As we are in the middle of a couple of West Coast workshops where coastlines, waterfalls, and woodland streams take center stage, now is a great time to discuss the use of neutral density filters. In the summer months where overcast days become rare even in a region fabled for it’s grey skies, ND filters are a necessary tool for outdoor photography.
Simply put, an ND filter will reduce the amount of light your sensor receives without affecting the color of your capture, therefore allowing you to use a wider aperture, capture a longer exposure – or both. This is especially useful when you’re shooting outdoors on a bright, sunny day, or trying to expose for soft waves and motion in water. If you’ve done this without an ND filter, then you know how hard it can be to get the exposure correct without having a blown-out sky and over-bright highlights.
ND filters come in several stops, with the cheaper 1, 2 or 3 stop filters being common – however I highly recommend spending the extra money on a 6-stop or even 10-stop ND filter. These will block out more light, and give you the greatest amount of leeway in using your camera settings to achieve your desired results.
A 6-stop filter will be good enough to expose for blurred waves and streams, and capturing the scene without an over-bright sky, while a 10-stop will create the foggy dream-like haze of water in motion. In either case, you will cut down on blown-out areas of your photo, balancing out the tones while keeping true-to-life colors and exposing for the proper amount of detail.
Though most of my use for ND filters involves apertures in the 11-13 range to capture all the details of a landscape, or as low as 5 for a scene that may not need all the details sprawling to the horizon, an ND filter will also allow you to open up your very wide. This way you can photograph a specific subejct outdoors on a brighter day while still keeping your aperture wide enough to achieve an out of focus background.
Some people are amazed to learn that I still enjoy getting out to photograph wildflowers. The greater truth is that I just enjoy getting out to photograph – anything. It fuels my soul, and as long as I can walk and hold a camera that’s where you’ll find me, out in the field working the subject, whatever it may be.
As spring gives way to summer, the snows on the mountains around Seattle melt away to reveal wonderful meadows of wildflowers. Mt Rainier is perhaps one of my favorite destinations for wildflowers, and so many can be found just a short walk from the parking lot. For those familiar with the area I like to head to Paradise, drive past the main parking lots and down the hill maybe half a mile, parking where the road crosses Edith Creek. From there you hike up towards the mountain and the wildflowers will soon surround you with a rushing creek and smooth boulders to work with. Hiking maybe a mile will afford beautiful views of Mt. Rainier filling the foreground with flowers.
When you head out to photograph wildflowers, one’s first instinct is to often isolate a perfect blossom at a 45 degree angle and go home happy. I call this the trophy shot – It looks just like the image on the packet at the home and garden store. We all have them, myself included, so get that shot – and then open your mind to more creative possibilities.
When I have lead workshops to Mt. Rainier in the past, I’ll let the students know that we have “arrived” at our destination for the next hour and they will politely line up on the trail and begin to photograph the first flower they see, usually right from the very direction they had approached it. After all, that’s why we’re here, no? No! We’re here to stretch our creative imaginations, to see in new ways, and uncover new possibilities. Consider how you approach the flower as you would any subject. Over the years I have critiqued so many photos and the answer is all too often the same, get lower and get closer.
My approach is generally to first walk through the area and get familiar with the myriad of options, perspectives, background possibilities, subtle differences in lighting. I’ll look at the subject from all sides possible before choosing a location to begin. Remember, recolonizing, fragile, easily accessible meadows like those of Mt. Rainier don’t allow for venturing off established trails. So please be aware of your surroundings, trail markers and warning signs.
Initially, I will photograph the larger scene with a wide angle lens (16-35, always with a polarizer adding a 2 stop hard ND filter as needed) helping to establish a sense of location. This can be useful later when trying to remember where I was when the image was taken, perhaps a hold-over from shooting slides when it could be three months before I would see any results from the days’ efforts. The wide angle lens allows me to include the surrounding plants, trees, terrain and mountains leaving the to flowers become a pattern of color in the lower foreground. I’ll look for leading lines in the pattern, gentle curves, a way for the viewer to interact with the image as they move through the foreground, middle ground and background – an old, well established formula from view cameras that still works today.
As I move in closer, I continue shooting with the wide angle lens, allowing first, a group of flowers and then individual blossoms to dominate the frame. This gives me the ability to still tell the story of location and environment through the greater composition. When people first purchase a wide angle lens they see it as an opportunity to get a greater view of the distant vista, to include the mountain and the surrounding hills – and are all too disappointed with the results. It’s not until they begin to see the wide angle as a tool for getting in close to the subject, I’m talking within inches – not feet, do they begin to see the possibilities.
Once satisfied, I’ll switch to my 70-200 lens and look to limit the composition to just the flowers themselves. Here I begin looking for those ubiquitous motifs in nature, patterns of petals filling the frame, alternating colors, lines and form, positive and negative space. Ultimately zooming from the wide end up to 200 mm abstracting the subject as I bring the viewer to see the flower in a unique way. I’ll then put on extension tubes which allow me to focus even closer. As you abstract the elements of the flower, digital photography now allows you to “rack focus” with a middle ground f-stop, say f11, shooting several images as you move the shallow depth of field marching towards the back of the composition, knowing later you will combine them into one image with a sharp focus throughout.
What about wind and movement? Use it! Sure you can purchase a “Plant Clamp” to hold the flower steady in a light breeze but why not use the movement to your advantage just as you would with flowing water in a stream. Try longer shutter speeds to abstract the flowers to a wash of color. Even introduce your own movement by intentionally panning with the camera up, down or sideways during the exposure. You may be surprised by the results, perhaps pleased even.
Working the subject I will be changing my location, moving in closer, shooting from the side as well as directly overhead – ultimately I may even spread the legs of my tripod to where it is less than 12 inches off the ground and be lying on my side in the dirt – why? Because it’s about unique perspectives. Flowers aren’t usually photographed from directly overhead nor do most people bother to look at them from the ‘flowers’ perspective. Great images are generally not made at a comfortable standing height having just walked up to your subject!
Don’t wait for the sunny day to go out and look for wildflowers – your best bet is an overcast day with even lighting. A sunny day is great for a picnic, and the flowers are beautiful to look at – yet the shadows caused by the direct sun put too much contrast in the image. The strong highlights and shadows will take away from the varied hues of the flowers, as well as giving you much less information to work with when editing your videos in a tool such as Adobe Lightroom. Overcast and even rainy days are some of my favorite for flower photography. Good thing I live in Seattle!
Color plays an important role in any visual art form. Along with composition, it’s one of the key elements of any great painting. Watch any film and the costumes, sets, and lighting are all designed with color in mind, meticulously planned by experts in various design specialties. Color photography is no different in situations where you can control your subject and environment, but there are complimentary colors to be found in nature as well.
Today we are looking at the color wheel with a focus on blue and orange. it’s one of the more prevalent colors found in nature, given the interaction of the sky and water in contrast to sunsets and the earthy oranges and browns of the natural world.
If you’re on a photo hunt and struggling to find a subject, consider the colors around you and how they might tell the story of a given location. Sunsets, rust, dirt, wood, leaves in the fall or the orange glow of firelight can all provide a starting point to shoot against a blue sky either directly or reflected in a local body of water. Finding splashes of color and ways to match them up against their compliment can be a fun challenge. If you’re shooting a subject such as a model in a particular location, it can definitely pay off to scout ahead for backdrops and background elements of a certain consistent color and have them dress accordingly!
In the field there are times when a standard lens is inadequate to capture a subject as you would like to portray it. Often I will use a 15mm fisheye to create more interesting angles and more dynamic compositions. This lens can improve the statement of a subject by changing the relationship of elements in the picture. Getting up close with this lens lends a strong sense of depth to a composition. Some say it distorts reality, but really you are changing the way you are perceiving perspective. The lens defines this way of looking for us and creates a fascinating relationship of foreground and background. Standard focal lengths can be boring! Take that step out of the ordinary.
Here are a few tips when shooting with a fisheye lens:
• Know your subject, and keep the composition simple – the distortion is already going to make your image more complicated. Make sure your subject stands out!
• Try different heights and angles – where you shoot from can intensify or lessen the fisheye effect.
• Fisheye lenses allow a lot of light to enter making them useful for night photography – therefore they can be great for shooting stars.
• Look for normally straight lines that will bend with the lens and lead the eye through your photograph
• Often I tell people not to put the subject in the center of the frame, but intentionally centering up a subject and using symmetry with a fisheye lens can often create a compelling image.
• When shooting in close quarters, a fisheye lens can be used to capture the elements that a normal lens would crop away. You can then either keep the distorted view, or use software like Adobe Lightroom to correct the effect and remove most if not all the distortion.
• Get close to your subject – a fisheye lens will bring so much of the surrounding detail into the frame, you can get much closer to your subject than you normally would.
When photographing stars and star trails in the night sky, you’ll first need to decide which type of composition you are aiming to create – pin points of light, or long streaks of star trails. Ideally you’ll also want to find a location away from populated areas to ensure as little artificial light as possible is illuminating the atmosphere.
Now is a great time to experiment with photographing stars as the week of the new moon in April has been designated “National Dark-Sky Week“, when all are encouraged to turn their down or out at night to decrease light pollution. I wouldn’t count on all your neighbors to participate in this little-known event and advocate getting far away from population centers to achieve the best possible results – but it’s definitely something to mention when you are posting your fantastic new star photos to social media to raise awareness!
For pin-point stars, set your shutter speed to 30 seconds; any longer and the points of light start to become ovals and the image takes on a blurry look – especially if you are including our own Milky Way galaxy. Set your lens to it’s widest aperture and the ISO to 1600 or higher and expose. With a high ISO some noise will be apparent, especially in the darker areas of the image. Editing software like Lightroom or Photoshop can help reduce noise quite a bit.
If your goal is to capture star trails – the elongated streaks of light that arc across the image, you will need a much longer exposure than 30 seconds – anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours. how long depends on the focal length of your lens and the effect you wish to achieve. Just as longer telephoto lenses will “magnify” movement such as camera shake while hand-holding it, a longer lens means less time before star trails become apparent in your image. Telephoto zooming will make the small details larger, so using a 400 mm lens will yield short but definite star trails. With a wide angle lens, a 16 mm for example, you will need at least 30 minutes of exposure before you begin to see decent star trails in your final image. For arcs of light to traverse the majority of the night sky you are generally looking at exposures of 2-5 hours.
In the days of film, you would simply leave your shutter one for the entire exposure using the bulb setting to manually open and close the shutter and your wristwatch to time the event. However, in the digital age you cannot leave your shutter open for that long without the risk of damaging the sensor and creating an exponential build-up of noise in the image. Rather than exposing for 2 hours straight, for the purpose of this example, you can shoot 240 thirty-second exposures (to equal 2 hours) and then later “stack” the images using a variety of software packages like Adobe Photoshop.
So then the question becomes “How do I take 240 exposures over the course of a couple hours?”. Certainly you could sit there with your cable release and click the button every 30 seconds, and if you only ever plan on attempting this technique once, perhaps that sounds like a fun way to spend a few hours. If you’d like to truly explore photographing the stars in this way, you’ll want to invest in a cable release with an interval timer, or an “intervalometer”. This device can be configured to work with your camera to control it in a number of ways. In this case you could set it to trigger your exposures for 30 seconds over a course of several hours while you catch some rest before setting up for the next shot.
One of the more overlooked and crucial aspects of capturing quality images of stars is to pay just as much attention to what is on the ground as to what is in the sky. You’ll want to incorporate interesting elements from the landscape around you; mountain peaks protruding into the sky, whole trees or branches, rock formations, saguaro cactus – etc. You will need to tell the complete story so the viewer can appreciate not only the stars but where you were when you created such a striking image.
When including the foreground elements you have several choices as to how to handle them. First you can allow them to be silhouettes by simply photographing the scene after the sun has set using their forms as artistic elements in the image – this is perhaps the easiest and most common approach. The second approach is to begin creating your photograph prior to the setting of the sun, at dusk. Capture your lower foreground elements in an image at sunset and then leave the camera undisturbed on the tripod. Once the sun has completely gone and you are ready to shoot the star trails as before. Later in post processing when you are stacking your images together you will have the dimly lit view of the landscape to include in your overall composition. Now is this cheating? No. This is simply the same technique I have used for years with slide film when I would create a dual exposure on the same slide, one at sunset followed by a several hour exposure later in the night without moving the camera. Stacking is simply how you achieve the same result in the digital age due to the delicate sensor.
The last technique I have used involves artificially lighting the foreground elements in your landscape. Using a light source such as a flashlight, powerful search light or even a flash unit you can manually paint light over the foreground images during your 30 second exposures. It takes practice to go over the foreground elements just right, if you pass over an area too many times you will create a hot spot, miss an area and it will be dark, but when all you have is a flashlight to “paint with” there is nothing to tell you where you’ve been and where you have yet to go. So practice with this and over time you will be pleased with what you are able to paint in the dark. Here in the northwest snow camping is a popular winter time activity and lights inside of your tent or igloo make for wonderful glowing foreground elements in these compositions.
When shooting star trails you have two basic choices for where to point the camera. You can either create concentric circles of light around a single point in the sky by aiming at the the North Star (Polaris) for those photographing in the Northern Hemisphere, or arcs of light by pointing your camera in any other direction. Be aware of which you are choosing to compose and include your foreground elements for framing and balance accordingly. Unfortunately there is no convenient star in the southern hemisphere to point your camera directly towards so you’ll need to find that magic spot some other way.
Lastly there are some atmospheric conditions to be concerned with when photographing all night – namely condensation on the lens. I have shot start trails in many areas of the world such as the dry deserts of Utah and Namibia where condensation is not a concern but if you were to shoot them with say the sea stacks of the pacific coast you’ll be battling fogging on your lens throughout the night. One approach is to use a small battery operated fan to blow a steady wind across your lens to keep it dry. A second, perhaps easier approach, is to tape hand warmers around your lens, the kind hikers and skiers use. You’ll need several and they are only good for one night worth of shooting but they will help keep your lens warm and dry.
Finally, to reiterate one of my first points – you need really dark skies. Pick a time when there is no moon or just barely a sliver and choose a location as far away and sheltered from the lights of near by cities as possible. For the pacific northwest where I live this means heading into the mountains, which make for great foreground subjects to include in the composition.
Enjoy, and I hope to see your photos show up on my social media pages in the coming weeks, and don’t forget to mention National Dark-Sky Week!
Now that Spring is officially a week away and the weather is warming up a bit here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s a great time to get out and shoot. Winter rains can be cold and nasty, but throughout the spring and early fall rainy overcast days that aren’t also affected by extreme temperatures and winds are the best days to get out and photograph! I woke up this morning to some cloud cover, light showers, and a relatively balmy 60 degrees, and was inspired to get the word out about how great such conditions can be for capturing fantastic images.
People are often surprised that I don’t run outside with my camera on a beautiful blue sky day. The clouds on an overcast day act like a huge softbox to soften the light, reduce contrast, and open up the shadows to details that would be completely lost on a bright sunny day. Falling rain diffuses and evens out the light even more. Some of my favorite images have been captured on gray rainy days.
You’ll need to check your lens frequently for spots but with a little care you can use the rain to your advantage. Use a tripod, polarizer, small aperture and long shutter speed to keep from recording individual falling drops of rain and maximize atmospheric softening. Additionally, the polarizer removes the shine from foliage for the richest colors possible. It’s rare that I don’t have a polarizer on the front of my lens. With standing water in your frame the falling rain will ripple the surface. The long shutter speed will blur movement the same way a waterfall can be rendered as a soft ethereal white drape over rocks.
The polar bears of Churchill are world famous, of course; like many photographers I have made pilgrimages there since the early 1980s. This has given me the opportunity to photograph the bears in various ways. From a tundra buggy, you can see the bears engaging in harmless battles as they wait to hunt seals once the ice that’s formed on Hudson Bay. From the air I recorded the beautiful patterns on the frozen lake’s surface as well as the bear’s shadow cast across the ice. To emphasize the barren tundra terrain and diminish the bear’s presence, I selected a 17-35mm wide-angle lens.
For The Living Wild I went to Churchill to photograph cubs newly emerged from their winter dens. Not only did I find several sows with their cubs, but I found them in near-perfect late afternoon light.
Because light meters are calibrated to read any scene as neutral gray, I set my aperture to overexpose by two stops from the reading to make sure the snow stays white. Without this compensation, the bears would be underexposed. This gives the most accurate exposures for white animals in the snow.
I was walking along the Ganges River in Varanasi, India, at dawn one morning when I saw the color. The sun rose through a layer of smoke and haze, and I thought, “Wow, that is a beautiful red orb.” I had to get that shot.
I was at this location during the Kumbh Mela, a massive gathering of Hindus along the Ganges that happens every 12 years. This is a time of great spiritual and cultural significance when holy men gather to bless the millions of people who have made the pilgrimage to the location. Many pilgrims had traveled to Varanasi and upriver to Allahabad. Many were crossing the river to the encampment on the far side. I contacted one of these people the night before, offering a dollar to act as my model the next morning, one hour before sunrise.
The next morning, I positioned the boat with my new model in the dark mud along the shore. I used a polarizer to take the shine off the water in the foreground, creating the illusion that the boat was floating.
To get the deep depth of field that I wanted, I shot with a wide-angle lens and a small f-stop of f/22, getting an exposure of one or two seconds, during which my model had to remain still. The foreground point of the boat is every bit as sharp as the distant horizon. I had to work quickly because the color of the sun was so important, and it lasted only a short time. once the sun rose above that layer of haze, it lost it’s color.
I loved creating the image, stylizing something these pilgrims did every day during Kumbh Mela, making the image more memorable. you don’t know whether the person is a woman or a man, which helps the viewer see him- or herself in that place.
Art Wolfe: Spotlighting is an often unpredictable event that can create and unexpected picture. With this image of a tiger in the dense forest, it was essential that I spot-meter the tiger’s illuminated face to ensure it was exposed correctly, since all of the deep shadows could have easily fooled the camera’s meter.
Martha Hill: I find this image intriguing. Tigers are among the most elusive of the big cats, and this image, by showing it lurking in the shadows, perfectly captures the animal’s mystery. To me it is a more evocative rendering of the subject than the more commonplace, out-in-the-open view we often see.
Art Wolfe: In the hours prior to this shot (of Bridalveil Fall), the valley had been covered in flat light under solid cloud cover. Late in the afternoon, however, the clouds began to break, sending shafts of light onto the faces of El Capitan and Half Dome, and, in this case, the waterfalls that rush over the cliffs in early spring.
Getting the proper exposure in a shot like this can be challenging. using my camera’s spot meter, I took a reading off the brightest area and opened up to keep the whole image from getting too dark.
Martha Hill: This image has drama and mood. Bridalveil Fall is one of Yosemite’s most photographed icons, but the unusual lighting conditions captured here set this image apart. The momentary beam of light illuminates the distant waterfall, directing the eye immediately to it. Under different conditions, such as an even lighting, we might overlook the waterfall altogether in this already dramatic landscape. The success of this image depends on timing – waiting for the exact moment when the light will highlight an interesting visual element.
Never discount the ability to create effective photographs during a rainy overcast day!
On my last day in Yang Shao, China we were hit with some pretty bad weather. Instead of staying in the hotel, I traveled to a view point along the Li River to shoot some limited edition, fine art black and white images. I knew from experience that images taken on a day like this could yield dreamy photos with just a basic amount of dodging and burning once converted from a color capture.
My workflow for these images was fairly simple. I created a virtual copy in Lightroom, desaturated the image by dragging the Saturation Slider to 0 and then using the Brush Tool to selectively dodge and burn areas of the sky to make the clouds pop. Then, Jay Goodrich, my co-leader on this trip, opened the images in Photoshop and added an Auto Curves adjustment layer that, to my surprise, made the images just jump off of the page. When I have more time than I do on location, I will further refine the black & white image by using NIK Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2 software. This will allow me to really fine-tune the image.
I am always amazed at how many ways there are to process an image to get the results that I am looking for in my pursuit of creativity.