Friday, March 02, 2012

Darrell Moll and Rod Brown agree "high dynamic range" doesn't require a computer

One widespread trend that's cropped up in digital landscape photography is the advent of HDR or "High Dynamic Range" imagery. Next Level Workshop instructors Darrell Moll and Rod Brown are finding that some of their students arrive at the workshop believing HDR is the best solution for high-contrast scenes. "HDR can help with overwhelming contrast in a scene," says Rod. "Combining multiple frames can simulate a wider dynamic range. It can also be used as a special effects tool to make images appear 'artsy' or even surreal. If you have a rusted vehicle in a field or an old building as your subject, this can be pretty fun to do, but it's also easy to overdo it. For most landscape photography, that overdone 'HDR look' is the last thing I'm looking for," says Rod.

"Some photographers in our last workshop would fire off a set of 3 or more bracketed shots on every scene they encountered, while I'm not even sure I used this technique more than once on the whole trip," notes Darrell. "When asked why Rod and I were not rattling off bracketed images like they were, my answer was that most of the time our ND Grads combined with proper exposure could reduce the contrast enough to produce a dynamic range our RAW files can readily capture. Short answer: our Singh-Ray filters lessen the need to do HDR, which also means more time in the field to pursue other scenes near the one that drew us there in the first place. Plus we can fit way, way more different scenes on a memory card, and spend way, way less time in Photoshop after the fact combining the images. Shorter answer: 'Singh-Ray filters solve problems in the field.'

"While on the way to our last workshop in Zion and Bryce National Parks," Darrell continues, "Rod took me to Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, about 90 miles or so from Las Vegas, right on the way to Zion National Park. Rod had been to each of our locations many times before, while I had only read about them. It was great having someone who knew the lay of the land and Rod certainly knew where to be at last light on this particular night. While others had packed up and left, Rod and I stayed around for the 'glow.' I'm glad we did. Stacking a couple of Singh-Ray soft-step ND Grads in front of my Canon 70-200 II 2.8 IS L lens was all I needed for the image at the top of this story. No way to get the image this good without the grads. Problem solved.

"The next morning, Rod took me around Zion for some shooting. We started at the Checkerboard Mesa area and worked our way back west into the park. Later in the afternoon we found ourselves near the Temple of Sinawava, and I was struck by the depth inherent in this scene. Choosing a low camera angle and a 17-40 4.0 L lens set to f/16 on my Canon 5D Mark II, I was able to get all the layers in the scene tack sharp. It would have been impossible without the landscape photographers best friend, the polarizer. My favorite of all the polarizers I've tried is the Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer. Eliminating the reflections in the foreground was key here. With the Virgin River doing its thing, the cottonwoods behind them, then all that beautiful Zion rock beyond that, it has depth to spare, but without the polarizer would we even notice the depth? Another problem solved by Singh-Ray.

"An hour or so later we stopped at the Big Bend area of Zion and Rod captured this scene with his LB ColorCombo filter. Again, Zion shows off its colors in early November, but the ColorCombo gave the scene a little extra kick, while its 2-stop density permitted a slower shutter speed to soften the water a bit. The combination of a Warming Polarizer and Color Intensifier gives us a colorful palate we can't get when we choose to go 'unfiltered.' Rod's choice of the horizontal format here gives the same feeling of depth as my vertical image, while still telling the story of Zion in Autumn. Thank you ColorCombo -- problem solved.

"Day 2 of our Workshop found us at the Big Bend area again," Darrell continues. "We had a wonderful sky for a few hours and we took full advantage of it. I used my LB Warming Polarizer to get a little more 'pop' from the clouds, which adds interest and depth with the beautiful rock formations in this area of the park. I did use a little 'post-processing HDR' by combining my main exposure with another lighter exposure to help bring out the detail in the rock on the right side of the frame. This effect could also have been achieved by using an ND Grad rotated about 45 degrees to balance the exposure. Afterwards, I saw this image working better as a black and white. The LB Warming Polarizer had already reduced glare and preserved the contrast, plus helped the clouds pop -- Mother Nature took care of the rest. Another problem solved.

"The following day we headed off to Bryce National Park some 80 miles north east of Zion," Darrell reports. "Rod and some of the other fellows in our workshop had been there before, but once again it was a first for me. We started our images at Sunrise Point and worked our way to Sunset Point. On the way to Sunset Point, I stopped to recover a bit from the brutal wind chill, and I was struck by the cool to warm tones evident in the scene from far out to up close. It reminded me of how warm the sun can be when not hidden by clouds and how cold we are without it. One 2-stop soft-edge ND Grad combined with the Warming Polarizer worked in harmony to cut through the haze, but added brilliance and warmth to the middle distance and foreground. Careful framing with the 70-200 Canon lens did the rest. A perfect end to our workshop in Zion and Bryce and another problem solved by Singh-Ray filters."

"A few years ago, I captured this quintessential Smoky Mountain image at Clingman's Dome," notes Rod. "Armed with my ND Grads, I combined a pair of 2-stop soft-step ND Grads to really open up the foreground and provide detail where normally it would not be possible. The other huge advantage to capturing it correctly in the field is you don't have noise in the shadow areas of the scene. With these filters, I can get it right on the sensor to begin with. Plus, there is less to do in the post-processing.

"The Smoky Mountains are all about water," Rod continues. "Not good water, but great water and it is at its absolute best in the Spring. Mossy rocks and blooming dogwoods abound in April as well. We found this quiet area in the less-traveled Greenbriar area of the park -- this means fewer photographers fighting for the prime spots. With the LB ColorCombo in front of my lens reducing the glare and enhancing the beautiful greens, I captured this showstopper. The 2-stop ColorCombo offers a bit more density than my LB Warming Polarizer (1-1/3 stops), so I slowed my shutter a little to get a bit more flow to the water, plus it does wonderful things to the greens in the scene. Problem solved.

"The last image was taken on the Roaring Fork motor trail. The longer you stay on the trail, the better things get with the water and the rocks," notes Rod. "I found myself in this 'picture perfect' place with just the right combination of camera, lens, and filter. While waiting for a little break in the breeze, my patience finally paid off with another Gallery Image. And yes it was made with my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer."

"In the field, bracketing and combining images can be a valuable tool when it just can't be done any other way," adds Darrell. "But we prefer not to do that unless it's absolutely necessary. We agree we get better results with less effort by using our Singh-Ray filters to manage the dynamic range, improve contrast and reduce glare. I'm a Canon guy, and Rod is a die-hard Nikon user, and while we kid each other about which system is superior, we do agree on what we use in front of our glass: filters from Singh-Ray. No argument there."

Rod Brown and Darrell Moll will be leading their Great Smoky Mountain National Park workshop from April 15 to 19. Complete information on the workshop and more images can be found at the Next Level Workshops website.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Adam Barker: The Value of Vision

This story recently appeared on Adam Barker's blog and is used here with permission.

It's so easy these days to reduce photography to nothing more than pressing a button on the latest camera, with the latest lens, packed in the latest backpack, etc. etc. etc. There's no question that photography has much to do with equipment. It's also true that generally speaking, better equipment will yield better results -- assuming the photographer has the technical knowledge necessary to utilize the added features from more advanced equipment. It is most true, however, that exceptional photographers rely on that which is in their head, and not in their hands to produce imagery that will rise above the clutter of mediocrity.

Which brings me to this image from this shoot in Salt Lake City. I hadn't planned on shooting this house. I hadn't really even planned on shooting at all to be honest. But I woke up and the skies looked promising and I needed to breathe some cold air. The skies certainly delivered, but I soon realized that my vision for the scene in front of me had nothing to do with vibrant, cheery color.

This home is a replica of one built in 1877 by a Mormon settler named William Atkin. It was located eight miles south of St. George, Utah on a 160-acre farm that later became the one-family town of Atkinville.

A one-family town in the middle of nowhere--I'm sure they saw some beautiful sunrises, but I can also imagine the over-abundance of hardships encountered in such an endeavor as well. Lonely. Bleak. Cold. And thus was born this image, which has a moderate resemblance to the original (at left). I can tell you exactly how I did this, but I'd rather you simply study the image and answer that for yourself. It's about externalizing the internal thought process at the time of capture, and relies more on cognitive decision-making when shooting the image than reactive experimentation on the computer after the fact.

"What's the point of all this babble?" The point is this: if you have no personal investment or direction in the final result of what you hope to create when you click the shutter, there really is very little substantive story-telling to be showcased. Without a story, you have no audience.

It's likely that I will embrace the in-camera version of this image at some point. After all, I am a sucker for colored up clouds, and it is a beautiful and serene scene. However, on this morning, this was my vision. Vision has value. It's value is far greater than the latest and greatest doohickey that just hit the interwebz. Vision, or the lack thereof, is ultimately a very large factor in whether you will succeed or fail in your quest to produce exceptional imagery.

Adam did use his Singh-Ray 2-stop Reverse ND Grad to help him capture his vision in the field as part of his deliberate creative process. You can learn more about Adam's creative philosophy, projects, events, and more at the links below: 

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