Friday, October 22, 2010

After suffering bad weather in the Canadian Rockies this year, Les Picker fondly recalls the summer of 2009

When he was 11 years old, Les Picker's dad bought him a 35mm SLR camera. Nearly five decades and a Ph.D. in environmental affairs later, he still loves to take photos and write about the natural world. "I think it was George Lepp who said there is no such thing as a bad day for a nature photographer. I’ve experienced all too many days in the field where conditions were so awful I wasn’t even able to snap the shutter, let alone snag a decent shot. But I was out there, communing with nature and loving every minute of the adventure.

"Along those lines, I recently returned from a photo shoot this summer in the Canadian Rockies, where 300 wildfires burned continuously and it rained half the time, it was the 'perfect storm' of photographic hell. For all my efforts I had very few usable images. I had to constantly remind myself to breathe and just enjoy the moment.

"Then again, there are those incredible days where the stars align and everything works. In fact, that's how it was during my trip to the Canadian Rockies in 2009 -- that trip more than made up for this summer's fiasco. Let me tell you about capturing these four images from that trip. I came upon this first scene (above) in Hillsdale Meadow in Banff National Park. It had just rained and the trees were beckoning, but the cloudless skies were not cooperating. Thirty minutes later, clouds began moving in rapidly. The challenge was to get the yellows in the trees to pop and, at the same time, balance the scene with the blue sky and billowing clouds.

"I used my Singh-Ray Warming Polarizer to saturate the leaves and slipped a Singh-Ray 3-stop, soft-step ND Grad into my filter holder. I fiddled with the angle of the ND Grad, but when the sun poked through some clouds to my right, it blew out the alpenglow on the peak. I decided to compensate a bit for that glow by adding another 1-stop ND Grad filter to hold back the peak. It also toned down the sky, but it was a sacrifice I was willing to make. For me the strength of the white tree trunks and yellow leaves carries the day.

"This next image is of Moraine Lake in Banff National Park. It was a frigid cold October day and it had snowed the night before. The day was miserable -- cold and damp -- and I waited for six hours for the clouds to break, so I could record a decent image. Since I had originally thought I’d get a shot right away, I didn’t take any food with me and by time the clouds parted just a bit, my blood sugar was low, my hands were shaking and I had a headache.

"This was a tricky lighting situation. The sky was completely clouded over all day, so when a patch of sky at the top of my composition showed some blue, my cable release quickly went to work. Up to that point, I hadn’t seen any reflections in the water due to windy conditions. Then, suddenly, it all came together. The wind died down for literally five minutes, enough for a reflection of the peaks, and then it was over. The sky completely clouded over and it started to alternately drizzle and snow.

"For this shot I used a 2-stop, soft-step Graduated ND filter, but when I looked at the histogram, I saw some blown-out pixels in the snow in the foreground. So, I added a 1-stop, soft-step graduated ND, placed in my holder upside-down, to hold back the snow and preserve some of its structure. Despite the dreary day, I came home with a few good shots and not the typical ones you see taken in sunny conditions. By the way, the water really is that lovely blue color -- the result of glacial melt and the minerals carried down from the mountains.

"This image is a classic Singh-Ray shot. I love technically challenging shots when I have the tools to deal with them. In this case, I was in Banff National Park and with sunset rapidly approaching and the sky not at all promising, I was daydreaming of downing a quick meal and hitting the sack.

"But this tiny pond beckoned, and for no more than three minutes the sky parted just enough for a few quick shots. My first images were horrible. I had blown out pixels from the sky and the pond reflections and the tree line was lost in shade and lacked detail. I quickly mounted a 2-stop, soft-step graduated ND filter on the top. Slightly better results, but the pond was still too hot and the snow right above the pond was a bit too bright. As the sky was closing very, very quickly, I pulled a 1-stop, soft-step Graduated ND out of my pouch and inserted it upside-down in my filter holder. Since it was graduated, it worked like a charm. I had the darkest part of the filter over the bright areas of the pond and the lighter gradient on the snow.

"This final example from that trip in 2009 is of Wedge Pond, just outside Calgary. I was already running late to catch my flight back east, but the allure of that pond near sunset was irresistible. I came to a screeching halt in the parking lot (not another soul was around) and I ran along the beach (I had my bear spray with me!) to get into position. I squeezed in a few shots before I realized I was in serious danger of missing my flight.

"One thing you gain after using Singh-Ray filters for a while is an intuitive sense of how they will work. I did not have time to get an exposure reading of the sky and a reading off the tree line, then figure out how many stops I needed for my graduated NDs. In this case I quickly pulled a Graduated 3-stop ND filter out of my belt pouch as I was setting up, snapped the images and ran back to the car, my knees caked in mud. But I did make my flight and came home with the goods."

Les is a professional nature photojournalist with more than 600 writing and photo credits in National Geographic publications, Forbes, Fortune Small Business, Better Homes & Gardens and dozens of other publications. You'll find samples of his work at He is also happy to answer photo questions at his blog site. Les wishes to express his thanks to Darwin Wiggett for introducing him to some of these locations and to Alan Ernst for his logistical help and advice.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cole Thompson explains how he uses long exposures to create his mystical black and white images

Fine-art photographer Cole Thompson creates his images and visual essays in dramatic black and white. His images involve the use of very long time exposures of 30 seconds to several minutes. "I have always been intrigued by monoliths, first by the statues on Easter Island, then by the monolith in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey and most recently by Stonehenge in England. In each case, seeing these monoliths prompts the question; Who built them and for what purpose? I’ve always loved visiting Bandon Beach in Oregon because of the natural monoliths strewn along the coastline. Randomly placed, it is as though the earth were God’s chessboard and the monoliths the pieces from an unfinished game. I've included several images of these Bandon Beach monoliths to illustrate my use of long exposures for my various monochrome print portfolios.

"I have often created my monolith images using long exposures of 30 seconds, but recently I found myself experimenting with daytime exposures of up to 5 minutes. In each case, whether 30 seconds or up to 5 minutes, the Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter was essential to creating these images. If you’ve ever tried such exposures with a fixed ND filter, you know the challenges. First, to compose you have to remove the filter because the filters are so dark you cannot see through the viewfinder. Second, when removing and replacing these filters you can accidentally change the focus or the focal length of your lens. Often you're not even aware of these lens movements until later, when it’s too late.

"When I mount the Vari-ND filter on my lens, I dial it to the minimum (Min) setting. At this point the filter has already added about 2 f-stops of density which is just enough to darken the image in the viewfinder a bit, but I can still see clearly enough to compose and focus accurately. I then rotate the front ring to increase the density by as much as 6 additional f-stops. When I need even more density, I stack the Singh-Ray Mor-Slo 5-stop ND Filter in front of the the Vari-ND to achieve up to 13 stops of density. This allows me to use very long exposures, even in full daylight.

"Here are some of the things I’ve learned about using very long exposures. First a tripod is a must and a remote shutter release is desirable. While it's true that slight camera movements do not seriously affect the very long exposure, it's best to eliminate vibrations as a "best practice" and because camera movement can ruin an image with a 5 second exposure or less. I shoot at ISO 50 at F22, put my camera into RAW/monochrome mode and set the exposure mode to manual.

"The most frequent question I am asked is how I determine my exposure. I use the in-camera meter for exposures up to 30 seconds, and beyond that I find I must extrapolate because the digital SLR’s I use only meter up to 30 seconds. With my camera set to F22 and 30 seconds, I dial my Vari-ND's density ring until my exposure is correct. To extrapolate for exposures longer than 30 seconds, I do the same thing but set the exposure to 2 f-stops below ideal and then quadruple the exposure in my head. If 30 seconds is what I’m metering for, then quadrupling brings me to a 120-second exposure.

"But strange as it seems, if I expose at 120 seconds, the image will be very underexposed. So I’ll generally expose at 300 seconds for a good exposure. I’m not sure why the 120 seconds doesn’t produce the correct exposure, but it could be due to some kind of digital equivalent to 'reciprocity failure,' which is a phenomenon experienced when shooting extra long exposures with film. The reason for such reciprocity failure with film is that the longer the exposure, the less effective the film is in recording the light and so the exposure length needs to be increased. In the case of my digital camera, when the meter says I need a 120 second exposure I extrapolate that reading and give it 300 seconds. It works for me.

Something else that is very important when using the in-camera meter is that I must completely isolate stray light from coming into the viewfinder and affecting the meter reading. To do this I use a Hoodman eye-cup which allows me to seal the viewfinder with my eye. This is essential for a correct exposure.

"Shooting long exposures at the beach creates a couple of additional challenges. Waves hitting the tripod legs will cause them to sink into the sand, ruining the exposure. I can either move out of the water line or build wide feet for my tripod that give it a larger footprint. The beach also has strong winds and a lens makes a great wind sail. I combat this by using a heavy tripod that allows me to hang a weight onto the center column to steady it. I also position myself between the wind and the camera and often turn my jacket up above my head and use it as a wind shield.

"Lastly, let me repeat that camera movement is the primary enemy of long exposures. Even the slightest movements can ruin the image. Sometimes it’s just not easy to detect this movement by checking the camera’s display. For this reason, I check every image with a hooded loupe which enables me to see the image clearly even outdoors.

"I have found extra-long exposures to be especially appealing to me, perhaps because they help convey nature as timeless. I've come to a point where the technique has become part of the message in my work. Choosing the length of the long exposure will control how that movement looks in both water and sky. Exposures from 2-30 seconds can give a completely different look in water while the longer exposures measured in minutes are usually needed to produce dramatic skies.

"There is no better tool than the Vari-ND to produce these types of images. As I’ve said before in my other Singh-Ray posts, this filter not only makes it easier for me to create these images, in many cases I could not have produced them without the Vari-ND."

To learn more about Cole's work check out his previous stories on this blog and pay a visit to his website and blog.