment. It took about 2-1/2 hours of hiking to reach this 40-foot falls, and when I arrived, I began cursing my luck that the sun had crested a ridge behind me and was adding some splotchy light on the falling water.

"But much to my surprise (and good luck), a tiny mist bow began to materialize. I immediately ditched the idea of capturing the entire falls and went to work on isolating just a small portion of the falls. The sun was moving fast and so was the bow, when finally some tall redwoods blocked the sun’s path and the light fell off the falls. Seemingly minutes later, the light magically re-appeared and this bow spanned the entire width of the falls!

"I knew I wanted to slow the water down and allow the sensuous lines of the water to paint the image. So I used my Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo to ensure that I could properly polarize the mist bow and slow the water. Again I just played with varying amounts of neutral density, which in turn allowed me to experiment with various shutter speeds, and I settled on 2.5 seconds. It was then just a matter of experimenting with different compositions until I found one that felt right.

"This past summer, I decided to add a workshop on the paradise island of Kauai, Hawaii, and even though I had photographed this incredible island many times before, it was time to head back to review potential shooting locations. This past July I awoke early and headed to Wailua Bay on the eastern side of the island just north of Lihue. I could see a gap along the horizon and anticipated a sun-star when the sun hit the horizon.

"I scrambled to find the best foreground and discovered these black rocks. I hoped the earliest warm rays would paint them red. To control the extreme contrast, I used my Daryl Benson 3-stop Reverse ND Grad, and simply placed the darkest portion of the grad along the horizon line. I set my aperture at f/16 to ensure my starburst and this was the result! And as you can see, the red light did indeed reflect in the wet rocks; without that reflection, I believe the foreground would have been too dark. The 3-stop Reverse Grad proves to be an invaluable filter when shooting sunrises and sunsets along the ocean. It's the one location where photographers can almost always count on a straight horizon line!

"I have been using my Singh-Ray filters for years and I will continue to carry them wherever I go. Software certainly has its place in today’s digital world, but I come from the background of 20 years of shooting color transparencies, where there was no tolerance for exposure mistakes. I've learned to slow down and make sure the image is correct before tripping the shutter. Hasty 'grip and rip' photography does not cut it in the competitive world of landscape photography. Whenever an image can be captured by using a filter to match my vision, it's applied. I'm convinced my time is best spent behind the camera, and not in front of the computer."

Don is a contract photographer for Getty Images with both his sports and landscape imagery. To learn much more about Don's photographic activities and his 2010 schedule of workshops, be sure to visit his website and blog.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Essential Filters for Controlling Contrast in Digital Nature Photography

Each time award-winning photographer and author Darwin Wiggett writes about filters, he is sharing his own years of successful experience. His stories featured on this blog have become a trusted reference source for many visitors. Now Darwin discusses the essential filters for controlling the luminance or contrast range of digital images and offers us his perspective based on his own methods, experience and equipment.

"To me, there are two types of filters that are truly essential to outdoor and nature photography, and these are the filters that help us control lighting contrast in a scene," says Darwin. "In nature, the contrast range of a scene is often beyond what can be recorded successfully on the sensor. The range of brightness between shadows and highlights is usually so extreme that neither is recorded with detail on the sensor. There are several options available to photographers to help reduce the contrast range of light in such scenes. The first is to return to the scene when the light is lower in contrast -- much like that on a cloudy day (but that will also change the character of the light). The second option is to add light to the shadow areas using fill flash or a reflector -- but this solution is not too practical when shooting grand scenics. The third solution is to make numerous exposures of the scene to record detail in the shadow, highlight and midtone areas, and then blend these exposures together in post-processing. This latter practice often works well but it's time intensive.

"The fourth option is to use the two types of filters -- polarizers and graduated neutral density filters -- that enable us to control the contrast in a scene to get the correctly exposed image in-camera. When possible, I prefer this last method because it gives me high quality in-camera images and requires little post-processing effort. That gives me more time in the field to take photos. Plus, I know I got what I wanted while I'm still at the location. Let’s take a close look at how polarizers and ND grads help tame the contrast in landscape and nature photography.

The Polarizer Controls Contrast Over The Entire Image
"One of the easiest ways to make better nature photos is to use a polarizer. The glare reducing effect of a polarizer can’t be duplicated in any software – period. By removing the reflective highlights (glare) everywhere in the scene, the polarizer effectively reduces the contrast range and enriches the colours. In short, a polarizer usually gives you much more pleasing images than photos recorded without the filter. I almost always have a polarizer on my lens when doing outdoor photography. To really understand when and how to use a polarizer refer to my recent post Seven Rules for Effectively Using a Polarizer.

"Here is a comparison of the same photo shot without (photo 1a) and with (photo 1b) a polarizer. It is easy to see how the contrast is reduced and colours are enhanced with the polarizer. In photo 1b, I used a Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer which not only reduced image contrast and created snappier colours, it added extra warmth to the scene with its built-in warming filter. I can’t imagine photographing landscapes without using a polarizer.

What Kind of Polarizer?
"When you are convinced that a polarizer is in your future, you’ll then need to decide which kind of polarizer to get. I like Singh-Ray’s LB Warming Polarizer for two reasons; first, the polarizer only absorbs just over 1 f-stop of light rather than the 2 f-stops which is typical of some other polarizers. Getting a little extra shutter speed is important if you photograph active subjects like wildlife or sports but want the benefit of a polarizer. Secondly, I like the lovely, subtle warm cast that is imparted with the LB Warming Polarizer. If you don't want the warming colour cast to your photos, then Singh-Ray’s LB Neutral Polarizer may be your best choice.

"Once you decide which polarizer, you need to decide if you will use a screw-in polarizer that attaches to the threads on the front of you lens, or if you are going to go with a filter holder system and use a drop-in polarizer. I discuss these options in detail in a previous article. Personally, I like to use a filter holder system on each of my lenses so I can easily transfer my polarizer from lens to lens and so I can add additional filters like ND grads in front of my polarizer for even more refined contrast control. Photo 2 shows a P-size filter holder that I use to hold a drop-in polarizer, which also has room for ND grad filters.

Graduated ND Filters Provide Local Contrast Control

"In landscape photography, skies are often much brighter than foregrounds and if you properly expose for the foreground, then the overexposed sky washes out. In photo 3, the top image was shot without a grad filter and the bright sky lost all detail. In the bottom image in photo 3, I used a Singh-Ray 3-stop hard-step ND grad filter to darken the sky to properly balance the exposure. From these images, we can see why an ND grad filter is often used to even out the exposure between the bright sky and the darker foreground of the landscape.

What Graduated ND Filters Do I Need?
"Graduated Neutral Density filters (ND grads) come in different strengths and types. Photo 4 shows the various kinds of ND grad filters. Starting at the top is a Singh-Ray P-size (84x120mm) hard-step filter. On the right, we see a larger Singh-Ray 4x6-inch size (100x150mm) ND Grad that has a soft-step transition. At the bottom is a P-sized soft-step ND Grad and to the left is a specialized P-size Reverse ND Grad filter. Each filter type comes in various strengths from 1-stop to 5-stops of density. The challenge for beginners is deciding which type of ND grad filter (hard-step, soft-step or reverse) and which density is most useful. After using ND grads for over 20 years, I have found that just 3 ND grads will cover more than 80% of my needs.

The 3-Stop Soft-Step ND Grad for Water Reflections
"I use a soft-step ND grad mostly for images of lake reflections where I have a foreground that is in the shade and I want to show detail across the frame. For example in Photo 5, I wanted to photograph a sunrise sky reflection but preserve the detail in the rocky shoreline and in the canoe. Without an ND grad, the sky becomes a pale wash. A 3-stop soft-step had enough density in the upper part of the filter to hold back the bright sky. The transition or ‘soft-step’ gradient area slightly darkened the reflection and the clear part of the filter kept the foreground bright. The image at right shows the end result--a perfectly exposed image using the 3-stop soft-step grad.

"The comparison in photo 6 shows a mountain reflection shot without any filters (left) and then with the 3-stop soft-step ND grad (right). The right image has a beautiful realistic tonality that was easily captured in camera just by using the grad filter.

The 2 and 3-stop hard-step ND grads for Defined Horizons or Defined Lines of Shadow and Light

"I use hard-step grads whenever I have a well delineated horizon line like on the prairie, desert or ocean. I also use a hard-step grad whenever I see that the line of shadow and light is well defined. The density of the grad I use (2 or 3-stops) simply depends on how bright the differences are between the shadow and light. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.

"In photo 7, when I properly exposed for the foreground rocks, the dramatic but brighter sky washed out (left image). Because the horizon line is well defined, a hard-step ND grad worked perfectly well here to hold back the bright sky. In this case, I used a 2-stop hard-step ND grad to even out the exposure (right image). Be careful not to use a filter that's too strong or else your skies will look overly dark and the image will look ‘off.' I will often start with the 3-stop hard-step grad first, look at the image on my camera’s LCD and then decide if the grad was too strong. If it is, I will then try my 2-stop grad for a less intense effect.

"In photo 8, the horizon is punctuated by the peaks of the mountains and so the horizon is not even. Nevertheless, the light on the mountain peaks is well defined and mostly forms a straight line which allows use of a hard step ND grad. The photo taken without the filter can be seen on the left, while the right side shows the effect with a 3-stop hard-step grad brought over the brighter part of the scene. To precisely place the grad so the hard edge of the ND grad lines up perfectly with the line of light, I used my camera’s depth-of-field preview button to see the effect of aperture on definition of the grad line. (For more information about how aperture choice affects the edge transition of grad filters refer to this article.)

"As a side note I also used another filter in the image on the right which is not a contrast control filter but is a special effects filter. I used the Singh-Ray 5-stop solid neutral density filter to increase exposure time so that the moving water in the scene recorded in a softer, more ‘mystical’ manner. To read more about how I use the 5-stop solid ND filter for creative effects see my article The Terrific Triple Threat.

"Often when I shoot at sunrise or sunset directly into the sun, a 3-stop hard-step grad is not strong enough to hold back the bright sky. In these situations, I will use both the 2 and 3-stop hard-step grads 'stacked' together to give me a density of 5-stops to hold back the bright sky. Often this one-two punch is enough to tame the contrast, as in photo 9 - shot with Singh-Ray 2 and 3-stop hard-step grads stacked over the area of sky.

Polarizers and Grads Can Work Together for the Ultimate in Contrast Control
"It is pretty easy to see the differences that filters can make in controlling nature’s often high contrast light. Polarizers are great for taming reflective highlights while Graduated Neutral Density filters are often used to hold down the brightness of sunlit areas or bright skies. When you combine a polarizer and an ND grad you can really begin to deliver a beautiful image that your camera’s sensor will love. In Photo 10, the contrast was just too much for the sensor to record detail across the scene.

"To help remedy the high contrast in this scene, the first filter I grabbed was my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer. The polarizer removed the reflective glare from the water and the algae to produce richer colours. The warming filter also helped remove the blue cast in the shadows. You can see the effects of the polarizer in photo 10 (center).

"In the finished photo 10 (right), I added a Singh-Ray 3-stop soft-step ND Grad because this is a reflection shot where I want the most density over the sky, a little density over the reflection and no density over the foreground. The 3-stop soft-step ND Grad gave me the additional contrast control I needed to balance the light in this scene.

My Essential Contrast Control Filter Kit
"Whenever I go out into nature to make images, I always have my four essential contrast control filters. My Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer helps me tame reflective glare and enhance colours and my three Singh-Ray ND Grads (2 and 3-stop hard-step and 3-stop soft-step) help me tame uneven light. With these filters, I can successfully photograph almost any scene. If you prefer to get the best possible captures 'in the camera' and wish to spend less time in post-production, then these four filters are the ticket."

To learn more about Darwin's photography and check his other educational resources, stop by his website or visit his blog for the latest information.