Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Jim Shoemaker strives to balance every outdoor image with the help of his Singh-Ray ND Grads

Early in his graphic design career, Jim Shoemaker perceived a strong connection between nature and design. That's when he began seriously photographing the outdoor beauty of the many national and state parks in and around his native California. "I do the majority of my shooting with two camera systems: a medium format Mamiya 645 AFD with a Leaf Aptus 17 digital back, and a full-frame 35mm format Canon 5D MK II. For the Mamiya, the bulk of my shooting is accomplished with the 35mm lens. For the Canon, a 16-35mm f/2.8 L and a 24-105mm f/4 L IS lens are my mainstays. I use the Canon when I want to travel light. The full-frame sensor of the Canon with my 16-35mm L lens is really compatible with my shooting style.

"When it comes to choosing filters to take along on a trip, I like to keep things simple. There are several filters that I don't leave home without. One is my polarizer, of course, but for now I'd like to discuss my graduated and reverse graduated ND filters that I use on almost a daily basis and in all kinds of lighting situations.

"The image above was taken at sunset on California's El Matador Beach State Park. This photo is very representative of my impulse to shoot into the sun a lot. And whenever I do, I have two options for getting the image that I have in mind. The first is shooting a series of photos and processing them as an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image. The other option is to use a graduated ND filter. Since my preference is to get the image I visualize in one shot in camera, I rely heavily on my ND grads. The problem is, if I'm shooting when the sun is very close to the horizon, a regular ND grad doesn't accomplish what I need to because the darkest section of the filter is at one end, and doesn't properly cover the brightest portion of the scene -- along the horizon. In those cases I use a Singh-Ray Reverse Graduated ND filter. Like all the other ND Grad filters, the bottom half of a Reverse ND Grad is clear, but the densest zone of the gradient (gray) area is just above the midline and then the density becomes gradually lighter in the upper third of the filter. This allows me to put the densest part of the filter over the sun near the horizon to hold back its intense brightness while properly exposing the remainder of the sky above and the darker foreground.

"As I was composing this view of Sandstone Peak in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, I decided my best choice for the ND Grad would be my 3-stop soft-step to hold back the sky with the sun peeking out from behind the clouds. The filter did a great job of blending the exposure of the sky into the mountains. The only problem with this scene was the very uneven profile of the large rocks in the foreground. The lower edge of the soft-step ND Grad would not provide enough give-and-take to mask the profile perfectly. A little Photoshop, however, made the image look more natural.

"My most preferred time for photography is actually before the sun rises above the horizon and after it sets below it. Regardless of which direction I'm facing, the scene before me usually presents a sky that's brighter by several f-stops than the landscape below. This morning twilight scene at Last Dollar Road in Colorado had me reaching for my graduated ND filters instinctively. If I have my camera pointed towards the east at sunrise, the sky will be much brighter than if my camera is facing west at the same time of day. That means that even my 3-stop ND grad may not have the necessary density to hold the sky back enough to bring both it and the foreground within the latitude of my camera's sensor. In that case, I'll often "stack" two filters together to achieve sufficient density and the properly balanced exposure I'm looking for.

"I don't leave my filters in their cases after the sun rises higher in the sky. They remain in play all day long -- any time a scene is beyond the dynamic range of my camera sensor. This is a common situation when photographing in canyons, mountains and valleys. A good example is this photo of Delicate Arch shot in late afternoon as the sun fully lit up the arch. The entire foreground was in the shade, and if I had taken the photo without a filter, the foreground would have been unacceptably dark. I would have lost the texture and leading lines of the sandstone.

"In my style of photography, I prefer to bring down the tonal values of the sky. Therefore, it's common for me to use a 1-stop or 2-stop ND Grad to hold the sky back a little bit when I'm doing landscape work, sometimes feathering in just the lightest edge of neutral density. I do this with both color and black and white photography. During a recent trip to Death Valley, I photographed Zabriskie Point in Death Valley NP well before the sun broke the horizon (not to mention clearing the mountains in the east). I'm very fond of the purples and magentas of Alpenglow that precedes sunrise and follows sunset, and I enhance the colors by using my ND Grads to underexpose the sky.

'"ND Grad filters aren't just for controlling the exposure of skies in landscape photography. They're for controlling any portion of an image that's too bright to balance with the shadow areas of a scene. I mentioned that I sometimes stack filters, and they're not necessarily aligned with darkest densities above one another. My sunset photo of the Maroon Bells in Aspen, Colorado, for example, was shot with a 3-stop grad ND holding back the sky while a 2 stop grad ND was held 180 degrees to the 3-stop (upside down) and adjusted to bring down the values of the lake at the bottom of the photo. This allowed me to bring up the values of the trees in the center of the photo. I often use this technique when photographing in areas like Utah, where the sandstone formations in the foreground may appear too hot in relation to the sky, and therefore the values need to be held back a bit.

"Anyone who has seen Galen Rowell's photography has seen the practical application of ND Grads. Unlike Galen, those of us shooting with today's DSLRs can get instant feedback on how our filter placement is affecting the exposure of an image, and we can adjust it accordingly. Galen and his contemporaries learned through the process of trial and error. Since we have wonderful LCD screens on the backs of our cameras giving us a digital Polaroid of sorts, we really needn't have reservations about trying out filters with our work. The results are displayed immediately after releasing the shutter. Using Live View in conjunction with the preview depth of field button will show quite accurate results of the filter prior to image capture. What more could we ask for?"

Jim has succeeded in having a number of his fine art images published in outdoor and photo magazines. His portfolio features photos from many iconic areas of the American West. For more information about Jim and to see more images, follow the links below.

Jim's Website | Facebook | Google+ | Twitter | Smugmug | Flickr | More Links

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