Friday, November 26, 2010

Fine-art photographer Tony Sweet test drives the new Singh-Ray Vari-N-Trio filter

On December 15, Singh-Ray begins shipping the new Vari-N-Trio filter that combines a variable density filter, polarizer and color intensifier in one versatile filter. Tony Sweet is one of several pro photographers who have been field testing the new filter. Here's how Tony sees it.

"Bob Singh is not one to let any grass grow under his feet," says Tony. "The Vari-N-Trio is another breakthrough filter, providing a versatile new tool for creative photographers. In addition to its variable density feature -- up to 8 f-stops -- the Vari-N-Trio includes both a Singh-Ray Polarizer and a Color Intensifier to add extra color depth to my time exposures. Here's a good example of the three important ways this new filter works for me.

"During our recent New Hampshire workshop, I found the perfect opportunity to see what this new filter could do. After previously photographing the great water reflections on the Swift River many times -- a little differently each time -- I was getting to the point where I needed a completely fresh approach and this is where the Vari-N-Trio came in.

"Based on this 'no filter' image taken at the beginning of the session, I identified three challenges I felt could be best met by using the Vari-N-Trio: the initial 8/10-second exposure wasn’t long enough to produce the soft, silky feel I wanted to see in the water; the rocks had some distracting glare that I wanted to polarize out; and I wanted to do something more with the color. By using the Trio, I was able to address all three of these issues right in the camera.

"First, with the filter's density set to minimum to provide a viewfinder image bright enough to see the scene clearly, I rotated the two front rings together to adjust the polarizer until it eliminated the glare from the rocks. Then, I adjusted the density enough to increase my exposure to 25 seconds in this diffused but very bright scene. The increase in density enabled me to get the very fluid-motion look. When I examined the image on the computer, I quickly noticed how the Vari-N-Trio's built-in color intensifier added the slight color pop I was looking for. The result was a fresh new version of a scene I had often shot before during my 15 years of Fall workshops in the White Mountains.

"As a working professional photographer and instructor, I welcome the Vari-N-Trio as an important addition to our ever-changing arms race in modern digital imaging. I highly recommend it for all those among us who prefer to create our images right in the camera."

Tony's a very busy guy, and is currently working on two new book projects, a video, and a number of magazine articles. His 2011 Visual Artistry Workshop schedule is now online, with sessions filling up quickly. You can always keep up with Tony's activities by visiting his website or blog.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

For the photographer looking for a worthy challenge, Steve Kossack suggests taking on Big Bend

Veteran landscape photographer Steve Kossack recently conducted a five-day workshop in Big Bend National and State Parks along the Texas Rio Grande. "The state park follows the river to the west almost to the town of Presidio and provides much more access to the river than does the national park. The towns of Terlinqua and Lajatis provide culture and atmosphere that add a tremendous feel for the area in general.

"In today's climate of fear and hostility towards our neighbors to the south, there is little evidence of obvious tension other than maybe an increased number of border patrol vehicles in the park, and this is still only evident sporadically. All this had no impact whatsoever on our scouting trips or the actual workshop experience this year in the park. The greatest challenge for the outdoor photographer in Big Bend is probably the diversity of the landscape itself and how to photograph it! There aren't really any big 'E-Ticket' attractions. No Half Dome or Old Faithful's here. Nothing on the maps or brochures screaming, 'Be here tomorrow morning and bring your photo gear!' It's a land of contradictions. The beauty is distant and at the same time, at your feet -- and in your face! It's hostile and tranquil as well; and the flavor is hot (both in climate and food) and cool (as the distant sunsets take on a blue color cast). The landscape is flat and then jumps out towards the sky, and the sky is crystal blue and fire red! A river runs through it and a mountain range crowns it. At first glance this landscape might be described as underwhelming. But on the contrary, I found it more like overwhelming! And I found myself working hard to stay in the game. My hope was that some of my images would portray some of these things.

"The image at the top of this story was captured at sunset at Sotol Vista, a vast area that's one of the park's scenic highlights. To me, this view is Big Bend. We are focusing into Mexico! The distant canyons are the ones we were visiting and photographing just a day or so earlier. Huge and dominant, they now seem little more than a notch in the far distance. As the light started to fade, the sun was setting in the direction I wanted to detail. This was not to be an easy task. The unavoidable lens flare would either need to be included as part of the image or another composition at a different angle would need to be found quickly. I wanted the drama that the setting sun created, so I decided to fight instead of quit! Using one of the pouches that my Singh-Ray filters come in, I shaded the lens as much as possible while holding the actual filter in front of the lens. This caused some shaking of heads and some laughter among our workshop participants. Fortunately, most were busy with their own challenges, so I escaped serious humiliation. The image shown was produced with the LB ColorCombo and 4-stop hard-step ND Grad.

"This hillside pass in the Big Bend State Park is the steepest grade in Texas and gives a great perspective to the Rio Grande fading into the distance. If the vista from Sotol is the heart of the park, then this is its soul. On the left is Mexico across the river for as far as the eye can see. This quiet wilderness along our border is one aspect of Big Bend we don't often think of. Here again the almost impossible exposure problem was again solved the same way as before. After photographing the scene for over an hour, the shadows were fading quite dramatically and the orientation of the sun became an even bigger problem to solve. Throughout the shoot I kept changing filters. At first in the brighter light, I was using the ColorCombo and a 2-stop soft-step ND Grad. After the direct light had gone, I eventually captured this image by switching to the Color Intensifier and stacking my 3-stop soft-step and 4-stop hard-step ND Grad to render both the color and sky correctly and bring up some detail in the canyon.

"My goal for this image of the hoodoos was to portray the rugged and vast solitude bathed in glorious morning light. As I was coming up to this moon-like terrain in the dark, I felt the need to tell the story of this place with a vast, wide-angle view. After exploring various compositional options, I set to work trying to express that original impulse. The problems to be solved here were many! The foreground was a jumble of eroding sandstone on hillsides strewn with boulders and cactus. Most of the interesting rock formations were small. The 6,000-foot-plus Chisos Mountain range that I first viewed as a focal point were now just a distant ridge if I stayed with my composition.

"The solution was found in using a 24mm tilt/shift lens that helped with all this. The perspective was changed to bring the very small rock formation within just a few inches of the camera, so they could be seen clearly in the immediate foreground -- more upright and bigger. This composition now hid the distance between the shadowed foreground and sunlit background to give the feeling of infinity to the mountains some 10 miles away! Exposure was critical. Too much exposure in the foreground would create an unnatural look; too little would not show the detail I was seeing. I waited for the direct light to hit the left hoodoo giving balance to the one further in the distance on the right. I worked quickly at this point using the ColorCombo and 4-stop Hard-Step ND Grad.

"Here's one of my personal favorites from this trip because it is so different from any other images we captured. Yes, for me, emotion has a great influence on what I will do in any given situation. On the last morning of our workshop we all took up the challenge of a one-mile uphill hike in the dark to a ridge that gave us a view from a direction completely different from any we experienced on our five day outing. This panorama not only stretched all the way to the Sierra Del Carmen mountain range in Mexico, but it also provided us the rolling green gulches of the Chisos mountains at 6,000 feet, This viewpoint had it all. The mountains and deserts, the glow of the morning sky, and the windswept canyons. Foremost among these features was the lush green of the canyon foliage. Green is a dark color that hides in shadows because it does not reflect light. It is also a difficult color to manipulate in post-processing. In this case, our difficulties were further heightened by a soft breeze that made movement yet another problem. The LB Color Intensifier was chosen since it has only a 2/3-stop filter factor which allowed me to use a faster shutter setting. I then added my 4-stop soft-step ND Grad to balance the light in the sky with that on the foreground."

Steve is currently planning trips to Yosemite in February and Death Valley in March. For more information and images of Big Bend stop by his website and check out his workshop schedule.