Friday, March 09, 2012

Deng Weizhong learned to balance bright skies with the shadowed foregrounds for more natural images

For Singapore-based photographer Deng Weizhong, it all began just three years ago when he picked up a Nikon D60 for the first time. "Although I had planned on getting a digital compact camera, the dSLR seemed like a more serious tool. The main motivation for taking up photography at that time was my desire to capture the exquisite beauty of Japan which I had long admired on posters and in magazines. With no formal training in photography, I embarked on a series of solo trips across Japan in search of beautiful rural and urban landscapes, picking up and learning the fundamentals of photography through first-hand experience along the way.

"More recently, I have been working to perfect my skill. One of the questions that came to mind while looking at images created by other landscape photographers was, 'How are they able to produce images where the exposure of the sky and land turn out to be so flawless?' I began searching around for answers and that led me to try using graduated neutral density filters. It didn't take long to understand how ND Grads solved the problem. My first ND Grads were purchased for a one-month personal project in the Canadian Rockies in British Columbia. As I was getting my first actual look at Moraine Lake, I recalled a photo of the lake I had seen in a magazine some time back that instantly captivated me with its surreal colors.

"Since the images I had seen were mostly taken at midday, I decided to try capturing this scene (above) in a different light. The next morning I got up before dawn and managed to reach my destination in time. While scanning around for the right spot, I was dismayed to find the sun was blocked by clouds. Nevertheless, I proceeded to set up my D300s with the Nikkor 12-24 f/4 together with a Singh-Ray 3-stop soft-step ND Grad.

"So with my equipment standing ready, I waited and hoped for the best. Luck was with me and my patience paid off when the rays from the rising sun managed to pierce through the clouds momentarily. I had only enough time for a few captures. The 3-stop ND Grad was the perfect choice to hold the details in the clouds and balance the difference in exposure contrast between the foreground and background elements.

"Although GND filters are commonly used during the golden hours, I used one during my tour through the Rocky Mountains to capture this colorful view at Mount Robson, the most prominent peak in North America's Rocky Mountains. This image was captured using a 2-stop hard-step ND Grad. Here, I wanted to include the white daisies together with the snow-capped mountain and fluffy clouds in the background. Using my wide angle lens, I set up the camera as low as possible to accentuate the daisies in the foreground. A hard-step ND Grad filter was chosen due to the noticeable demarcation separating the trees from the flowers. Without the filter, the camera would not have been able to record the details in the clouds and the mountain peak due to the camera's limited dynamic range in comparison to what the human eye perceives.

"At my next destination, the Graduated ND filters again proved useful when I encountered bright overcast skies. For this capture of Lake Louise in Banff National Park, a hard-step filter was selected to control the overexposed sky which would otherwise have appeared bland and uninteresting with little or no detail. On this day, the early morning rays of the sun were muted by the low-lying clouds, but it was apparent to me -- after studying their movement patterns -- that there soon could be some good photo opportunities. Remaining patient, I prepared my equipment and got ready for any changes in the light. Sure enough, the clouds soon shifted and the sun cast its golden light on the trees and lake. It was indeed breathtaking and satisfying as I admired and recorded the sun's radiance sweeping steadily across the water.

"At my next location, I was faced with a relatively dark foreground with interesting clouds overhead. Back in 2003, a 40-day forest fire burned 170 square kilometers of Kootenay National Park, and -- as can be seen in the photo -- the area is still in the midst of recovering. Wanting to reproduce the foreboding feeling that the dark clouds bestowed on Marble Canyon, I depended on a soft-step ND Grad filter to hold back the brightness of the sky. This permitted the camera to record a feasible exposure which allowed me to fine-tune the final capture in post-processing according to what I had actually witnessed. With ND Grads now commonly used in my workflow, I realize how often they have made it possible to capture scenes with challenging lighting that would not have been attainable any other way. I now strive to get a perfectly exposed image in the camera and thereby minimize the effort required for post processing. This gives me a greater sense of achievement and satisfaction than having to rely on tone mapping and other computer techniques. When serious work is involved, these filters are always the ones I turn to."

Despite only having only 3 years' experience, Weizhong has already earned a number of achievements, including solo exhibitions in Japan and works showcases in several locations in Singapore. To appreciate more of Weizhong's work and his photography techniques, be sure to visit his website. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook for the latest updates.

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