Friday, October 21, 2011

Brian Rueb knows his book on Iceland is making him a better photographer and teacher

After spending considerable time capturing the landscapes of Iceland over the past two summers, California photographer Brian Rueb is closing in on a long-held dream... a published book of images documenting the island's wealth of natural beauty and unique geology.

"When I began photographing almost 20 years ago, everything I knew about improving an image was done either at the time of shooting, or later in the darkroom. My knowledge of filters was limited to a polarizer. My primary subject matter revolved around urban landscapes, so I found the polarizer did most of what I wanted. It wasn’t until years later, when I moved my work to outdoor landscapes that I found my skill level was producing really unimpressive results. I had a very difficult time portraying colors, and balancing exposures the way I wanted. After a lot of research, I ultimately found my issues could be resolved in large part by using filters. I soon realized the Singh-Ray line of filters allowed me to achieve the results I had always hoped to get while I was still in the field. In the days when I was photographing areas close to my house, making mistakes was frustrating, but I was able to return to the spots and try again. Now, when I’m lucky enough to be working in a place as amazing as Iceland, I need to make sure I come home with usable images. The filters make ALL the difference.

"This past July I was able to make a trip to Iceland, my second in as many summers. The first one lasted nearly three months and I spent too much of that time walking, hitchhiking, and generally struggling to get from place to place. I learned a lot about photography during that time as I often was stranded in less than ideal places while a spectacular sunset was taking place. I had to make do with the subjects I could find nearby. However, I was fortunate enough to have a vehicle this past summer, and I was able to visit more places. Most importantly, I was able to chase the good light, as opposed to having to deal with the light that I was given. If weather was not ideal in one area I could check the radar and head to a more promising location.

"The image above was taken in northern Iceland of a rock formation that has been eroded by wind and water for ages. This iconic rock stands about 30 feet high and sits alone in a bay. When the tide goes out, the black sand reveals nice patterns and rocks covered in a bright green moss.

"This scene in southern Iceland was discovered after a night that had proved to be great for photography. I spent nearly 5 hours wandering the land of the midnight sun and enjoying the surreal landscape mixed with hours of color and light. What drew me to this area were the very different looking basalt rock formations and the far off view of the distant cliffs and sunset. I climbed up a nearby cliffside to get a better perspective and then used my LB Warming Polarizer to bring out the sky and achieve more definition in the rocks and the water. I also used a 4-stop ND Grad to balance the exposure levels in the foreground and sky. The combined effect was a nice overall warmth to this image. Without the filters, I would not have been able to balance this tricky exposure, nor bring out the colors that gave the best feeling to the images.

"This image was from the same night as the one above, taken nearly an hour later as the sun dipped somewhat replacing the warmer tones with more pinks and purples. I used a 3-stop hard-step ND Grad filter here to hold back some of the brightness and give me more detail in the black sand and reflection. I handheld the grad filter over the LB Warming Polarizer which I adjusted to bring out the wonderful reflection of this still pool we had come across.

"I get asked all the time about exposures, and many people in the age of technology have gone the route of taking five or more exposures to cover the large dynamic range of many outdoor scenes. While such methods certainly work, it requires a lot more time spent on the computer doing post processing. My goal is always to minimize that time on the computer and maximize the image as best I can in the field. I was never a fan of spending long hours in the darkroom, nor do I enjoy tweaking images for hours and hours in post-processing. I certainly do as much as I need to complete an image... but I always strive to get the best single image I can. My Warming Polarizer and Graduated ND Filters are always on hand to help me do that.

"Here's a good example of balancing a wide dynamic range in one image. Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon is an amazing location for sure. Great chunks of blue glacial ice, mixed with stripes of white and black float around this huge pool of water. The night we were there was a spectacle to be certain. Light rays danced out of the clouds creating this amazing blend of warm and cool colors. It was great. The challenge was knowing how to shoot this location to do it justice. While everything seems still on the surface, the icebergs are actually floating around due to the tides that come up the channel connecting the lagoon to the sea. If you try to shoot a number of bracketed images, all of the icebergs are going to move, and lining up the images will prove to be quite difficult, and in some instances can leave you with no way to get a good image... you’ll have 5 different images that are almost useable.

"For this shot I used the LB Warming Polarizer to give more definition to the sun-rays and bring out some reflection in the water as well to get some of those warm tones mixing in with the cooler ones. I also bumped my ISO up a bit to get shorter exposure lengths and freeze the icebergs, so they weren’t blurring as they moved about the lagoon. I used the 4-stop ND Grad filter as well to balance the exposure. With the sun setting directly in front of me, I had to hold back some of the brightness. I positioned myself in the lagoon as well so I could make the best possible composition given the wide angle lens I was shooting with. The whole scene came together brilliantly, and I was very happy with the number of useable images I came away with from that night. There were a lot of other photographers there that night as well, and I know some of them were using a bracketed style shooting, and I would be willing to bet they came away less than thrilled with their results.

"The rugged coastline along Vik in southern Iceland is full of arches, sea stacks, and interesting rock formations that showcase the geological wonders of the country. This little cove was one of the only spots I found with good wave action, interesting rock shapes, and dramatic light. I used a slightly longer exposure to capture the movement of the waves crashing against the lava rock. The sunset on this night was spectacular and seemed to go on forever. I made several images in my gallery on this night. That's the key reason I use my filters so much of the time. There won’t be another moment like that one. I can’t afford to get home, look at my images, and then wonder what I should’ve done differently. I’ve had those disappointments too many times, and I know how disheartening it is to spend time and money to get somewhere special and then come home with images that don’t reflect the opportunities I had. From the moment I started using filters, my world changed, and I don’t miss out on nearly as many opportunities as I used to."

Brian teaches a variety of landscape workshops in the western United States and, starting June of 2012, he will be conducting workshops overseas. Visit the Aperture Academy website for more details. You can find more of his work on his website or add him on Facebook, and now Google+.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

From the Archive:
Tracking the "filter workflow" through a winter workshop in Yosemite Valley

At the 5 year mark of this blog, we are revisiting some of our most helpful instructional stories. Going back to March 2008, Steve Kossack describes his "Filter Workflow" in detail, as he evaluates different lighting situations and determines what will be the perfect combination of filters to help optimize his captured image.


When outdoor photographer Steve Kossack shoots in any location, he instinctively follows his "filter workflow." To help explain how it works, Steve offered these three images of an early-morning scene he recently visited with his annual Yosemite Valley winter workshop. "Once again," says Steve, "the endless photographic opportunities plus the exhilaration of being in such a magical place made for an unforgettable week. And because Yosemite is so magical, whenever we return to the locations we've visited in previous years, we find they are never the same.

"With a deep snowfall and the weather changing by the moment, even familiar and easy-to-get-to locations were neither," explains Steve. "Road construction prompted the closure of the north side road and forced us to take a short predawn hike to reach Valley View. We were well rewarded for the effort.

"While standing in the dark, after hiking through the knee-high snow pack down to the edge of the Merced River, we saw the clouds getting pinker in the light blue sky, but only for a few moments. (Frame A -- click image to enlarge.) Not certain how much detail could be recorded in the shadow areas, I positioned the camera down low and tilted forward to include as much of the foreground as possible. To emphasize the color in the sky, the LB Color Intensifier was selected along with a 2-stop soft-step Graduated Neutral Density filter to reduce the relative brightness of the sky. Because the exposure would be for several seconds, I did not want to extend it too much further. The modest filter factor of the "lighter, brighter" Color Intensifier cost me only about half an f-stop. It's surprising how often my filter workflow begins with trying the LB Color Intensifier for early morning light.

"Soon after the first shot -- with the color of the sky now faded and the scene before me gaining even more contrast -- everything became flat. The river had some reflected light on the far side but the shadow area of the water was now dark with no reflection. (Frame B.) In cases like this my filter choice is often the Gold-N-Blue Polarizer and 2 or 3-stop soft-step Graduated ND filter. Anytime there is no reflection in the shaded areas, I check to see if my Gold-N-Blue can help out. Of course you need light to create reflections and the orientation of the sun has to be right for a polarizer. I reframed the composition just slightly to limit the amount of now colorless sky and highlight the river. Here the balance of the blue to gold polarization helped accentuate the natural flow of the river. A 2-stop ND Grad was also used here.

"My third shot (Frame C.) at this location was taken as the first light of the day illuminated the tip of El Capitian. Here's where the LB ColorCombo became the right choice. This time, the reflections from the river were distracting the eye from the focal point and the ColorCombo's polarizing effect tamed this problem nicely. The added warmth of the color intensifying filter (an integral part of the combo) was also a welcomed effect. Adding a 3-stop hard-step ND grad was used to achieve the finished image.

"A few days into our winter workshop it became clear the Merced River -- which was now a calm reflecting pool in many places -- was presenting us with dramatic photo opportunities at almost every turn and bend. The opportunities, in fact, were sometimes overwhelming -- a situation I always welcome! My filter workflow enabled me to rationally concentrate the left side of my brain while the right side was joyfully experiencing the dramatic winter scenery.

"For this next scene, I choose to anchor the image on the left with the river bottom. The problem was that I could not see the river bottom in the reflection.

To help solve this and a few other problems, I chose the ColorCombo for several reasons. The first reason was the small bright green conifer at the top of the snow bank and its reflection in the still water. This green is what brought me to the composition in the first place. Whenever I see an important green element in a scene, my first thought is always the LB Color Intensifier or -- in this case -- the LB Color Combo which also provides 'lighter, brighter' polarization. To set the composition, I first found the best orientation for the polarizing filter by making my way down the snow bank to change the angle. Then a slight turn of the filter clearly revealed both the river bottom and the surface reflection. The polarizer was then fine tuned to cut the bright reflection off the snow as much as possible while still revealing the river bottom. Since the bright snow was such a major part of the composition, I realized it had to be exposed to capture both the overall scene and the detail in the white snow.

"For the stormy image of Yosemite Falls seen at left -- with its beautiful muted light -- you would think no filters would be needed, but this image is not quite as simple as it appears.

Rain was moving in and out as the falls drifted from view and then appeared again. This also obliterated the reflection in the water at times or made it dark and distant when it was visible. The colors were also very muted in the mist. My next workflow step was to try balancing the exposure to render the mid-tones a full stop brighter and accentuate the reflected image in the process. The only problem created by doing this was a very slow shutter speed that would have made the quick moving clouds, as well as the rain spattered river, too blurry. The next decision was to test the capability of my new Canon 1Ds MKIII at a higher ISO 800 setting while using a 3-stop soft-step Graduated ND filter. What was lost was some of the detail in the snow, but what was gained is a brighter reflection, a more realistic presentation of the falls and a recognizable cloud pattern that shows the passing storm’s movement.

For me, working through the filter workflow process is both fun and productive. I should add that I always expose a 'reference" frame without any filters to provide a basis for later review. In the end, there are always choices to be made between the variously filtered images. I can’t help but feel that is always a good thing!"

For more information about Steve's work, videos and workshops, visit his website.