Friday, March 19, 2010

Winter in Yosemite workshoppers find some new challenges and many beautiful surprises

The 400-plus miles of interstate highway between Steve Kossack's home in Cottonwood, Arizona, and California's Yosemite National Park is always paved with high expectations and lasting memories. "Yosemite is for me a walk among the giants, figuratively and literally, and the Yosemite Valley is especially magical. I'm never short on inspiration when I'm there in what some of us call 'the best seven square miles on the planet.' Any season is the right season to be photographing in Yosemite, but it always presents some special challenges. We encountered several interesting ones during our workshop in February.

"This sunset view of the Yosemite Valley was a challenging exposure to say the least! I took a guess at seven to nine stops of light difference between the bright overhead sky and the shaded trees in the foreground. I was primarily concerned about properly exposing the lovely light on the 3,000-foot granite face of El Capitan seen on the left.

"Although I worked this scene continuously for over 45 minutes, in the end I only had 3 images that had the light evenly balanced across the entire frame as needed. Most of the the exposure challenges were addressed by combining four Singh-Ray filters. First a 4-stop hard-step Graduated ND helped subdue the very bright sky exposure, but I still needed to further subdue the light on the valley areas beyond the ridges. Next was the addition of a 3-stop Reverse ND Grad to further reduce the exposure of the highlighted El Capitian on the left of the frame. This unique filter is designed with its heaviest gradient density close to the filter's center, which was just what was needed here. Because I wanted to reveal even more detail in the foreground shadows, I added a 2-stop soft-step ND Grad which increased the exposure by 2 more f-stops, giving me enough exposure to record the deep foreground of the forest floor. Finally, the overall color was helped along by the use of the LB Color Intensifier. Yes, it was a long way to go, but I think the result was well worth the additional time and effort.

"This image also deserved a lot of help -- in terms of both its composition and exposure technique. The sky was nearly as white as the snow cover on the mountain. The reflected image in the foreground was the main feature in this image and I chose to adjust my LB Warming Polarizer to cut through the reflection just enough to reveal the pine needles under the water's surface. Without any detail to speak of in the sky, the foreground had to carry the composition. Working with the subdued skylight that I refer to as 'nature's soft box,' the challenge as I saw it was to keep the reflected image of the mountains dominant and compensate for the lost detail in the sky by finding an exposure that would convey the feeling of the approaching storm. That was achieved by metering directly off the sky. In short, I needed to create a feeling that I could sense but not see. The sky and snow cover were held back with a 4-stop soft-step Graduated ND filter which gave a much brighter view of the row of trees in the middle ground. I experimented with both the Gold-N-Blue Polarizer as well as the ColorCombo with some success as well, and I have good frames taken with each. It was clear, however, that the LB Warming Polarizer produced the best results by saturating the earth tones while providing the desired effect in the reflection.

"White snow... blue sky. It was an age-old challenge made even tougher by the direct light of the rising sun reflecting off the granite cliffs above. A heart-stopping scene to be sure, but a perplexing one as well. I thought a composition without the highlighted granite would be too confining and would not give the eye a place to land. To maximize the effect of this dramatic composition, I realized the exposure would be the real challenge. The solution began with applying the old rule of overexposing snow two-plus stops for a nice white tone. (If you don't over-ride the meter, the camera will see white as 18% gray and that's exactly what it will be in the image... gray!) Next was the choice of a 4-stop hard-step ND Grad and then -- after looking at my histogram -- adding a 2-stop, soft-step ND Grad. I like the effect I get by stacking hard-step and soft-step filters which slightly softens the gradient line. To compensate for the filters, I then opened up 2 more stops. In the image shown here, I added the LB ColorCombo to enrich the glow of the granite. Although the Warming Polarizer was also used in different frames, I liked the heightened earth tones and thought the reflected blue of the sky gave presence to the chill of this cold winter day.

"As the face of upper Yosemite Falls in the background became bathed in the golden glow of morning light, the shadowed areas -- which in this composition are dominant -- took on a huge, blue color cast due to the reflective light of the Sierra blue sky. A warming filter was an obvious choice, but with the Singh-Ray Warming Polarizer, I could also control the amount of reflection and still reveal the texture of the river bed in the foreground. The use of a 3-stop, soft-step ND Grad helped raise the exposure in the shadows to more accurately render the snow covered trees as well. The real key here was the sky -- although they are a seemingly small part of the image, the wispy cloud streaks were there like arrows pointing directly to the trees. If it were just about the falls this would have been a completely different composition. With the light changing very fast I went through the ND Grad possibilities to pick the best balanced image to work with in post processing. In the image shown here, I decided that an almost balanced exposure between the falls and its reflection gave the best rendering of the shadowed trees. In most cases, this would have provided an unnatural effect -- something not possible in nature. Here it worked!

"Here's a favorite trick of mine. Coming across a scene I've photographed many times before -- such as this one -- only to discover that the river now was moving so fast that I could not see the mirror-like reflection I was expecting. What there was of the reflection was muted and dull. The Vari-N-Duo to the rescue! I've learned that, by slowing the exposure time considerably, I can smooth out the movement of the current and create a much calmer mood, or at least different look. This image is a 30-second exposure using the Vari-N-Duo which produced a pronounced muted glow. The polarizer built into this filter is a great help in eliminating the stacking of filters. The reflecting glare has been cut back and the shadows warmed. A 3-stop hard-step ND Grad allowed the river's reflection to be increased by 2 stops."

If you'd like to learn more about joining the fun at one of Steve's upcoming workshops in Glacier National Park this July, or the Yosemite High Country in August, be sure to stop by his website for complete details.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It's time to use your Singh-Ray filters in new ways to solve even more lighting challenges

You could certainly call Adam Barker a "working" photographer, as in very busy and successful. When you begin looking through the many examples of Adam's work on his blog and website, however, you quickly discover his versatility. Adam is successfully doing all kinds of photography -- action sports, architecture, landscapes, travel. . . "My career is still in its infancy," he says, "yet I’ve already been fortunate to shoot a wide range of imagery for a wide array of clients. The point I want to make is that I always, always have my Singh-Ray filters with me, whether I’m on a scenic landscape shoot, racing first light for the next commercial client, or doing interior shots for an architect. I find my filters are essential regardless of where and what I'm shooting -- because the basic challenge is always to help the camera’s sensor see what my eye sees.

"As photographers we are eager to produce images that say something special about our subject -- as well as our photographic skills. I find that applying my Singh-Ray filters in less conventional ways helps me deliver superior images. Sure, I could use artificial lighting in many of these situations, but filters are faster and far less cumbersome. Here are some examples of successful images made by using Singh-Ray filters is a different, less conventional way.

The image above was made at Deer Valley Resort in Utah. When shooting for a client, it’s important to understand what message they are trying to convey through photography. I enjoy shooting architectural work, particularly those projects designed in the mountain lifestyle genre. Because I live the mountain lifestyle, myself, I understand what it is people hope for when visiting a world class resort. They hope for cold outside and warm inside. They hope for a larger-than-life winter wonderland. They hope for cozy, comfortable and TBD (to be discovered). I conveyed this feeling by enhancing the warm appearance of the lodge on a cold winter’s evening. A 2-stop hard-step Graduated Neutral Density filter was used to balance and slightly darken the sky, giving a natural vignette that draws the eye directly to the lodge. Dusk is a fantastic time to use ND Grad filters, since the rich blue sky is deeply saturated and void of harsh contrast.

"This second image embodies two of my life’s greatest pleasures: skiing fresh powder, and the warm, soft glow of first light. Images like this require foresight, preparation and a desire to capture something not many others can. I am a big believer in capturing nothing less than a complete image. There are countless photographers out there who could shoot a similar image, but the sky would simply be void of detail, tone and color.

"With my background in scenic photography, I’m always particular about making sure the sky is given proper attention, regardless of whether it is a secondary part of the image or not. I hand held a 3-stop Reverse ND Grad on this image to ensure no detail was lost. The result is a pleasing, complete image, with pink light so sweet you could drink it up, and a sky with detail to boot.

"There are two key things to remember when shooting an image like this with a hand-held filter: First, be sure to communicate with your skier exactly where you’d like the turn/action to take place. Second, find the proper position for your filter, and don’t move with the skier -- keep your camera steady and resist the urge to pan with the skier. This will ensure your initial filter placement doesn’t get skewed and lend an unnatural look to parts of the image.

"This next image shows a classic commercial scenic image. It’s not too far off from what many of us do when heading out for a standard scenic sunset shoot: we find an engaging composition, hope for great sunset light and shoot away.

"This image was made during an editorial shoot for Volkswagen’s Das Auto magazine in Saguaro National Park. The art director for the shoot stood there, mesmerized, as he watched the 4-stop Reverse ND Grad work its magic, effectively bringing the image to life on the live-view display. One thing worth mentioning is the incredible advantage that live-view shooting offers us. If your camera has live-view, make a habit of using it! It’s so much easier to pinpoint the gradient lines when using ND Grads, checking the histogram to see in real time how the filter is balancing out your exposure.

"This past winter I have been shooting a great deal of architectural imagery. I am a student of existing light (read: I’m terrible with flash photography). Interior lighting can certainly pose some unique challenges when shooting architectural imagery. My preferred time to shoot is at dusk or dawn, when the outdoor light balances with the interior light, and you get that soft purple glow in the windows. (Please note that there are countless other ways to shoot architectural imagery, this is simply my preferred method and style).

"Even if the exterior/interior lights are properly balanced, however, there still may be hot spots in your image. On a whim, I began using my soft-step ND Grad filters to balance out these lighting issues. The results were more than pleasing, and before long I found myself shooting with ND Grad filters indoors as much as I do outside. Soft-step grads are the perfect filters for this type of imagery because there is little or no risk of seeing a defined filter line. Try experimenting with your Graduated ND filters the next time you're shooting interior architectural images -- it’s much less expensive than an extensive lighting system, and there’s no setup at all!

"These last two images demonstrate classic uses for a Reverse ND Grad filter. I am a sunstar fanatic, and have found that with the combination of my 3-stop Reverse ND grad and my Canon 16-35mm MkII (along with a little help from Mother Nature), I’m able to create dynamic images rich in color and detail, with the added bonus of a sharp, succinct sunstar. The ideal time to capture images like this is just as the sun is either cresting above or dipping below the horizon line. The cactus image, shot in the Tucson Mountain Park, was created at sunset. The fly fishing image on Utah's Middle Provo River was shot at sunrise. The 'perfect opportunity' will last only a few seconds for this type of image, so take special care to find your composition and adjust your camera settings early to allow yourself time to take advantage of the moment when the sun is just hitting that horizon line. Take special care to stop your lens down to at least f/16 to ensure a tight, defined sunstar.

"Regardless of the photographic ventures you take on in the months ahead, consider possible ways to use your Singh-Ray filters in some new way to produce a better image. Maybe it's a lifestyle shoot, an aerial shoot or your latest creative project... just don’t leave your Singh-Ray filters behind. The subject and purpose of the images may change, but the basic lighting challenges often remain the same. Apply your scenic landscape experience to other genres of imagery and you will find you can often create magic wherever you go."

To see more of Adam’s work, visit his website, or for weekly instruction and insight, check out his blog, or become a fan on his Facebook page. If you found this post insightful, you may be interested in his newly released instructional DVD on capturing the complete outdoor image.