Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Joel Addams elaborates on the value of using filters to make the most of outdoor light

From his home base in Utah, professional outdoor photographer Joel Addams is actively taking on more international travel projects. "Since I work mainly with natural light or a combination of artificial and natural light, I have developed a rather specific approach to the challenges of getting the light right.

"I like to start with the basic variables -- or 'qualities' -- of natural light. Let's begin by saying natural light is either bright or dark. (Oh geez, you’re saying, really? Are we starting here?) The answer is yes because most other issues are pretty easy once you get a feel for how light or dark things are.

"When reviewing student images during our field workshops, I am continually asked what would make this image better? My most common answer is that the shot is too dark, overall. Beginners don’t fully understand that images should be dark only if they were meant to be dark! Underexposed images are the photographer’s first bane. Look for light; then look for interesting light. Learn to evaluate your images for brightness and clarity in all the areas that should be bright and clear. Learn to read your histogram.

"The color of light is a second basic variable that should be understood by the photographer using natural light. Visible light comes in a spectrum of color temperatures (measured in Degrees Kelvin) from cool blue (partly cloudy sky) to warm red/yellow sunrise. Now you’re wondering... why not green? or pink? Well, you can have green or pink light but it’s pretty rare. Green light usually comes only in nature when it is filtered through leaves and pink light does indeed appear, but usually as part of a spectrum in the sunrise and sunset light. Bueno? So natural light then is usually cool or blue as it is in shadows and then becomes warmer in the sunshine. The warm sunrise/sunset light is, of course, what a lot of the outdoor photographers are striving for because of its depth and pleasing hue over a scene. Midday light can be harsh if there are no clouds, or soft and diffused if there are.

"Photons of light travel in one direction. Photons get scattered when they are filtered through something like a cloud or a leaf canopy and that scattering of direction is called diffusion and it makes for a much different quality of light... different than, say, your harsh light that gives your portrait ridiculously hard shadows under the person's eyes. Portrait photographers, therefore, sometimes like shooting in diffused light because it illuminates the subject more softly. Hard, direct sunlight may or may not create the most interesting or attractive lighting for your landscape, flowers, or human subjects. The point of all this is that diffused light and harsh light are qualities of natural light that will greatly affect the mood and message of your image and should therefore be understood and carefully considered.

Morning Light
"As we’ve already learned, early morning light will be warm. assuming you have a sunrise. Shadows will be long and there will be increased contrast in the landscape. Such light makes the early hours of daylight a phenomenal time of day to photograph, because the warm, bright quality of the light is so pleasing. For the landscape photographer, arriving at a location well before sunrise will ensure enough time to properly choose the best composition and camera settings. For me, this early preparation allows enough time to consider which filters I need to keep handy as well, if I am going for a sunrise shot. Why do I use filters? The typical landscape scene illuminated by a rising sun includes a wide range of light levels which are easily understood by our brain but poorly understood and recorded by our camera's sensor or film. Our brains can differentiate about 14 light levels or f/stops of light (quite a range!) but our camera's sensor can only differentiate about 3 to 5 levels between black and white. That’s what the technical guys call the camera's 'dynamic range.' I use a lineup of Singh-Ray optical resin filters that are not inexpensive, but well worth the investment.

"By holding a Singh-Ray Graduated Neutral Density filter in front of my lens so the dense part of the filter will 'hold back' some of the bright light in the sky, I expose the foreground as I normally would. This enables my camera to record much more tonal detail in the bright sky as it's also capturing the full tonal range in the foreground. Using these filters is not difficult when using a digital camera, because I can immediately see the resulting image on the LCD screen and make any necessary adjustments. Even one or two of these filters will get you started on the right foot. You may never again leave home without them.

Midday Light
"Most outdoor and sports photographers avoid the midday light because the overhead sunlight often lacks a warming color and the shadows are much too harsh. I find that this time of day can be very productive as the sunlight starts to bounce around, gets reflected, and even gets flooded in scenes. Certain areas of my home state in Utah are brilliant in midday light. I never forget to put my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer on the lens at this time of day to block the many glaring reflections that would otherwise reduce color saturation and contrast. It's important to remember when the polarizer is 'on duty' because it needs to be readjusted each time I point it in a different direction. With my camera now controlling so much automatically, it's easy to forget that my polarizer still requires proper attention.

"It's also interesting at times to shoot without any filter. One popular technique is to shoot in the blazing sun to create a “blown out” or overexposed sky to convey the feeling that a flood of light is swamping the subject.

Evening Light
"Sunset is another favorite time to shoot outdoor landscapes. This is apparent from seeing the hoards of photographers that swell onto the most popular scenic locations in America’s National Parks and seashores around sunset. Again, the light is similar to sunrise as it is usually warm with a lot of contrast. Bust out the filters once again because they will balance the uneven light levels found in the sky at this time. And remember to keep on shooting -- even after the the sun sets.

"One of my personal favorite times of day to photograph is at dusk, that magical time when the sun is down and there is a certain cool (blue) glow all around. If you are in a city or looking over a cityscape, you will notice that the artificial lights in the city will start to appear and pleasantly intermingle with the natural light. Some of my most memorable shots were captured at this time of day. Some have asked me: 'I tried this, but I got nothing.' My answer is usually that they didn’t wait long enough. If you took a photograph every two minutes during this period, you would start to see the results. Eventually, you would see a photograph come up where you do not need a filter to hold back the sky anymore and you would still capture the pleasing lights of the city. Stay out there... the camera can be “open” (long shutter speed) for quite some time on a tripod, so set it down firmly, work on aperture priority, and let the shutter speed do what it may. You’ll be surprised."

Joel conducts various types of workshops for his TravelLight Series. For more information, go to Joel's YouTube Channel, Facebook fan page, blog and website.

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