Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Joel Addams makes excellent use of his ND Grads to balance the bright light in Antelope Canyon

When professional outdoor and travel photographer Joel Addams conducted his recent Travel Light Classics workshops in Antelope Canyon, he was really surprised. "The workshop I was teaching was geared toward black and white photography and I had chosen Antelope Canyon -- on Navajo land near Page, Arizona -- as an ideal location because the light entering the slot canyons created a very wide range of exposure tones -- as much as 8 to 10 f/stops of dynamic range -- that would be perfect for black and white photography.

"When we arrived, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. When I was there several years ago, we didn’t have any direct sunbeams to work with. This time, however, Upper Antelope was on fire. It was unreal and the participants were loving the bright beams of light that quickly shifted around the rooms in the canyon.

"The night before, I had been explaining the various uses of Graduated Neutral Density filters, but I wasn’t sure if we would actually need them in the slot canyons. I thought maybe the sky wouldn’t even be an issue because the steep canyon walls were so high. I was wrong. Soon after I handed out my Singh-Ray ND Grads to participants who felt they might need them to hold back areas of light, I was begging to get several of them back. I realized I would need them at the spots where the sunbeams entered the top of the canyon.

Preparation is Always Important
"As a working professional, I learned long ago to always bring along all my essential gear, and I've also learned that my Singh-Ray filters are certainly essential. When teaching workshops, it is even more important to be fully prepared to share all six of my Singh-Ray ND Grads with students so they can learn how they work. Many students don’t know they can stack several ND Grads together to build up enough density to handle particularly challenging and overpowering light. When I noticed that my 2-stop soft-step filter was not being used by a student, I quickly retrieved it and stacked it with a 3-stop ND Grad to hold back some of the brightest light coming through a portal in the middle of Upper Antelope Canyon. When I looked at this resulting image (above), I felt the combination of the two filters was just right -- it conveys the impression of the blasting ray of light without losing any of the detail in the shadows.

Using Filters to Work Around Problems
"The image at the top of this story is an example of successfully working around several problems at the same time. So many people were roaming through the canyon that it was difficult to get a clean ground-level view of the light beams without having an unknowing tourist wander through the shot. Our guide was excellent. He not only threw sand into the air to accentuate the light beam for us, but then he blocked the crowds so that we could shoot without people interfering. Since our guide could only stop the flood of people for a minute or so, I had to make a quick decision.

I had a 24mm tilt-shift lens on my camera which did not provide a sufficiently wide-angle view to get the entire light beam in the frame. I decided to take a series of four overlapping images as I shifted the lens upward, starting at ground level and moving to the top of the scene. I manually focused at f/13 on a nearby rock and used the same exposure for all three images. Then when shooting the fourth exposure at the top of the series of images (which overlapped for later merging in post processing), I used the same stacked pair of ND Grad filters -- the 2-stop and 3-stop -- to hold back the extremely bright sunbeam. I then merged the four images vertically in Photoshop to achieve an awesome 16 x 20-inch image file at 300 dpi which is tack sharp. Each exposure was f/13 at 4 seconds.

Capturing a Vertical Light Beam
"Another image became a challenge when I realized I couldn’t use an ND Grad because the brightest light was mainly centered in the image. I did the next best thing, by bracketing the exposure until I found one I liked. Then I underexposed the scene by about 2 stops until the rock taking the most light was properly exposed. I don’t use HDR. I feel that I can work around problems like this in a better way. I simply made the underexposed image my background layer and used a mask layer on the top and then painted out the very tip of the rock. The result is much more pleasing, and actually very simple. When it comes to tonal range, I still love my blacks. They give important definition to an image. Contrast is still a prominent part of my photography. In this case, I just had one tiny area that my sensor could not handle.

A Good Subject for Black & White
The evening before we visited Antelope Canyon, I was sharing with the students ideas from Ansel Adams’ book, The Negative, and suggested they review the first chapter which deals with pre-visualizing a scene and trying to determine what it will look like in black and white. My black and white images from the same workshop will be the subject of a subsequent article on Antelope Canyon. I was, however, so mesmerized by the colors we encountered during this visit, that I wanted to encourage all photographers going into the Canyon during the summer (the best time for beams) to use their ND Grads for properly balanced images."

Joel will be teaching again in September in Grand Teton National Park. His series, Travel Light Classics and the Dirtbag Series will continue over the next year. Joel conducts various types of workshops for his TravelLight Series. For more information, go to Joel's website. Also stop by his Facebook fan page, blog and YouTube Channel.

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