Friday, September 03, 2010

How Michael Kish gets more drama in his images by "squeezing more light levels onto the sensor"

"As a professional nature photographer, I’m always in search of dramatic light," says Michael Kish. "After all, it’s actually the light on the subject that we are capturing. I may find a grand scene laid out before me, but if the light illuminating the scene isn’t interesting, then the photograph won’t be either.

"The most dramatic light nature has to offer is usually found early in the morning or at day's end. Interesting and dramatic light, however, is also the most problematic to control. The most common problem is 'squeezing down' and recording the greater dynamic range in such scenes. That's because the sensors in our cameras can only capture about 7 to 8 f-stops of light, whereas the range of exposures between the brightest areas of the sky and the dimmest areas in the foreground in a dramatic landscape can often be closer to 10 or 12 f-stops.

"So how do I control the brightness of a scene's high dynamic range? I could take multiple images at three or more different exposure settings and then use HDR software to combine the 'best exposed' parts of each image into a composite photo. The problem with this technique is that nature doesn’t hold still just because I'm photographing it. HDR rendering might work for some types of photography but I find there are too many variables involved with nature photography that affect the outcome of my images. I like to get my images right in the camera -- as they're captured in the field. I do this by using Singh-Ray Graduated ND and Reverse Graduated ND filters to balance the various exposure levels within the scene. And how do I know when to use an ND Grad filter? Whenever the brightest and the darkest areas of the scene are more than five or six f-stops apart as indicated by my camera's spot meter or histogram.

"I often combine two or more filters to achieve the look I’m going for. The image you see at the top of this story was made on the Oregon coast near Coos Bay. In order to capture this fleeting moment, I had to overcome several lighting challenges. The light from the sun was very bright in comparison to the foreground illumination. With my camera's spot meter, I made one light reading of the rocks in the foreground and another reading of the sky off to the right where the sky and horizon intersect. The exposure difference was about 5 stops altogether, which prior experience told me would require a Graduated ND filter that could hold back about 4 stops of light. For this image I used two ND Grads: a 3-stop Reverse Grad and a 1-stop soft-step. The filters were stacked together with the edges of their gradients placed where the water and sky meet on the horizon. With this combination of grads I was able to hold back the bright sky while maintaining a sufficient exposure for the foreground elements. I could have used a 4-stop Reverse Grad but the transition from water to sky would have been too abrupt. Using the 1-stop grad along with the 3-stop Reverse, made it easier to feather the transition from water to sky and thereby create a more realistic image without any abrupt transition from light to dark.

"This next image is one of the most dramatic images I ever captured. I feel extremely blessed to have witnessed this awesome display in the Painted Hills of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in central Oregon, near the town of Mitchell. On this particular day I wasn’t really expecting such a dramatic scene to unfold. The entire day was clear and sunny. I wouldn’t have guessed a thunderstorm was brewing. In fact, I almost left about 2 hours before I made this image because the light didn’t look very promising. But for whatever reason, I decided to wait it out, and I’m glad I did!

"In order to make this image happen I needed to focus on the intensity of the clouds. My main concern was to get the clouds dead right. They were moving and the light was changing rapidly. Without even thinking, I pulled a 3-stop soft-step ND Grad from my cargo pocket (I carry all of my grad filters in my cargo pockets for quicker access.) and hand held the filter in place over the horizon while moving it up and down slightly during the exposure to better feather the transition line. In a situation like this where I must make quick decisions, it's very impractical to use a filter holder or even my office clip method to attach the filter to the lens. I needed to act fast and hand holding the filter was the best option. Within minutes the clouds broke up and the drama was over. A fleeting moment is precisely that, fleeting -- fortunately I was able to capture this one.

"In this early morning image of Bandon Beach, I had to deal with two challenges. First, the sky, and then the water's surface. The sun was rising behind me, off to my right, which created some dramatic side lighting. I knew right from the start I needed to capture as much detail as possible in both the beach and the grass in the foreground. If I had just taken the picture based on the evaluative metering in my camera, with no filters, both the sky and the waves would have been overexposed, which would have washed out both color and detail in those parts of the image. Instead, I used my in-camera spot meter and measured the light on the grass in the foreground and then made a second light reading of the beach right where it meets the water. The difference in exposure levels between these two locations was about 2 f-stops. I then made a third light reading of the sky off to the far right of the image on the horizon where the sky meets the water. The difference in exposure from the first reading and the third reading was just under 4 f-stops of light. I decided to use one filter for this particular situation. I positioned a 3-stop soft-step grad at an angle right in line with the edge of the beach. I hand held the filter and moved it slightly up and down during the exposure to better feather the transition between dark and light. This took care of the sky, but the water was still a little washed out. I was able to recover the few highlights that were overexposed in my raw processor, but most of the heavy lifting was accomplished in the field using my ND Grad.

"The Sierra Nevada Mountains are simply amazing! This past March, I made my first trip ever to see them while I was on a photo trip in California. I was completely taken by their rugged beauty! Fortunately, I already have a return trip planned for this Autumn! The sunset on my last day was the best one of the whole trip. The valley was somewhat hazy but nonetheless it was a memorable sight to behold.

"With this image, I needed to hold back the sky a bit and I needed to deal with the haze that had formed on the mountains. I used my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer to cut through the haze as well as a 2-stop soft-step ND Grad to hold back the sky. I positioned the transition line of the ND Grad right above the silhouetted rocks in the foreground. Normally I would spot meter a scene like this, but I instinctively knew by judging the light that I needed about 2 f/stops of neutral density. Over time, I have become more skilled at 'reading' the light and can make faster decisions. This image was relatively easy to photograph due in large part to my Singh-Ray Filters. Having the right equipment and knowing how to use it makes all the difference!

"If you have never been to the Tom McCall Nature Preserve, located on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, a bit west of Rowena Crest, by all means make an effort to visit this marvelous place. This image was taken there about an hour before sunset. This presented a problem because the sun was still above the horizon and caused the clouds to be extremely bright and well outside my camera's dynamic range. The foreground was also very bright. The trees you see in the middle of the frame were in shadow and weren’t really affected by the bright sunshine. So my focus was to hold back the light on both the foreground and the sky while at the same time leaving the trees in the middle part of the frame unfiltered. Tricky! Well, not really. I simply used two filters. I positioned a 3-stop soft-step ND Grad over the sky with the transition line falling just below the ridge in the background. I then placed a 1-stop soft-step ND Grad turned upside down with the dark side over the grass in the foreground with the transition line meeting just below the trees in the middle of the frame. By doing this I was able to compress the dynamic range just enough to retain detail in the foreground and in the brightly lit sky. I wouldn’t have even tried photographing this scene in my early days -- before Singh-Ray filters -- because one part of the image would be either completely overexposed or underexposed. In-camera light meters are easily tricked in situations like this because the light intensity varies greatly throughout the image.

"And how do I attach my ND Grads to my lens? There are several articles on this blog that discuss various ways to do it. Some photographers mount a filter holder on their lens while others prefer to hand hold their filters. I find both methods work great in certain situations, but most of the time I use my 'office clip' method described briefly in my August 18, 2009 entry on this blog. As I said earlier, knowing when and how to use ND Grads will prove extremely valuable whenever you're in the field photographing, but don't wait until you're on your dream vacation to start learning."

Michael is based in Oregon and conducts frequent workshops along the west coast. You'll find more information and more images posted on his website and blog.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

It's clear that Jackson Echols is off to an excellent start as nature photographer and artist

In 2006, he was one of eight winners of college student scholarships awarded by NANPA -- North American Nature Photography Association. As he approaches graduation next spring with his studio art degree from the University of Alabama-Birmingham, 23-year-old Jackson Echols can look back on a number of extra-curricular achievements and some very fine images. In the first category, Jackson's photos have appeared in several exhibitions and publications -- including the 2010 Photographer's Forum Best of College Photography. As for his images, we're posting two examples here. (Be sure to click on each image to fully appreciate it.)

"I was traveling throughout the Moab area of Utah last summer when I created the image above during a three-day backpacking trip in Canyonlands National Park. I used my Singh-Ray LB Color Intensifier to subtly enhance the already-dramatic late summer light falling on the rocks beyond this teardrop-shaped cave opening. An interesting element in this remarkable scene are the scores of miniature rock towers that hikers before me had assembled around the opening.

"I composed this photograph to mirror the shape of the little ‘towers’ with the surrounding cave and the striking shape of the cave opening. In addition to using the LB Color Intensifier, I 'gelled' a small shoe-mount flash with a warm orange color filter and popped it while the exposure was being completed to light up the interior of the cave with light that would be similar to the white balance of the outside light. If I hadn’t used the flash, the cave interior would have become a flat silhouette, which would have resulted in a somewhat flat image with much less visual depth. While I might have used HDR techniques to simulate this look in Photoshop later, I prefer to carry several flashes with me so that I can augment the natural light and create my final composition in-camera. I used my Nikon D200 with a 12-24mm f/4 lens and a Nikon SB-600 flash.

"This next image was created on Fuji Velvia 50 color film in a Nikon F100 camera during my senior trip after graduating high school back in June of 2005. I chose to travel to Olympic National Park in Washington and then up the coastline to Pacific Rim National Park in British Columbia. This image is a variation on the classic view of Marymere Falls, near Crescent Lake in the interior portion of the park. The hike to the falls was an easy one, covering only half a mile from the lodge at Crescent Lake.

"Once I arrived at the viewpoint for the waterfall, I did a quick scout of the area for alternate views than the typical straight-on flat perspective. I was inspired by the sheer size and texture of the old-growth Douglas firs that stood around the falls and its runoff. I used my wide-angle lens (17-35mm) to incorporate a particularly interesting tree trunk into the image of the waterfall. After setting up my composition, I waited for the sun to pass behind the clouds in order to capture the scene with softer light. This soft light, in addition to a Singh-Ray Neutral Polarizer, provided both a longer exposure to blur the water and a soft glow to the surrounding foliage.

"Although my photographic career began with landscapes -- and nature photography will always run through my veins," says Jackson, "I have recently been working on a variety of fine art projects alongside my nature work." A visit to Jackson's website will reveal these efforts in greater detail.