Friday, June 11, 2010

Before heading for that workshop, consider the kind of images you're likely to find there

Whenever veteran freelance photographer Brian Rueb leads a photo workshop these days, there's one topic he knows will come up. "There are always lots of very basic questions about filters. Recently, as I was planning for a workshop in the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon, I tried to imagine how someone with no previous experience -- someone taking a workshop for the very first time -- might approach the process of choosing and using filters.

"Singh-Ray makes a variety of filters that can be useful in a slew of different locations and landscapes. Depending on where your workshop will be -- and when -- you'll find that some filters will prove more useful than others. That's why the first thing to do after signing up for any workshop is to consider the location you're going to be in. When I began thinking about all this a few months ago, I knew our next workshop would be in the Columbia River Gorge. I also realized the area was well known for its massive waterfalls and lush, mossy-green canyons.

"The first filter I chose for the workshop was the Vari-N-Duo which combines an LB Warming Polarizer with the variable density control. I knew this versatile filter is very useful for photographing the many waterfalls in the area, either by cutting glare on the water and foliage, or in some cases by also providing a bluer sky. In addition to its polarizing feature, this variable density filter would allow me to slow down my exposures to create nice, silky looking water in all types of light. Remember, when you’re using this filter, to always keep your camera's ISO setting at the lowest number to maximize the length of the time exposure you're able to get. Also, it’s a good idea to cover up the eye-piece when you’re taking longer exposures in the middle of the day.

"When capturing this image, I used the Vari-N-Duo filter to really play with the lighting on the water. The filter's variable density control allowed me to get a very long exposure which softened the texture of the water. At the same time, I was able to achieve excellent color saturation by using the polarizer to control any glare and reflections in the foreground. The resulting image is one I was quite happy with.

"The second filter I chose for this trip was the LB Color Intensifier. Many of the waterfalls in the gorge are located in the dark recesses of canyons, and the fact that the very slight density of this 'lighter, brighter' filter does not detract from the clarity of the image in my viewfinder, really helps when I am trying to deal with very broad areas of focus. Every bit helps. The big advantages of this filter is the way it helps make colors pop, especially earth tones and greens. There were more than enough shades of green in the gorge for this filter to really prove its worth. This image is a great example of how my Color Intensifier so often proves invaluable. This seldom-seen waterfall really needed every bit of brightness possible to make sure the image was as sharp as possible -- and was able to bring out the lushness of this location to viewers.

"The third filter I chose for the Columbia River Gorge workshop would be one or more of the Singh-Ray Graduated Neutral Density Filters. A lot of people might question the use of an ND Grad in a canyon with waterfalls, however, in my opinion it makes perfect sense. Many of these waterfalls feature a rush of very bright white water thundering out of the canyon wall. I find that creating an exposure that allows the foreground to be properly exposed without blowing out the bright waterfall behind it is very difficult without my ND Grads. The image of Ponytail Falls at the top of this story shows just such a contrast between the white water and the much darker foreground. If I had not used my ND Grad to balance this exposure, it would have either blown out the white water or left me with a very dark foreground. This image shows how nicely the 3-stop soft-step ND Grad filter did its job. I also used my LB Color Intensifier again to slightly accent the greens.

"By doing a little research in advance, and reading several blog stories about the filters Singh-Ray offers, I was able to select the filters that would suit me best for this trip. I'm also better prepared to advise first-time workshoppers on preparing their filter kits ahead of time. I would also advise any workshop student to practice with their filters a bit before going to a workshop. When you’re in the workshop, instructors may not have the knowledge to help you with your filters; so having an idea of how to use it prior to embarking on a photo trip is a wise investment of time. Instructors also usually have many students to work with, and if you arrive with a basic knowledge of your filters, it will help them help you.

"One of the questions I get quite often is, 'Is there a basic set of filters you use more than others'? The answer is yes, I use a polarizer and a soft-step ND Grad filter for 90% of my images. With those two filters, even beginners can take some giant steps to improving the exposure balance and color saturation in all their landscape images. Then come the more specialized Singh-Ray filters, which really open up a wide array of creative possibilities. As mentioned above, the color intensifier can be very useful when trying to bring out the vibrant colors of places like the Columbia River Gorge, or the red-rock areas of the American southwest.

"The final suggestion I would offer any first-time workshop student is to experiment with different combinations of filters. I use the soft-step ND Grads with various other ring-mounted filters. What you’re doing when you combine filters is developing your images in the field, thereby saving yourself a lot of time on the computer when you return home. By far the most important realization is that your filters actually work. By starting with a few basic filters and learning how they work, they will soon help transform your images in ways that will amaze you."

Brian Rueb is a professional wildlife and landscape photographer based in Northern California. A full-time instructor with the Aperture Academy in San Jose, he's currently on a 65-day photo trip around Iceland with a full kit of Singh-Ray filters. To check out more of Brian's work, or follow his Iceland trip in real time you can visit his website.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Successful wildflower photography, Part 2: Ideas to improve your wildflower images

This is Part 2. To read Part 1, click here.

Kevin McNeal is the first to say he's still learning how to fully capture the beauty and excitement of wildflowers. "I only know that photographing wildflowers," says Kevin, "is one of the most challenging yet rewarding aspects of my nature photography. Every February -- as I head south from my home in Seattle to launch the spring wildflower season in California's vast Anza-Borrego Desert State Park -- I try to review what I've learned so far.

"In terms of immediate visual impact, it's hard for any photographer to imagine a more inviting scene than a field of wildflowers. For me, however, I've come up with a few rules to remember when I enter a field carpeted with wildflowers. If I'm not careful, the color and variety of what lies in front of me can quickly overtake my judgment. If I were to allow my senses to take over, I could quickly end up shooting haphazardly without any plan for creating harmony in a field of chaos. Whenever I feel sensory overload has occurred, I step back and approach the entire scene again; this time applying an entirely new perspective. It is vital to create a composition that ties the foreground into the background and with all the layers between.

"When trying to select the wildflowers that will make the most effective foreground, look for those that complement the scene. This means choosing colors that will harmonize with each other, and making sure the image is not compositionally one sided (meaning that not all the wildflowers are on one side of the image) and that there are no huge pockets of empty space. I arrive a couple of hours early to scout for pleasing foregrounds that compositionally stir a mood within me. I look for wildflowers that face into the camera. Also, it really enhances the image when the wildflowers fan out from the middle creating a pleasing path for the viewer to follow. Make sure to check along the outer edges that nothing is included that would distract the viewer from the foreground flowers. I set up my tripod to tilt the camera forward at a 45° angle to exaggerate depth and include multiple layers within the image. Then I examine the foreground flowers for vitality, color, and detail. I try to avoid including flowers that are past their peak or broken. I try to pre-visualize how I see the wildflowers and how they relate to the rest of the scene. Do they invoke an emotion within me and how can I convey this photographically? Shooting low and close to the foreground flowers will exaggerate the depth in the image by making the foreground flowers appear larger than they really are. This near-far perspective accentuates the foreground to immediately draw the viewer into the foreground. When positioning the camera, I not only make sure the lens focuses as close to the wildflowers as possible but I also make sure each flower is tack sharp. I've learned to avoid including any flowers that will be out of focus.

"Blurring of foreground flowers can occur for several reasons all of which must be avoided. These are the main reasons; not using a tripod or remote cable release, movement or vibration of the camera, and the presence of wind. It is essential to shoot wildflower images with a sturdy tripod and strong ballhead. Also, a cable release will prevent vibrating movement caused by pressing the shutter button. It does not take much to cause motion blur within the image. After I shoot an image, I review it on the LCD at 100% to check for sharpness. I do not wait until it's too late to return to the scene and reshoot. I often use a loupe in the field to make sure the images are sharp enough when zoomed in so I can later print large.

"Another thing that can cause my foreground flowers to be blurred is a strong wind. This is where shooting wildflowers can get technically complicated. It is almost always possible to achieve sharpness in foreground flowers even if there is considerable wind. To do this, I start shooting with my camera's ISO set at about 2400. This permits me to use a very fast shutter speed and make sure I have at least one image where the foreground flowers are sharp. I then back down my ISO settings as I bracket a series of slower exposures until I finally reach ISO 200. This procedure ensures that I have at least one image that is tack sharp. Later in post processing, I can review the images starting at ISO 2400 working my way down to the settings where the flowers begin to blur. I generally find a balance of sharpness below ISO 800 but I have processed ISO 2400 images without experiencing too much trouble with noise.

"Another strategy I like to use when shooting wildflowers is to use fill light in the foreground and allow me to achieve a faster shutter speed. The fill light also can reduce any harsh contrast. I especially like to use this technique during the hours around sunrise and sunset when there's less ambient light and slower shutter speeds increases the chance for movement in the foreground flowers. Fill light can be provided by any of several sources -- a reflector, a flashlight, headlamps, LED lights or any type of speedlight. The important thing is that the light brightens the foreground flowers enough to allow the use of a faster shutter speed."

To learn more about Kevin's workshop schedule and keep up with his other current projects, be sure to stop by his website and enjoy more of his recent wildflower images.