Tuesday, June 19, 2012

To balance the wide range of light levels in most landscapes, Rick Walker prefers to use ND Grads

From his home base in Colorado Springs, nature and travel photographer Rick Walker says he hasn't been everywhere yet, but he's seriously working on it. "Travel is a vital part of my work, and wherever I am, you can bet my Singh-Ray filters are right there with me. When asked which type of filter I find most useful for landscape work, my answer never changes. Singh-Ray Polarizers and Graduated Neutral Density (ND Grad) filters are the simplest and easiest way I have found to balance brightly lit skies and mountain tops with the lower light levels I find in the shaded foreground areas of most landscapes.

"Even though I also use a variety of Singh-Ray filters, my set of ND Grads has proved to be the most consistently essential filters for getting beautiful exposures. There are times when computer-based techniques such as HDR and exposure blending can be a great help, but I usually don't rely on them to get the results I want. HDR can be difficult to control and achieving natural looking shots often requires a lot of work in Photoshop. Exposure blending is another technique I sometimes use to produce natural looking results -- it can be great for landscapes with extremely uneven terrain and complex subjects -- but it also requires extra time at the computer. So I prefer to use my set of Singh-Ray ND Grads instead. There is something satisfying to me about producing a good shot in the camera that needs less work and time in the digital darkroom. Any image I can successfully achieve with my ND Grads feels more like a shot I 'crafted' in the field than one that's been assembled later. Here are some examples of how I use ND Grad filters.

"The image above was made near Oceanside, Oregon while I was co-leading a photography workshop. The tide was starting to come in, and I wanted to catch the point in time when the water had just receded, leaving streaks and frothy areas in the sand. Shooting had to be extremely quick as the tide was coming in approximately thirty feet in each wave and there was just time to get a couple shots before grabbing the tripod and running back to drier land. Observing a workshop full of photographers running back and forth at the edge of the surf had to be pretty comical for people to watch! For this shot, I grabbed my Singh-Ray three-stop hard-edged ND Grad filter and made the shot with a Nikon D3x and 24-70mm 2.8 lens. The exposure was about 0.5 sec at f/16. Getting down relatively low also helped accentuate the foreground, and the ND Grad really helped balance the exposure levels and avoid ghosting problems that I might have seen in the water with HDR.

"Not every shot can be made on a tripod and that's when grad filters can be especially helpful. This photograph of an area south of Glacier Bay, Alaska, was made using a Nikon D3 with a 70-200mm 2.8 lens handheld at 1/500 sec at f/5.6. What's not obvious is that I was making it from a rapidly moving ship! Although I often skip using a filter holder (easy to do with 4x6 grads when using a tripod), this time I mounted my filter in a holder to enable easy hand-held shooting of the camera. A two-stop hard-edged Singh-Ray grad filter was used to darken the sky and mountains while allowing details of the ocean and fishing boats in the foreground to remain. Getting the right composition involved precise timing. This would have been difficult, if not impossible, to match with exposure blending or HDR techniques due to the rapid movement of the ship.

"This third shot is more typical of how I use grad filters in the field. Taken at Weston Beach at California's Point Lobos State Park, I used a three-stop hard-step Singh-Ray ND Grad filter. As with the other shots, the timing was important. In addition to the tide, I wanted to have the surf hitting the rocks in the distant background. In this case, I supplemented the grad filter with a Singh-Ray LB Neutral Polarizer to remove glare from the rocks in the foreground. I then handheld the 4x6 grad in front of the polarizer and got the shot. This photograph was taken with a Nikon D3x and a 24-70mm lens at 0.5 sec and f/11. Although the grad filter helped tremendously in terms of timing the shot, there is a challenge: darkening the areas where I wanted to preserve some detail. In this case, it was the rocks on the right side of the photo. I did some simple dodging of that area in Lightroom and was finished, as opposed to spending significantly more time trying to blend two shots that included moving water. That would not be fun!

"Sometimes subtlety is best. In this photograph made in Boulder, Colorado, the morning light was relatively soft. I wanted a bit more detail in the sky without creating a noisy foreground due to exposure manipulation in the computer. I used a one-stop hard-edged grad just to give a light touch-up to the scene. One-stop grads can be terrific at times, especially with wide angle lenses. They avoid problems with uneven darkening of the sky that can appear with polarizers (especially at higher altitudes), and the look remains very natural. I used a tripod-mounted Nikon D3x and a 24mm 3.5 PC-E tilt/shift lens with some slight downward tilt and corresponding upward shift to get the depth of field and composition I wanted. As is often the case, I handheld the grad filter for the shot, which was made at 1/40 sec and f/16.

"This final photograph was made at Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, and illustrates a more complex use of grad filters. The light changes quickly in this location and even a few seconds difference can change the shot. Additionally, the range between the shadows and highlights is extreme at sunrise. In this case, I used a combination of Singh-Ray filters: a three-stop hard-edged filter at the top for the sky and an inverted two-stop hard-edged filter at the bottom, both inclined slightly to get the coverage I wanted. This left the central area with natural looking detail and kept the reflection slightly darker than the sky, which is always desirable for natural looking results. This shot was also made with my Nikon D3x and 24-70mm 2.8 lens at 1/3 sec at f/11.

"For me, Singh-Ray ND Grad filters are an essential element of my landscape photography equipment, and I always have them with me. Along with my Singh-Ray LB polarizers and Vari-N-Duo and Vari-N-Trio filters, I view them as critical to capturing the photographs as I visualize them." You can visit Rick's recently up-dated website to get a look at his images from various locations around the world.