Friday, December 23, 2011

Ernesto Santos offers a few lessons he's learned about using ND Grads to create winners

While working on his expanding catalog of travel and landscape images recently, Texas photographer Ernesto Santos noticed the makings of another fine blog story. "It occurred to me how many of my best efforts (those images that have earned me some income from time to time) would not have been possible without the use of my Singh-Ray Graduated Neutral Density Filters. Sure, there may be other ways to 'get the shot in the tin,' but as I reflect on the images in this article it becomes clear that even with a lot of work at the computer or the use of technology that frankly was not even around when these images were taken, they still would not have met the high standards I try to maintain.

"So I thought I would discuss how these four 'veteran' images confirm the importance of getting each shot right in the camera. Even though these photographs were taken some years ago with a Nikon D100 and D200 they still hold up to large scale printing. That's because the image file is of the highest integrity thanks to the Singh-Ray ND Grads, which allowed me to keep the exposure values within the limited dynamic range of these early digital SLRs.

"At the time I captured this image of the majestic Sierra Del Carmen in Mexico as seen from Big Bend National Park, I was racing to the park's Rio Grande Village campgrounds to stake my claim on my favorite campsite. As I approached the north entrance to the park, I knew I would make it to the campgrounds just before dark; and setting up a tent camp in the dark is no fun, my friends. While on the park road I noticed that the sierra over my left shoulder started to light up and within minutes it was ablaze as you see here. I pulled the car over, grabbed my Nikon D100 and tripod and scrambled around trying to find an area of the desert floor with some interesting flora, I knew I only had only a few minutes as I had seen this spectacle before on a prior trip and had missed it then. When I finally set up the camera, I took a test shot and saw that the mountain range was being over-exposed. Because I had metered the camera to lift the shadowy desert foreground out of the quarter tones, the sierra was washing out. I remember how the exposure range of this scene really surprised me back then. I immediately went for my packet of ND Grads and hand held a 3-stop hard-step over the orange band of limestone and granite layers. I only got three shots bracketing my exposures before the show was over.

"One of the problems with the old D100 was that it had a very narrow exposure range. Shadows tended to get noisy when I tried to pull them out in post processing, and I always had to make sure I didn’t blow out the highlights. In this example, I must point out that the Sierra Del Carmen is made of sandwiched layers of dark Cretaceous rock and lighter colored Glen Rose limestone. To get both tones within the dynamic range of the camera in this situation was a challenge. The ND Grad filter was a deciding factor in making this a successful exposure.

"On another trip to Big Bend National Park, I wanted to capture a different perspective of the Santa Elena Canyon, a popular photo attraction in the park. So I moved away from the main overlook where you get the classic head-on shot of the 1,500-foot-high gaping canyon which has been parted by the Rio Grande River. Instead I drove down to a boat slip area used frequently by rafting outfitters. It was still very early in the morning and, while the sun was bathing the canyon walls with warm tones, much of the Rio Grande River was still in deep blue shadow. This posed a problem for me as I was determined to get the wonderful reflection of the canyon walls in the water.

"A test exposure, shown below, shows how the brightness of the canyon walls was just starting to clip (exceed the camera's dynamic range causing lost highlight detail) when I lowered the shutter speed enough to expose for the reflection. My solution was to use my 2-stop hard-step ND Grad placed a little differently than the conventional way. By paying close attention to my test shot results and reviewing the histogram carefully, I determined the correct placement of the filter.

"This illustration shows how I placed my 2-stop hard-step ND Grad filter to not only hold back the sky but to also bring down the exposure of the cliffs. This worked to great effect on the final image which can be seen at the beginning of this example.

"Here is another image from Big Bend that I will never forget. It was January 2007 when a huge ice storm hit west Texas and dumped snow and ice everywhere in a 300 mile radius. I was hoping for some snow in the Chihuahua Desert but this turned out to be ridiculous! I spent three days in the small town of Study Butte, TX (pronounced "Stoody"; I know it's a Texas thing) marooned and ice-bound waiting for the thaw since all the roads were officially closed. When I took this shot temperatures were in the teens -- the wind was blowing at over 30 mph, and the storm was just starting to roll in! By using my 3-stop soft-step ND Grad, I captured the frigid effect of this polar front with the icy blue sky and clouds overtaking the ridge in the background.

"Here is a good illustration of how you can use ND Grads in different combinations and configurations to great benefit. In this photo of Schwabacher’s Landing in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming, I felt it was important to expose the pine trees so that as much of the detail could be recorded as possible. The dilemma I faced was how to do this while keeping the reflections in the beaver pond looking natural, which is always darker than the subject being reflected. The solution I came up with was to place a 3-stop hard-step ND Grad in the usual manner to hold back the sky and snowy peaks and then place an inverted 2-stop hard-step to hold back the reflections in the beaver pond. This allowed me to meter for the pine trees and even bump that up a ½ stop. This combination worked perfectly as you can see in the final image at the top of this story.

"I hope these illustrations reveal how versatile Singh-Ray ND Grads can be. You don’t always have to use them in the traditional sense, such as to help control a very bright sky. They can also be used to tame brightly lit subjects in the foreground and used in "stacked" combinations to create a balanced and natural looking image. When I pull out my ND Grads, I very often use them in stacked combinations at different angles. They can save the day and give your images the best quality your camera can produce."

Ernesto is currently on his way to the Texas panhandle to photograph the Palo Duro Canyon. As he hit the road the weather forecast included a good dusting of snow. "I think one of the most spectacular scenes you can ever encounter in the American West is when the scrub and desert prairie are sprinkled with snow. It really makes the desert plants and red rock stand out."

Ernesto also recently commented on how his beloved Texas is still suffering through the serious drought. "I recently spent an afternoon at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge which is near my home and I was just devastated by the conditions at the refuge. Many of the ponds and lakes which are critical habitat for the migratory birds of the Central Flyway are dried up and the usually green and lush tropical hardwood forests are gray and devoid of life. And most disheartening, I saw a few old-growth stands, some of which are the last remaining in the Rio Grande Valley, dotted with dead trees that are hundreds of years old and have been around since the Spanish landed on the Gulf coast."

You will want to check out Ernesto's website at where he is now offering professional fine art print services to fellow photographers, the same process he uses on his own fine art prints.