Friday, November 11, 2011

Michael James captures impressive infrared landscapes with his Nikon D-70 and an I-Ray filter

As a semi-professional photographer in Edmonton, Alberta, Michael James enjoys shooting landscapes. "I became interested in landscape photography in 1997, when I was on Vancouver Island on the west coast of Canada. I was in school learning about infrared film. I had done a bit of work with it, but I was eager to see what it would do in the lush forests of British Columbia.

"My mother and I traveled to the island for Christmas break and I spent some time shooting photos in various places. Of course, this was infrared film back then, so my shooting was limited by my student’s budget and experience. I brought one roll of Kodak infrared black and white film, taking care to keep it frozen until a few hours before I was to use it. On arriving at Cathedral Grove, I loaded the film into my camera after climbing into the trunk of our car. Keep in mind, this was a 19-year-old brain at work; and yes, I should have just used a jacket or dark box, but I got into the trunk, closed the lid, and loaded the film. I then shot the first landscape images I was really proud of, and I still like them today.

"I am still drawn to infrared images. Not long ago, I began looking into how I could continue shooting infrared in this digital age. Should I buy a film camera, should I get a digital camera body converted to IR, or should I try using a filter? Buying the Singh-Ray I-Ray was the simplest solution for me, and I have no regrets.

"A major advantage that many people may not think about is how this filter allows me to keep shooting landscapes even when the light may not be perfect. While in Banff National Park this summer, I wanted to revisit a well-photographed location I had been to in the past but had never felt really satisfied with my results -– the Vermillion Lakes Road with views to Mt. Rundle. This spot is often crowded with photographers, but my shots seemed to look the same each time. However, I was determined to get a more impressive shot in that location. The light was terrible when I arrived –- overcast and very grey. I pulled out my Singh-Ray I-Ray filter, mounted it on the 16-35 f/4 lens on my Nikon D70 and shot the image (at top of this story) of Vermillion Lakes with Mt. Rundle in the background – all of a sudden, I had a fresh take on a place that has been, as some may say, over-photographed.

"Often, I will be shooting a sunrise or sunset with my regular gear and, before I move to a new spot, I will bring out the I-Ray and my D70 to see what influence infrared light has on the scene. In the case of this photo of Mt. Kidd, I was just wrapping up an awesome morning shoot when I again grabbed the I-Ray, my Nikon 16-35 f/4, and my D70 to see what would happen. I was pleased with the result.

"The same situation occurred this past fall when the light was just not cooperating. A group of us had gone out for sunrise but the sun was nowhere to be found. I pulled out my IR kit and shot this image of Hector Lake in Banff National Park. I was shocked to see how, even in tough light, the I-Ray brought out the textures in the scene.
"I continue to use this filter in many situations where I feel an IR interpretation could be interesting -- and learning that I can often use this filter in situations where I might previously have put my camera away. The main advantages I find with the I-Ray are its ease of use and its continued success at creating impressive images. Once I set the white balance and the basic exposure, it’s just a matter of framing the shot and putting the filter on to get amazing IR results. I’m still surprised at the photos I get with this filter on my unmodified D70. Of course, more current cameras may need some modifications to use this filter but the D70 works great.

"Another spot I've visited twice now was Sarrail Falls in Kananaskis Country. This location is very shaded so the intense moisture and lack of sun cause it to be entirely covered in moss. I pulled out my IR kit and shot away. In this case, both the IR and the colour versions turned out well, and I still can’t decide which one I like best."

Michael James has been involved in media and the arts since graduating from high school. After earning an audiovisual communications diploma, he began working as a broadcast news photographer and is now a digital media manager. In addition to his day job, Michael works for local clients such as the City of Edmonton and the Edmonton Police Service. To see more of his work, be sure to visit Michael's website, and check out his Flickr stream. You can follow him on Facebook, too.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Jason Odell reviews the basics of Graduated Neutral Density Filters in the Digital Age

Back when Jason Odell started shooting slide film, he was trained to carry two "mandatory" filters: a polarizer and a set of graduated neutral density filters (ND grads). "Nowadays," says Jason, "my photography is still a passion that I pursue both as a doctoral graduate in biology and as a frequent photo workshop leader.

"While the magical effect of a polarizer is nearly impossible to recreate in image editing software, there are now all kinds of computer-based ways of replicating the effect of ND grads in post-production. In fact, many software packages offer built-in ND grad 'effects' that can easily be applied to images. We also have HDR software techniques that make it possible to create images with a considerable range of highlight and shadow detail. So, if that's the case, why do I still carry a set of Singh-Ray ND grads with me in the field?

"The short answer is to more easily capture outdoor images such as the one above of Kissing Camels and Pikes Peak near my home in Colorado Springs, CO. I used my 2-stop hard-step ND Grad to quickly balance the bright sky and snow-capped mountains in the distance with the foreground. I used my Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter for the image below of this year's fall colors along North Cheyenne Creek. The variable density of the filter enabled me to extend the exposure time sufficiently to blur the motion of the stream for a more flowing effect.

The Challenge of ND Grads
"I'll be the first to admit that even when I bring my ND grads along in the field, I don't always use them. ND grads can be tricky to align, especially in the semi-darkness of twilight. You also need to choose the right filtration strength. Reflections, for example, should not be brighter than the actual object, but that can be something hard to spot in the field. On the plus side, however, having a DSLR makes using ND grads a little easier. First, I can use live view to help position the filter in the frame. Second, I can review my images immediately and decide if they are OK or need to be retaken. But more than that, there are those times when a filter is actually preferable to using software or HDR techniques in a landscape shot.

The Case for Carrying ND Grads
"The traditional advice we get for exposing outdoor images is "expose for the highlights and recover the shadows." What this means is that we'll often deliberately underexpose the middle tones in the scene to preserve hard-to-recover highlight details. We then bring back the shadow details during post production. This technique works fairly well most of the time, but it does have some drawbacks, namely the risk of adding noise and losing color saturation. The resulting image can often look flat or lifeless because the shadow contrast just isn’t there. However, if we use a Graduated Neutral Density filter to reduce the exposure level in the highlight areas, we'll have a better overall exposure balance and cleaner shadows.

"Professional quality ND Grads are flat, rectangular filters designed to slide into a holder mounted on the front of your lens. These holders can be mounted on lenses of various sizes by means of adapter rings that screw into the filter ring of the lens. This means you can use ND Grad filters on just about any lens in your kit. You can not only rotate your ND Grads, but you can also slide them up and down to position the gradient exactly where your composition dictates.

"Rectangular filters come in two popular sizes: P-size and 4x6-inch. Many years ago, I started with the least expensive set I could get in the P-size format. I have since decided from experience that I should have purchased 4x6-inch filters from the outset, despite their higher price. While leading a recent photo safari in Colorado, I used a 4x6-inch 3-stop soft-step ND Grad to capture this sunrise image at Bear Lake. Having a larger filter means that I can hand-hold it without getting my fingers in the frame. Hand-holding also allows me to move the filter up and down during long exposures to further blur the transition zone.

"The other two factors in choosing ND Grad filters are density and edge type. You'll see that Singh-Ray offers 1, 2, 3, and even 4-stop ND Grad filters. The density you choose will depend on the amount of shooting that you do and where you shoot. For most landscape photographers, you'll get by with 2 or 3 stops most of the time. If you're shooting out west or in alpine elevations, you'll want to add a 4-stop filter because the exposure range tends to be much wider in the thin, dry air of the mountains. You can get either soft or hard-step filters. A hard-step filter has a relatively narrow transition zone between the clear half of the filter and the full density, while the soft-step filters offer a wider transition zone. Hard-step filters work best with telephoto lenses and for scenes with well-defined, straight horizons. With a wide-angle lens, you'll want to use a soft-step filter to mask the transition zone due to the very large depth of field these lenses create. Keep in mind that you can also stack multiple ND Grads to get different effects; just be careful to avoid vignetting on wide lenses.

"Even if you've mastered the computer-based, post-production techniques for image adjustment, you may still find it helpful to use ND Grads in the field. For me, they really come in handy whenever landscape photos are on the agenda."

In 2004, Jason established Luminescence of Nature Photography, dedicated to outdoor photography and photographic education. In addition to writing, he conducts field photography workshops and software training classes for photographers around the world and is the co-host of the biweekly photography podcast, The Image Doctors, which has aired on iTunes since 2005. He is also the author of several eBooks on digital photography which are available through his site, Luminescence of Nature.