Friday, April 23, 2010

For a truly unforgettable walk in this park, make sure you take your filter kit along

A few weeks ago, Ernesto Santos traveled to Houston, Texas, to take care of some travel requirements for a trip he will soon be taking to Asia. "The Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China is located there," says Ernesto, "and while applying for a tourist visa, I decided to use some of my weekend downtime visiting the 5,000-acre Brazos Bend State Park -- recently named one of America's top 10 state parks. It's hard to believe that just 28 miles south of the towering skyscrapers of America’s fourth largest city, there's such an impressive array of lakes, prairies and bottomland hardwood forests. Among the numerous lakes there are marshy wetland areas, mature moss covered oaks and bald cypress which are home to thousands of wading birds, waterfowl, amphibians, and reptiles, including every visitor’s favorite, the American alligator. With a number of Singh-Ray filters in my bag, I was ready to get some interesting images and see if a ‘gator or two would pose for my camera.

"After my hike along the banks of Elm Lake, I found this field of daisies enjoying the lazy afternoon light. As the sun moved in and out of the clouds, I positioned my camera so that the overhanging branch of the oak tree in the foreground would just cover the top of the sun and create a sunburst effect. I set the aperture on my wide angle zoom to f/14, which gave me just a hint of the sun's rays without any lens flare. Once the camera was set just right, I hurriedly added my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer to enhance the colors, reduce glare, and add a little extra warmth to the scene. In backlit situations like this, I take steps to control the wide dynamic range of exposure levels created by shooting directly into the sun. Once the polarizer was in place, I grabbed the wallet containing my Singh-Ray ND Grads and pulled out a two- and three-stop hard-step filter, stacked them in my hand, and hand-held them in front of the lens as I took the shot.

"Earlier, while walking around the lake, I had my camera ready with a telephoto zoom and a Singh-Ray LB ColorCombo attached. Soon enough, I encountered a wide variety of creatures that make their living along the water’s edge. Here in these comparison photos is a Rio Grande leopard frog enjoying the afternoon sun. The difference between the filtered image and the non-filtered image is nothing short of astounding. This combination polarizer and color intensifier is the perfect filter for shooting sunlit critters an aquatic environment. The improvement is so obvious I will just let the images tell the story. I do want to mention that in post-processing the images for this comparison and the alligator images later in this story, I developed the 'with' and 'without' images exactly the same way. Both were simultaneously processed in Adobe Camera Raw using the same settings and then brought into Photoshop CS4 Extended for a final curve adjustment, cropping, adding a subtle vignette, and sharpening. With each pair of images the exact same adjustments were used in Photoshop.

"Here is my friend the ‘gator I had searched for all afternoon. There were many skulking around in the lake, but it wasn’t until later in the day that I finally came across one who didn’t mind me taking his picture. Here again, I used the ColorCombo Polarizer and the comparison is again dramatic and obvious. When shooting most subjects on a bright sunny day with water or wet surfaces in the scene, the use of a polarizer is almost mandatory. With the ColorCombo you can bring your outdoor images to a whole new level.

"Here's one more example of how well the ColorCombo can also work in semi-shaded, subdued lighting. This Yellow-Crested Night Heron is a very shy and reclusive wading bird. It was tough getting a sharp image of this small heron and this was really the only acceptable one of the series. Shooting at five frames per second I got a few but there was no way to remove the filter and get a comparison shot before he had enough of me and flew away. Even without the comparison shot you can see the deep color of the bird’s legs and eye and how the polarizer helped to tame the glare from the foliage in the foreground and the silt covered bayou water in the background.

"Now let's go back to the end of this fine day when I captured the image seen at the top of this story. Once I put the telephoto lens away, I waited with my wide-angle lens for the sun to set. After I had taken the shot of the daisy field I moved closer to the water’s edge and got this shot as the sun neared the horizon. This time I stacked a two-stop and three-stop ND Grad again and held the filters in front of the lens to get this image. Because the horizon was well defined and straight and was mostly in deep shadow jiggling the filters up and down was not necessary here.

"As I moved along the banks of the marshes, I found this small collection of interesting bald cypress against the fiery display of the setting sun. In this situation I wanted to make sure I was able to pull the grasses out of the shadow so I went with two 3-stop ND Grads stacked together. In this case I only had one soft-step and one hard-step but they would have to do. This image did require jiggling the filters and I took several exposures before I was able to get it right on the money, and then the day was done. Back in Houston, I realized again how useful my filters were in making this day's walk in the park so successful. I guess what’s unique about America is that even when visiting our great cities we are only a few minutes away from outstanding nature photography."

This will be the last story from Ernesto until late summer when he promises to start writing about his trip to Asia. Meanwhile, you can enjoy more of Ernesto's images from his home state and beyond by visiting his website and check the gallery of fine art prints, including a number of recent award winners.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What more can we do to produce images that will stand out from the crowd?

On his website, California nature photographer, Floris van Breugel, mentions that his first experience in the outdoors was a trip to the Grand Canyon when he was only a few months old. "My parents 'baptized' me as a son of nature under the sprinkling Ribbon Falls. They may have gotten more than they bargained for... Eventually, I settled on nature photography for my creative outlet as it combines my passions for the natural world -- discovery, innovation, excitement, and inner peace. I find, however, that in a world where nearly everyone owns a digital camera, it gets harder and harder to make images that truly stand out from the rest. The most important tool photographers have is our creativity. The trouble is, typically our creativity is limited to setting up the camera and doing the post processing. Whatever happens during the actual exposure is out of our hands – or is it?

"What if we could extend that brief moment of time to give ourselves the opportunity to actively participate in the creation of our image? Rather than standing behind the camera with the shutter release in our hand, restricted to what nature throws our way, we can get into the frame and influence the image as it is being exposed! In some cases we can get away with shooting in the dead of night, or in the depths of an underground cave. The image above is the result of creative illumination control on a collection of volcanic rocks embedded in a permanent ice floor at the bottom of an entirely dark lava tube cave. Were it not for my creative intervention into the scene, we would not be able to see any image at all!

"At other times a Neutral Polarizer and some fresh ideas might be all we need. To capture this image of a stream in the Adirondacks in peak fall color, I used the Neutral Polarizer to reduce glare as well as lengthen the exposure time. During that time, I dropped some red leaves up-stream of the frame to add a blood-red tint to the water flow, adding a level of intrigue to keep the viewer curious.

"Sometimes, however, we may need to lengthen the time of our exposure to give enough time to interact with the scene. That’s exactly what Singh-Ray's line of Neutral Density filters will allow us to do! For these two images, taken in the burned down forest of the San Gabriel Mountains shortly after a wildfire, I put on my Singh-Ray Vari-ND at maximum effect to give me an exposure time of five seconds, despite it being a bright and sunny day. During this long exposure time, I grabbed large handfuls of ash from the ground and threw them into the scene in various places to add a dusty and dirty atmosphere, conveying the terrible loss of the forest on a much deeper and more emotionally engaging level than a straight photograph would have accomplished.

"The Vari-ND can also help transform what might otherwise be considered sub-prime shooting conditions into unique images that truly capture more than just the visual sense. On a recent trip to Death Valley National Park to see the spring blooms, I was confronted with a constant breeze that swayed the taller flowers so much that making a sharp image was impossible. Rather than give up, I put on my Vari-ND to extend the exposure to 8 seconds to capture as much wind motion as possible.

"Next time you’re out looking for a way to really shake up your photography, consider using a Vari-ND or a Mor-Slo 5-stop solid ND filter and start interacting with the scene that you're photographing. Strong ND filters can be used for much more than smooth water flow and streaking clouds. You may find the creative possibilities are endless!"

Floris has had images featured in Digital Photo Magazine UK in three issues during this past year as well as a full-feature article in Living Bird on Burrowing Owls this past winter. He will also have an image coming out in Germany's Geo Magazine this May. In addition to conducting private workshops, Floris will be giving a talk at the Sedona PhotoFest this July on using new digital technology in the field. Again, stop by his blog, and check out his Flickr galleries, too for all his latest information and images.