All About Neutral Density Filters (Podcast 391)

All About Neutral Density Filters (Podcast 391)

Having been asked many times about the Neutral Density filters that I use for my long exposure images, today I’m going to explain what Neutral Density filters are, which one’s I use, and how I use them, along with some ways to easily calculate your new shutter speeds, and some guidelines on how much neutral density to use for various effects.

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Basically, neutral density or ND filters, stop a given amount of light from passing through your lens to your sensor, making it necessary to increase the length of the shutter speed to achieve the same exposure. There are applications when you might use an ND to shoot say portraits in bright light when you still want to use a wide aperture for a shallow depth of field. There are also times when NDs are used for video, because video usually looks best when shot at 1/50 or 1/60 of a second, and I’ve used both of these techniques, but today, we’re going to concentrate on the use of ND filters used to achieve longer shutter speeds to capture movement in our subjects, such as to make waterfalls look silky smooth, or to capture movement in clouds etc.

Are They Really Neutral?

The idea behind the ND is that they are supposed to be totally neutral in color, cutting down the amount of light passing through the lens without changing the color of the resulting photographs. The filters that I use pretty much are neutral and have never been a problem, though I have heard of people getting a magenta cast on their images. My friend David duChemin for example says that he gets a magenta cast sometimes when stacking two of his square resin filters. The type that attach to the front of your lens using a screw in filter holder.

I used to use these, and I think they’re useful especially if you want to use graduated neutral density filters, which are dark on one half and clear on the other, with a graduation between the two. These are used to darken the sky for example, when you have a light sky and a much darker foreground. You’d use a graduated neutral density filter here to even out the light in the scene.

I personally stopped using graduated ND filters a few years ago, as I simply haven’t found them necessary since the dynamic range in our cameras became so much greater. I keep in mind that I might sometimes have to shoot multiple images to merge together in Photoshop later, but we can bring so much detail out from the shadow areas in Lightroom or Nik Software’s Silver Efex and Color Efex Pro now, that I haven’t merged images like this in years either. The result is that my main use of NDs now is in the form of circular screw-in solid neutral density filters. I use a mixture of Kenko, Hakuba and Hoya filters, though mainly Kenko. I have also heard good things about B+W filters, though I have never used them myself.

Neutral Density Ratings

Neutral Density filters are often rated with a number so that we can understand how much light they will stop from entering our camera. An ND2 will block out one stop of light, so if for example we use this with a base shutter speed of 1/250 of a second, with a one stop ND2 filter fitted, we’d need to adjust the shutter speed to 1/125 of a second, twice as long as the original shutter speed, because we need to let in one stop more light, and that always require us to double one of our exposure settings, such as ISO, Aperture or Shutter Speed, but as I say, because most of the time we use NDs to increase the shutter speed, that’s what we’ll concentrate on here.

The next rating you’ll see is an ND4, which blocks out two stops of light, and then an ND8, which blocks out three stops of light. I know these numbers might seem counter-intuitive, but if you think of these numbers, 2, 4 and 8 as the denominator in fractions, it gets easier to understand. An ND2 cuts the light entering the camera by 1/2, an ND4 cuts the light to 1/4 and an ND8 cuts the light down to just an 1/8 of the original amount of light that would have entered the camera without the filter fitted.

So, because an ND2 cuts the light entering our camera to 1/2, we have to double the shutter speed to compensate for this, and I’m sure you already know that if we double the shutter speed, we are increasing it by one stop. This is why an ND2 gives us one stop of darkness, and an ND4 gives us two stops, and an ND8 gives us three stops of darkness, or longer exposure.

This calculation is continued, with the not so commonly seen values ND16, ND32 and ND64 and so on. Each consecutive rating halving the amount of light is passes through compared to the previous value filter. The next value filter I own is an ND400, which of course is not a fraction. The natural progression would be ND128, ND256 then ND512, as we keep halving, but the manufacturers decided that ND400 would be a good value to add to the range too. This does still cut the light down by 1/400 though, so if we do the math, we find that this is an 8 and 2/3 stop filter.

The absolute darkest ND filter I own, which is actually made for directly photographing the sun, is an ND100000, which cuts the light down to 1/100000 of it’s original brightness. This filter can give me multiple hour exposures if I want to, or still take me down to multiple minutes in very bright conditions, like when you are shooting towards the sun over the sea, for example, when there is a lot of reflectivity going on.

Optical Density

OK, so I know I’m geeking out here, but before we move on, I’d just like to cover the other neutral density number system that you might see quoted on ND filters, and that’s the Optical Density. Now, although I’ve figured out how to do these calculations in Excel using a logarithmic formula, Wikipedia says, and I quote “For an ND filter with optical density, the amount of optical power transmitted through the filter can be calculated from the logarithm of the ratio of the measurable intensity after the filter to the incident intensity.” That helped me to develop my Excel spreadsheet, but I’ve never really felt there is any benefit in trying to figure out what the hell that means, so let’s just look at a table of the values as a reference.

ND Rating
Optical Density
F-Stop Reduction
% of Transmission
No Filter 0.0 0 100%
ND2 0.3 1 50%
ND4 0.6 2 25%
ND8 0.9 3 12.5%
ND16 1.2 4 6.25%
ND32 1.5 5 3.13%
ND64 1.8 6 1.56%
ND128 2.1 7 0.78%
ND256 2.4 8 0.39%
ND400 2.6 8.64 0.25%
ND512 2.7 9 0.20%
ND1024 3.0 10 0.10%
ND2048 3.3 11 0.05%
ND4096 3.6 12 0.02%
ND8192 3.9 13 0.01%
ND100000 5.0 16.6 0.001%

You’ll also see that I included F-Stop reduction and the % of Transmission here too. The percentage of Transmission is the amount of light that gets through, starting at 100% with no filter, 50% for a one stop filter, and 25% for a two stop filter, and so on. This isn’t used to rate ND filters for photograph use though, so you don’t need to be too concerned with this. The F-Stop reduction for each filter is useful though, so do take a look at the chart though, especially if you have a filter with a known optical density, but you aren’t sure of its ND rating or how many stops it reduces the light by.

What Do I Use?

Although I own a couple of ND4 two stop filters, I actually don’t carry them with me any more. I mainly carry my ND8 and ND400 filters, in both the 77mm and 82mm filter sizes. I also have a circular polarizer in each filter size, and all six of these filters live in an envelope style filter case from a company called Marumi, that is really slim and slips nicely into my vest pocket. I basically lives there the whole time while I’m out shooting. I also often carry the ND100000 in my camera bag, just in case I need it.

Filters and Filter Case

Filters and Filter Case

Stacking Filters

I should mention too that it’s OK to stack ND fitlers, and the calculation for your new ND Value when doing this is really easy. You literally just add together the stops for each filter. For example, when I only owned an ND4 and ND8 filter, I would sometimes stack them for 5 stops of darkness. Nowadays, the ND8 and ND400 give me a hair under 12 stops of darkness, and this is enough to get me down to between 10 seconds and a couple of minutes in the middle of the day, depending on how much light I have to start with.

Stacked ND400 and ND8 Filters

Stacked ND400 and ND8 Filters

Remove the Protector

I know that there is a lot of polarity out there surrounding whether or not you should use a protector filter, and if you don’t use them, that’s fine. It’s your decision, but I do use them, and intend to continue to use them for a number of reasons that we don’t need to go into today. The reason I mention this now though, is because if you do use a protector filter, you will often need to remove them when you stack multiple neutral density filters.

I try to buy the narrow framed filters when available, so I can usually get away with one ND on top of a protector filter, but using two causes vignetting, which is where the corners of the image goes dark, on my 16-35 and 24-70mm lenses when used at the wide end, so whenever I’m stacking filters, I take my protector filter of first.

Another way to avoid vignetting of course is to use the large square filters like the LEE system, but I’m not a fan of square filters. They have their benefits, like only having to buy one system that you can easily use with many filter thread sizes, but I can use step down filters with my circular filters if I wanted to as well. I choose not to for the same reason that I choose not to use the large square filter systems, which is because there is no easy way to use a lens hood with either solution. LEE apparently do an absolutely awful lens hood for their system that very few people like, and once you start using a larger screw in filter with a step-down adapter, your lens hoods can’t be attached either.

Not a Fan of Vari-ND

And while we’re on the subject of systems that I don’t personally like, I’m not a fan of the variable neutral density filters that change in density as you rotate the front element either. These are basically two polarizing filters that create a varying amount of darkness depending on their rotational relationship to each other, but because they are using polarization to create the effect, the results can be pretty nasty when used on wide angle lenses, with some parts of the scene much darker than others. I bought a Singh-Ray Vari-ND, and although it worked well with longer focal length lenses, and I found it useful for video, it was pretty much useless on my 16-35mm lens, so I stopped taking it out with me.

Here are two images both shot with the Vari-ND at 20mm, but with the ND rotated slightly differently. The first image (left) was shot at 1.6 seconds, with a bit of the effect showing, but the second image (right) was a 4 second exposure, and I tried to get a longer exposure, but also in an attempt to get rid of the patchy darkness that can be clearly seen in these images. In the end I gave up, and this was pretty much the end of the Vari-ND for me. If you click on the images to view them larger in your browser, then use your mouse or keyboard arrow keys to jump back and forth between them, the effect I’m talking about is very easy to see.

Winter Scene with Vari-ND - 1.6 seconds

Winter Scene with Vari-ND – 1.6 seconds

Winter Scene with Vari-ND - 4 seconds

Winter Scene with Vari-ND – 4 seconds

Another reason that I don’t like variable ND filters, is because they don’t give you a definitive indication of the levels of density. All of the variable NDs I’ve seen, have a series of notches or marks without any numbers, so you can’t easily just set them at exactly 7 stops for example. You can take a good guess, but then you may end up basing a two minute exposure on that, only to find that it’s under or over exposed, and I don’t want to mess around with exposures that long.

The fact that they give a smooth transition between often 2 and 8 to 10 stops of density can be a benefit of course and is workable if you are using Aperture Priority or otherwise allowing the camera to control the exposure, because you just rotate the filter and let the camera do the math. I rarely use Aperture Priority though, as many of my longer exposures are more than 30 seconds anyway, which is the longest exposure my camera will do before I have to jump into Bulb mode and do my own exposure calculations anyhow.

Calculating the New Shutter Speed

So, let’s look at how I do my exposure calculations in the field. For exposures up to a few seconds, I generally just use Live View on my camera with Exposure Simulation turned on, so I can see on the live histogram exactly where my exposure is, and don’t really need to do any difficult mental calculations. If you don’t have Live View or a live histogram, you can just shoot a test frame, then check your histogram in image playback mode, and adjust as necessary.

Remember, you generally want the brightest part of your image, which is the right side of the graph, to be just touching the right shoulder of the histogram box. These days there is usually a line around the box, so it’s easy to see, but if your camera is getting a little long in the tooth, you may need to be careful with this, as many didn’t have the box. See the episode of Exposing to the Right (ETTR) if you want more information on why it’s better to expose this way.

One thing to note too is that when you use a heavy ND filter, like the ND8, or even darker, like the ND400 or ND8 and ND400, it starts to get very difficult, if not impossible to see through the viewfinder to compose your shot. What I sometimes do is set up my shot, deciding on my composition and get it focused etc. then find my ideal exposure without the neutral density filter on, and then screw the filter or filters on to the front of the lens and mentally calculate my new exposure.

For example, in this shot (below) I was photographing a waterfall in the daytime, and without an neutral density, the shutter speed was 1/20 of a second at f/16, with ISO 100. In this case, I only intended to use an ND8, so all I needed to do was put the filter on, and check the exposure in Live View, but what I generally find myself doing is counting out in clicks from my base exposure. I have my cameras set up to adjust exposure in 1/3 stop increments, as most Digital SLRs do, and this means that all I need to do is increase the shutter speed by nine clicks on the main dial. Three clicks per stop, multiplied by three.

Skógafoss (Falls)

Skógafoss (Falls)

Clicking and Counting on One Hand

If necessary, you can use this technique for heavier ND filter combinations. If I use the 8 and 2/3 stop ND400, I can literally just count in sets of three clicks, folding a finger for each three, which is one stop, until I get to 8 stops, and then add two more clicks for the last 2/3. The Japanese way of counting to ten on one hand is useful here too, because I’m using my second hand to rotate the main dial.

I start with an open hand, with all five fingers extended for zero, then fold the thumb in for one, while counting three clicks, then the index finger for two stops, counting another three clicks off on the main dial, and son on. Once I fold my little finger or pinky for five stops, I then re-extend the little finger for six stops, still counting three clicks per stop on the main dial, and work my way back, until I extend my middle finger for eight stops, then count off two more clicks for the final two thirds of a stop.

If I’m using my ND400 with my ND8 for 11 2/3 of a stop, I’d keep going until I had all my fingers extended again for ten, then I simply start again folding the thumb back in for my eleventh stop, then rotate the main dial twice more for my final two thirds. One problem with counting and clicking with this much neutral density of course, is that if you aren’t working in quite bright conditions, you will go past 30 seconds, and the camera won’t go past 30 seconds just by rotating the main dial, so you have to use Bulb mode and a timer or cable release, which we’ll get to in a moment.

For me, I know that 1/125 of a second is the slowest base shutter speed that I can be using before I will go past 30 seconds when using my ND8 and ND400 together. So, if my shutter speed is is lower than 1/125 a second, I start with two clicks on the main dial, as 2/3 of a stop is more difficult to calculate in my head later, so I like to get that out of the way.

As an example, let’s say, we just we have a base shutter speed of 1/100 of a second. From there I count my first two clicks, for 2/3 of a stop, taking me down to 1/60 of a second. Now I have 11 full stops to count to get my new exposure. That will take me through 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, 1/4, 0.5 and I get to 1 second after 6 stops. Once you get to full seconds, I stop clicking the main dial and start doubling the seconds, so 2, 4, 8, 16 to 32 seconds, which is the time I have to program into my Remote Timer.

Note too that if I want to go even longer than 32 using this same example, I’ll start looking at my aperture and ISO again. Generally, I’ll also be using ISO100, but changing that to ISO50 would take me to 64 seconds. If I was already at f/16, I might consider going to f/22, although I don’t like to because diffraction can start to make the image softer, but if that will take me from 64 seconds to 128 seconds or 2 minutes 8 seconds, then I might go for that, and deal with the diffraction later, using Canon Digital Lens Optimizer, although I rarely find I have to with my current lenses.

Anyway, this may not be a very scientific way of doing these calculations, but it works for me. Remember that a lot of the time I’m all togged up and often even have gloves on, so getting my phone out and using an ND Calculator can take me longer, plus, most of the ND Calculators available don’t give you the ability to stack filters, or they don’t have the ND400 in the list, or they use the optical density instead of the ND number, so I generally find them quite frustrating to use. When we get around to adding the functionality to my iPhone app, it will be a very different story.

Bulb + Remote Switch

Canon Timer Remote Controller TC-80N3

Canon Timer Remote Controller TC-80N3

So, as I said, you will run into problems, especially on Canon cameras, if your exposure goes past 30 seconds, because most of them only go to 30 seconds as their longest camera timed exposure. After that you have to start using the Bulb mode. In Bulb, you have to use a cable or remote release, and time the exposure yourself, or use a Remote Timer, and program the exposure time in, then press the button, and it will start and stop the exposure automatically.

If you have a basic cable release, you need to start the exposure, then time it and release the button to stop the exposure. Most cable releases have a locking mechanism so you don’t actually have to hold the button down the entire time, but I think I’d find it a pain having to sit over a stop watch or count out seconds on my watch while the exposure is made.

Another quick tip here on the use of the Remote Timer–I generally also use a 2 second timer before I start my exposure, so that the camera is totally free of any vibration that I might have caused by touching the camera, by the time the exposure starts. Because of this, I just add two seconds to the exposure time that I set with the Remote Timer. This way the Remote Timer starts the two second timer on the camera initially, and then the real exposure starts two seconds later, and I get the exposure time that I want.

Also, if it’s windy, I tie the remote timer around the tripod head so that it doesn’t dangle and bang on the tripod legs, vibrating my setup. If it’s really windy, I hold the remote timer ensuring that I don’t pull on the cable, which would again wiggle the camera, messing up my shot. I’ve often thought that it would also be a good idea to put some Velcro or magic tape on the back of the timer and another piece on one of my tripod legs, so I could just stick the timer on there while the exposure is running.

Don’t Bother with Mirror Lockup Any More

Note too that I haven’t mentioned Mirror Lockup, basically because I don’t use it any more. Some of the early DSLR cameras with Live View used to jiggle the mirror around before they started the exposure, even when shooting in Live View, so mirror lockup was necessary for a while, but now, if your shooting in Live View the mirror is already up, and doesn’t move when the exposure starts, so mirror lockup isn’t necessary when shooting in Live View, which I use pretty much exclusively when I’m shooting long exposures.

I’m able to do this, even in Bulb Mode, because the Live View on Canon cameras actually still give you a pretty good idea of what you are shooting, with an ND8 and even my ND400 sometimes, depending on how light the scene is before I apply the filters.

ISO Shift Compose Technique

This brings me to another useful technique that I sometimes use when applying a lot of neutral density. Although Live View can give me a pretty good idea of what my image will look like even when I have a certain amount of neutral density applied, once the available light drops or you start to really go heavy on the NDs, even Live View goes dark, and you can’t see to compose your image or focus.

In these situations, you can remove the filters, and check the composition and focus through the lens if there is enough available light, but another trick you can try is to just crank your ISO way up. For example, if you have an ND400 on for just under nine stops of neutral density, and you are shooting at ISO 100, you can crank your ISO up as high as it goes, which will usually give you about eight or nine stops more sensitivity. The image on the LCD gets very grainy when you go this high, but you can at least see to compose your image and usually see well enough to know when your focus peaks, even if it’s not totally sharp.

This is often easier than removing the filters, and is especially useful if the front of your lens rotates when you focus, as you can shift your focus when you screw the filters back on otherwise.

When to Go Heavy?

OK, so earlier we looked at a waterfall photograph, that I shot with a 0.4 second exposure. Waterfalls will smooth over like that from around a quarter of a second, while maintaining a little bit of texture. They really start to smooth over from 1/2 a second or more. I shoot waterfalls with two or three second exposures too, if I want to really smooth the water over. It really depends on the effect you are looking for. I rarely shoot waterfalls in direct sunlight, as they just look terrible with all the contrast. It’s usually either cloudy or I visit them at a time of day that I know they’ll be in the shade due to the position of the sun. This means that you can usually get down to around half a second quite easily with a three stop ND8 filter.

Falling water is moving quite fast though. If you want to smooth over the sea, which moves slower and doesn’t smooth over as easily, or even clouds, that move slower still, you have to use more neutral density. Coincidentally, if we continue using the 1/20 of a second starting exposure that I had before adding the ND8 for the photo we viewed earlier, I would get a 20 second exposure if I used the ND400 instead.

20 seconds will smooth over a relatively rough sea, but won’t give you much cloud movement. Of course, it depends on how quickly the clouds are moving, but generally, if you want cloud movement, you’ll want to get down to at least 30 seconds, and if possible, go down to more than a minute. This photo from the Falklands a few years ago was a 2 minute 30 second exposure, so the clouds have moved significantly. You can also see that the relatively rough sea has smoothed over, but leaving some texture, which I quite like in this shot.

Wrecked Minesweeper

Wrecked Minesweeper

There’s also a seagull in the bottom left of the frame that stayed very still for me during the exposure. There were also some gulls on the boat that moved, leaving a ghostly outline, which I also generally like. Notice too that I more often than not convert my long exposure images to black and white in Silver Efex Pro. Sometimes the color works, but I generally just think long exposures look better in black and white.

Use a Good Sturdy Tripod

One last thing that I want to touch on before we finish, is that once you slow your shutter speed down with neutral density filters, you’re not only going to need a tripod, you’re going need a good sturdy tripod. Don’t think that just because you are going to have to carry it for a while that you can get away with a flimsy little thing. Also, don’t fall into the trap that all Gitzo tripods are good either. Gitzo make a whole range of tripods, and even their smaller carbon fiber tripods don’t cut it for long exposures with heavy gear, especially when the wind gets up. For long exposures you just have to bight the bullet and use a big sturdy tripod. See my episode on what tripods I use and when for more information on this.

So, I hope that was useful for you. As you know, I love long exposures, and try to make time to do them whenever possible. It does take more time, literally, but you really find yourself in a location for a while if you make a couple of exposures, but watch what the clouds are doing, try a few different shutter speeds, try to shoot a few frames, and enjoy the process. Of course, long exposures also work with people on a busy street in the middle of the day, and you maybe get one person that stands still for you. The possibilities are endless once you get into this, so I hope you give it a try if you don’t already do long exposures.


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Show Notes

Why Expose to the Right (ETTR)

What Tripods I use and When I Use Them

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Photos from the Island Paradise Okinawa (Podcast 349)

Photos from the Island Paradise Okinawa (Podcast 349)

Today for the first time in a while, I’m going to walk you through my thinking as I made a number of photographs during my extended stay in Okinawa recently, after completing the first Pixels 2 Pigment workshop that I did down on that beautiful island.

I flew into Okinawa on August 2, on the tail end of two tropical typhoons that had threatened to keep me from making the flight. The weather wasn’t great for most of the nine days we’d spend there, but as usual, that’s often not a bad thing from a photography perspective, as we’ll see.

Before I left for Okinawa I’d done a search on 50opx for shots from photographers on the island, and one of the things I saw a lot of that I decided I wanted to shot was the stone jetties that we can see in this first image (below). I saw a lot of these throughout the week, but as luck would have it, I noticed this one from the car as we pulled into the town of Onna, where we’d be staying.

Stone Jetty

Stone Jetty

(Click to enlarge images then navigate back and forth with your mouse or keyboard arrow keys.)

I’ve been doing long exposure shots for a long time now, and Okinawa was to be no exception. Here I used my Hoya NDx400 and NDx8 neutral density filters stacked together. For those that might not be familiar with neutral density filters, they basically cut down the amount of light that enters the camera through the lens without changing it’s color at all. The NDx400 cuts out nine stops of light, and the NDx8 cuts out three stops of light, so that gives me a total of 12 stops of darkness, which is necessary to get reasonably long exposures in bright daylight conditions.

If you click on the thumbnails at the bottom of this blog post, you will open the images in a viewer that includes the shooting information, and you can see that this image was shot at f/22 for 100 seconds. The shutter speed without the neutral density filters would have been 1/40 of a second. When using this amount of filtration, I generally compose the image and find the “ideal” exposure without the filters initially, then count out my long exposure based on these exposure settings.

My math is terrible, so I literally just double up the base number until I reach the new exposure. Here for example I would have doubled 1/40 to 1/20, then 1/10, 1/5, 0″4, 0″8, 1″6, 3″2, 6″, 13″, 25″, 50″, then finally reaching 100″ for the correct 12 stops reduced exposure. Another tip here though, as you can see, the camera makes slight adjustments as it moves through the shutter speeds, as in 6″ doubles to 13″ not 12″. I often use the camera, clicking the wheel three times per stop until I get down to something close to 30 seconds, which is the longest exposure I can set on the camera before going into Bulb mode. Then I just double the last few steps for the final exposure.

You can also just ignore the cameras incremental steps, and just double up especially as you will be setting the actual number of seconds on your remote timer, and you aren’t tied to camera increments at that point, but using the camera’s increments helps to get a more accurate exposure and prevents you having to tweak too much, which you don’t want to be doing too many times with long exposures.

I used Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2 for the black and white conversion of course. I won’t go into detail on how to use this today, but you can go back to Episode 297 of this Podcast for a video walkthrough of Silver Efex Pro 2 that I did just under a year ago now.

Artistic decisions that I made when composing this shot were to include the horizon of the sea to put the stone jetty into context, but the jetty was the main subject, so I didn’t need to include much of the sky. I got down a little lower than than eye level, to give us some good detail in the stone, but didn’t go so low that I lost the angle on the jetty. Of course the camera was tilted down for this perspective and shot at 51mm with my 24-70mm f/2.8 L lens.

While I was waiting for a few long exposures of the jetty to run their course, I grabbed my 100mm Macro lens and shot one of the myriad of hermit crabs that were everywhere on the beach at this spot (below). I tried to track and follow this little guy without interrupting his busy day, but he was either scooting all over the place trying to get out of my way, or hunkered down in his shell while I was too close for comfort.

Peekaboo!

Peekaboo!

I eventually just picked him up, and placed the shell down on the sand positioned so that the crab would be facing me like this if he came back out of his shell. And sure enough, after just a few seconds the shell started to raise up and I grabbed a series of frames of which this was one of the last. I actually created an animated GIF image of the entire movement, which I posted on Google+. Here’s a link to that in case you are interested.

There were also some almost transparent crabs that had made little burrows in the sand and I spent some time on all fours using the Angle Finder C to look down into the viewfinder rather than crooking my neck, but while I was over the whole the little buggers didn’t come out. I could see another crab coming out and doing his thing out of the corner of my eye as I waited for one, but then when I moved over to the other burrow, he stayed put and the first one started coming out again.

I was with my wife and had agreed that mornings and late afternoon would be mine for photography, but I wouldn’t spend too much time photographing during the day, so after a while I gave up on this. Had I had more time I’d probably have set my camera up on a tripod and left it focussed on the burrow, then moved away and triggered the camera remotely when the crab came out, but it wouldn’t have been fair to have started all that on my wife’s time.

After these first few photos, we had the Pixels 2 Pigment workshop, that I reported on last week, and then between Monday and Thursday the following week, we continued to head out, often traveling around craft and glassware shops during the day as my wife enjoys them, and then I’d stop every so often on our travels and most evenings, trying not to use up too many of my photography time points.

On the Tuesday, I’d arranged to go and interview Shawn Miller, the underwater photographer that I spoke to in Episode 347, but we were out driving before that and I spotted the white pier at the Busena Marine Park, and just had to stop and get a few shots.

Busena Marine Park Pier

Busena Marine Park Pier

The seas were rough, with perhaps 5 to 7 meter waves, some crashing into the white structure that you can see at the end of the pier in this image (above). I wanted to do a long exposure, but if I went out to a minute or more, I felt as though the effect would smooth the water out a little too much, and we’d lose the sense of the rough seas, so I just used the NDx400 for nine stops of neutral density, and this gave me a 30 second exposure at f/16, ISO 100. I felt this maximized the rough look of the waves and left some texture in the water, which is what I wanted.

Note how I used the rule of thirds here and put the horizon along the top third. I also included the little outcrop of rocks on the far right, showing us that the land was close there, but I didn’t go so wide as to include the wall that started just to the right of the rocks. I often find a hint of what is there is enough. As I’ve said before, photography and composition is often more about what you leave out of the frame, than what you include.

This shot was actually quite a close call as to whether or not to do a black and white conversion, because the sea was a beautiful emerald green, but the black and white won out, as it added some beautiful contrast and enhanced the texture in the water, which is what I was after. In this next photo though (below) which I called “Sleeping Dragon”, I decided to keep the color, as this was less about the texture in the water, and more about the rock texture, and the yellow sand and emerald green sea became supporting actors, and their color helped to tell the story.

Sleeping Dragon

Sleeping Dragon

This was a 55 second exposure, again using only the NDx400, and ISO 100 at f/16, and the photo is straight out of the camera, which by the way was the EOS 5D Mark III. All photos we’re looking at today were shot with the 5D Mark III except the hermit crab, which was shot with the 1D X.

This next photo is probably my favorite shot from the trip. On August 8, David Orr and Shawn Miller met us at the hotel, and took us out for the day. As we drove along the east coast of Okinawa heading north, as soon as we saw the waves crashing against this rock in the sea, we all sprang up in our seats and started looking for somewhere to park David’s car.

Rocks at Sukuta

Rocks at Sukuta

I started off shooting this with my NDx400 and I think also the NDx8 for 12 stops of darkness, but again, the really long shutter speed was not working here. It made things too smooth. I observed the waves for a while and realized that the length of time the water was in the air before it started to fall down again was about one second, so I used just the NDx8 to get a one second exposure.

I usually shoot with LiveView and a two second timer, but that made timing more difficult, and as I was already in LiveView which automatically means Mirror Up mode, I just used my Remote Timer as a shutter release switch to trip the shutter, while keeping my hands away from the camera. The result is the water is recorded in the air just long enough to record the movement, but retain a lot of texture and the clouds have hardly moved as well.

Here is the color version as well, straight out of the camera, so that you can see how much more powerful the black and white image is. The color version is nice, and that emerald green sea is hard to throw out, but the black and white version just works so much better in my opinion.

Rocks at Sukuta (color version)

Rocks at Sukuta (color version)

After the beautiful rocks in the sea at Sukuta, we drove a little further along the coast and David showed me the rock in the sea that he has a beautiful photograph of, that he printed at the workshop. There was a line of islands in the background from the near side of the beach where we stopped, so I walked down to the end of the beach to get a better angle. When I got there, there was still land in the background, so I unzipped the bottom half of my trousers, took my shoes and socks off, and waded around the outcrop.

Tree & Rock

Tree & Rock

The water was deeper than I thought it would be though, so I ended up with sea water coming up to my crotch, and I’d forgotten about the wallet in my pocket, which ended up sodden. I also stood in an ants nest for the whole time I was shooting some long exposures, as I needed to get as close to the other side of the outcrop as possible to stop the rocks to the left getting too close to the larger rock. Standing in the ants nest was probably not the most intelligent thing to do as I didn’t know if there were any poisonous species down here, but I kept looking down and checking my legs, and they didn’t seem interested in climbing on and stinging me.

I think it was all worth it for this shot (above), but I got told off by my wife when we met up with them later. She’d gone on ahead with David’s wife, and she was not pleased when I showed her the contents of my wallet which were all brown now from the tanning in the leather. I sat in the sun wafting the notes around for a while though, and we were pretty much good to go.

Here’s a shot of me walking back down the beach after wading out around the outcrop of land, courtesy of Shawn Miller. Don’t laugh at my pasty white legs, OK!? 🙂

Martin's Pasty White Legs - © Shawn Miller

Martin’s Pasty White Legs – © Shawn Miller

So here’s the last shot we’re going to look at today, which was from the second to last stop of the day. The sun was just starting to turn the sky a little orange as it neared the horizon, and although there was no sunset to speak of, it was casting a faint pink tone across the water, as we can see here.

Alligator's Back

Alligator’s Back

These rocks were pretty nondescript, but I eyed them as I walked along the coast looking for interesting subjects, and once again figured that a long exposure might make something of the scene. This was exactly 60 seconds, with the NDx400, and I really like the affect of the lined up rocks just sticking out of the sea. It looks to me like an alligator just below the surface with the spikes on its back poking up through the surface. You can clearly see these rocks in the sea from this Google map.

We had a great time, and I’d like to once again thank David and Shawn for taking us out for the day, and to David’s wife Naoko, and Pete Leong’s wife Haruna, for coming out with us too and keeping my wife Yoshiko company while us blokes dragged our feet making photographs.

We both had a wonderful time down in Okinawa, thanks to the wonderfully kind people down there, both old and new friends, as well as the locals, who seem to so naturally go out of their way to help total strangers.

Next Week

Next week I’ll probably bring you a review of the new Really Right Stuff 5D Mark III L-Plate and the totally redesigned L-Plate for the EOS 1D X, as well as my new TVC-34L Versa Series 3 Tripod in a Really Right Stuff love-fest Podcast. That will be the last regular Podcast before I leave for the US to continue on my Pixels 2 Pigment workshop tour. During September and October I’ll try to bring you episodes and interviews from the field, as time allows, so do stay tuned for these future episodes, but I apologize in advance for what will undoubtedly be a someone irregular release schedule.

Note too that I was on TWiP+ this week with Frederick Van Jonhson, as well as my monthly co-host slot on the regular This Week in Photo Podcast which will be released tomorrow. Both were a lot of fun, so do check those out as well, at thisweekinphoto.com.


Show Notes

Hoya NDx400 filter: https://mbp.ac/x400

Hoya NDx8 filter: https://mbp.ac/ndx8

Music by UniqueTracks


Audio

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Podcast 241: Hokkaido Photography Tour and Workshop 2010 #2

Podcast 241: Hokkaido Photography Tour and Workshop 2010 #2

Following on from Episode 237, this week we look at some images from the Landscape leg of the 2010 Hokkaido Workshop. We also hear participants comments from the entire Hokkaido Tour (only in the audio available in iTunes or at the bottom of this post).

Before we look at these images, do note that we will not be visiting these locations on the 2011 workshops. I’ve changed the itinerary based on participant’s feedback. Basically it takes a long time to get over to the middle of the island, and with the bad weather we had this year, it took even longer, and some of the 2010 participants didn’t feel that it was worth the time to get over to central Hokkaido for these scenes. I have added some new locations for 2011 that offer similar opportunities, but we will generally be spending more time in each of the locations that we looked at in Episode 237, and I’m also working more structured lectures and training into the 2011 schedule too.

X-RiteI’m very pleased to be able to announce that I have teamed up with the kind folks at X-Rite, the makers of the ColorMunki and ColorChecker Passport, and will be integrating hands-on sessions on color calibration in the digital workflow.

Anyway, let’s look at some photos from the second leg of the 2010 tour. Having made our way from the Shiretoko Peninsula to central Hokkaido, and the Daisetsuzan Mountain range, we would spend the night of the 7th of February at a hotel close to the cable-car station, from where we could take a cable-car that would take us close to the top of Mount Asahi the following day, weather permitting. The plan for this first afternoon was to to shoot around the cable-car station, and I had walked up the ski slope with one of the participants, as he picked my brain on my thoughts about subject and composition. I honed in on the pair of trees that we can see in image number 2497.

Black and White Trees

Black and White Trees

These trees attracted my attention because one was almost black, and the other almost white. When you see something like this in nature it’s often a good idea to try and capitalize on the situation in some way. I started with a wider lens, but switched to the 70-200mm F2.8 lens and walked back a fair distance, so that I could use the stacking effect of the lens to make the two trees appear to be almost on top of each other, although they were already very close. This perspective would also enable me to line up the top of the trees almost with the top of the trees in the distance, and a wide aperture of F3.2 and long focal length would also enable me to throw the background out of focus, even from a distance, to create some separation between the main subjects and the background. I also ensured that the two small trees in the mid-ground to the right were not overlapping the right side of the white tree. I really wanted a little separation there, or they would have acted as a conduit between the foreground trees and the background.

The following day, we got to the station to board the first cable car up the mountain, and I was happy to see just the occasional, although very small, patch of blue, through the clouds that were moving pretty fast across the generally overcast sky. It was snowing, but I figured it would be worth going to the top, in the hope that we’d catch one of these small patches of blue. I’m not always one for having blue skies in my shots. In fact, I usually avoid blue skies altogether. But when you are talking about the top of the tallest peak in Hokkaido at 2,291m or 7,516ft, being cloudy means almost zero visibility and danger too, if you wander too far from the cable-car station. We needed it to clear to give us a chance of photographing anything worth photographing.

We’d been walking around the outside of the station, trying to get to a vantage point that would be worth shooting from if it cleared, and then we wandered up the start of the ski-slope to about as far as we could go without skis or snow-shoes. As we got there, the cloud started to thin, and we started to be able to see the ghostly white outline of the peak of Mount Asahi in the distance. We set up our tripods, and shot what we could, with a histogram that was like a small spike on right side, indicating that we were shooting very slightly different shades of almost pure white. I assured the group that we’d be able to salvage something from the shots with tone-curves and levels etc. and we continued to shoot for a while, and then, as if someone started to slowly open the curtains, the sky cleared from the left, as we can see in image 2501.

Incredible Mount Asahi

Incredible Mount Asahi

It was a beautiful sight. You can see in this image that it was still snowing. We all had a frantic few minutes of photography making the most of this amazing clear spell. Australian skiers stopped beside us looking in wonder at the top of Mount Asahi. One told us that they’d been skiing here for five days now, and this was the first time they’d seen the summit. We were most certainly being granted a rare look at the face of our mountain host. It didn’t last long. I felt sorry for an elderly Japanese gentlemen, that walked up and dropped his tripod down beside us as the cloud cover thickened again, hiding the summit once more. Luckily though, as we made our way back down on the cable car, it did clear again, and I’m sure he got himself a few beautiful shots as well.

They don’t heat the cable car too much, so there’s no concern about condensation on the way down. Because of this, I usually keep a camera out of my bag, with a 70-200mm F2.8 lens attached, as there are often opportunities to shoot from the cable car, such as my shot of a skier through the trees, in image 2502. The skier here helps to give us some scale in the scene, and I like this image more because it tells us how beautiful this location is to ski in, as well as a location for the occasional group of crazy, yet very lucky photographers.

Skiing the Winter Wonderland

Skiing the Winter Wonderland

On the way down the mountain we stopped at a spot that we’d also visited in 2009, to shoot the pillows of snow in one of the rivers that flows down from the mountains, as we can see in image 2504. This is the landscape or horizontal orientation version of two images that I uploaded. I like both of them, selected this one to look at today, as it enables us to see more detail in the water and the texture of the snow. This was shot with the 70-200 at 200mm, with ISO 100 and an aperture of F11. I selected F11 for depth-of-field, but also to get a slow shutter speed, but I also needed to use an NDX400, which is a nine stop neutral density filter to reach a shutter speed of two and a half seconds, to render the water that smoothly. We were standing on a bridge too, so you have to make sure that you don’t make your exposure while cars or trucks are driving over the bridge, as this will often cause vibration and ruin your shot. Even though I wanted nice soft dreamy water, the details in the snow have to be sharp, or it doesn’t work.

Snow Pillows

Snow Pillows

In image 2505, we see the view from the other side of the bridge, which is much more picturesque than the side from which I shot the last image. The water was too far away to be able to appreciate the effects of a slow shutter speed image, so I removed the NDX400 for this shot, and exposed it for 1/320th of a second instead, still at F11. I shot this with the 24-70mm F2.8 lens, so the detail is amazing, and it works very well in a large print, with the texture of the snow and the shadows from the small trees etc. I converted these images to black and white with a slight blue tone in Silver Efex Pro by the way.

Mount Asashi Foothills

Mount Asashi Foothills

Later in the day, we arrived in the Biei area, and made our way to the Takushinkan, which is the gallery of Japanese photography Shinzou Maeda, who made this area of Japan famous, and popular with photographers. Unfortunately, I knew that the gallery was going to be closed for the winter months from this year, but there are some beautiful trees in the grounds of the gallery, so we visited in the hope that we’d still be able to get in, and we were able to. One of my favorites shots from here is number 2506, in which we can see three trees, with the low afternoon sun behind them. This was shot at around 3:30PM, so there was around another hour or so of daylight left, but we were shooting up at the trees, and the hill behind it, so the sun was almost touching the horizon from our perspective. I’ve actually just added a new paper to my fine art print options, which is Hahnemuhle’s Fine Art Baryta. This is a beautiful gloss fine art paper, and this particular photograph looks absolutely beautiful printed on it.

Trees at Takushinkan

Trees at Takushinkan

Ten minutes later, and just to the right of these first three trees, there’s a line of four small trees, which we can see in image 2507. I like this image because of the beautiful soft tones and texture in the snow as it forms the line along which the trees are growing, and a second line just behind them. There’s also a fox trail on the hill just behind these trees to the left, which adds an additional subject of interest when viewed large.

Four Trees

Four Trees

We drove to a place where we’d have been able to shoot a beautiful sunset, but nature was not cooperating, and the sunset didn’t happen, so we went back to the hotel and called it a day. On the following day, we headed back to an area close to the previous day, just down from the Takushinkan, to where my favourite tree in Biei is. We’ll look at that in a moment, but first, I shot image number 2508, which Ross_M on Flickr called a Photo Haiku, which I thought was so cool. I’m sure you know, but Japanese Haiku are very simple poems with five, seven, then five more syllables. They also should have what the Japanese call “kigo”, which is a word associated with a season. This image of course is very simple, like a Haiku peom, and with the totally white, wintery look, it has a strong “kigo” as well. There are also seven distinct stems protruding from the snow, as in the middle phrase of the haiku poem. I’m not sure if Ross was fully aware of this when he made the comment, but I thought it was an amazing observation all the same. Thanks for that Ross if you are listening/reading.

Seeded Grass

Seeded Grass

Finally, here’s my tree. I shot some image very similar to one of my favourite images last year, with this tree almost totally whited-out in a snow storm, but I didn’t upload any of these, as they were pretty much the same as last year. Image 2509 though, came out pretty well, as the sun broke through the heavy cloud forming some very nice contrast when converted to black and white, again, using Silver Efex Pro. When I initially posted this image to the Web, it was almost a straight conversion, with just a few Control Points to add a little more contrast and structure to the sky. When I printed it though, I found that the snow in the foreground was a very dark grey, because I’d exposure for the bright areas in the sky, and it really didn’t look right, to have dark grey snow. I reworked it in Silver Efex Pro to brighten the snow quite a bit, to a lighter grey, which in my mind looks much more natural. It’s still grey, not white, but when you consider that the snow was in the shade, I’m kind of happy with the results now. Again, this makes a beautiful large print.

My Favourite Biei Tree

My Favourite Biei Tree

Later this day we travelled to the Tokachi Hot Springs area, where I’d shot an image last year that I called Heaven on Earth. Unfortunately the weather worked against us again today, and although we just managed to scramble up there with the aid of our amazing bus driver, the weather only cooperated for a few minutes. As the space that you can shoot from is very narrow, there was only time for one group to get a few frames before the clouds rolled in again. We had lunch at the hot-springs, and waited for it to clear again, but it didn’t happen.

In general, although we had a few lucky breaks, I have to agree that the extra effort to come over to the central part of the island, especially when a number of things don’t go well, reduces the overall “Wow!” factor, and so I’m happy with my decision to not return here with next year’s tours.

Having said that, I will certainly come back here myself in Winter, as I love the area, and can’t imagine never coming back here at all. I might even organize another workshop here at some point, but it will be separate from the main workshop, and could even be a little earlier, as we wouldn’t be trying to work to the schedule of the ice-floe etc. that have a much shorter window of opportunity.

Either way, I hope you’ve enjoyed taking a look at some of my images from the tour, from what turned out to be the last Landscape leg for the time being at least.

Remember that I have published details of the 2011 Tours and Workshops, so do take a look if you are interested. The longer 12 day tour including a visit to the Snow Monkeys in Nagano before we head up to Hokkaido is now half full (as of May 2010) so please do try to get in touch before too long if you are thinking of joining us.

 


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Podcast 201 : Towada Lake Images

Podcast 201 : Towada Lake Images

While in Aomori photographing the beautiful Oirase Mountain Stream, I stayed in a hotel at the Towada Lake, which is about 10 to 15 minutes away from the road that runs along the mountain stream that we looked at last week.

The Towada Lake is really beautiful when in full Autumnal color, but I was hoping that there’d be some opportunities while I was there, and there were a few, as we’ll see.

Pleasure Boat at Pier

Pleasure Boat at Pier

First up, let’s take a look at a pretty dramatic sky that I captured in image number 2317. I took a walk along the shore of the lake with my wife at the end of the first day in the area, before dinner at the hotel. The sun was about an hour from the horizon, but with the mountains, I knew the sun would go down from my perspective a little earlier, and the clouds were pretty dramatic too, so I was hoping something nice would happen. There are a number of pleasure boats that take tourists out for a spin around the lake during the day, and one of them was moored up at this long concrete jetty on the other side to where the sun was, so I set up my tripod, straddling the closed gate to the pier, and as I did so, the sun started to break through the gaps in the heavy clouds, and just as I was ready to shoot I was presented with this beautiful fan of sun rays. I wasn’t quite lined up with the center of the pier yet, as we can see by the lines, but as the whole shot was never going to be totally balanced with the boat on one side, I am not worried about this at all, though I did correct this in the next image we’ll look at.

I had planned to do some long exposures here, which I also did, but before we look at them there’s some other stuff to touch on for this image. To start with, the reason I didn’t do a long exposure here, was because if I had, those sun rays would have moved and the whole dramatic effect would have been lost. I could have gone with a slower shutter speed than I did, at 1/320 of a second, and still have got the rays captured OK, but I also wanted to leave some texture in the water for this shot too, which would have started to blur out had I gone much slower. The other reason as well of course, is that this all happened very quickly, and had I started to mess around with my neutral density filters at this point, the shot would have been gone, so I really just had to think quickly, and capture the image, and I’m pleased that I was able to do that. There was a lot of contrast in the original actually. To bring out detail in the front of the boat that we see here, I increased the fill light a little in Lightroom. I also used the local adjustments brush in Lightroom to lighten up everything from the horizon upwards, except the boat. This was required to bring out detail in the clouds, as they were very dark compared to the bright sunlight pouring through them.

Al, who just played us in will laugh when I say that I have recently bought Silver Efex Pro from Nik Software. I’d been resisting this for a while, but broke down recently and bought the whole suite actually. I’ll go into that in more detail in a future podcast, but for now, I just wanted to say that I used Silver Efex Pro to do the black and white conversion here as a final step. Although I could have done something similar in Lightroom, I love the overall feel of the images I get from converting in Silver Efex Pro, and the control you have over the process is very nice. Overall I think the final image is well balanced and worth spending a few minutes on, which is exactly a few minutes longer than I usually spend on my images in post processing.

Pleasure Boat at Pier

Pleasure Boat at Pier

From this same place, though I moved very slightly to the right, I shot the next image, number 2318. Now this has a different feel from the last one, as you can see, I did a long exposure here. Both this and the last image were shot at F11, but compared to the 320th of a second that I shot the last image at, here the exposure was 30 seconds. I also dropped the ISO from 100 to 50 to help me get this slow, but I had also coupled an ND8 Neutral Density filter with an ND400. This gives me almost 12 stops of darkness, as the ND8 is three stops, and the ND400 is nine stops. That would actually have worked out at 40 seconds including the extra stop from the ISO change, but I didn’t want to spend the time to get the self timer remote switch out, so I went with the longest exposure I can set on the camera, which is 30 seconds, or a difference of 11.5 stops slower than my first exposure of 1/320, again, including that ISO change from 100 to 50. I wasn’t thinking about this too much at the time, but the clouds were thinning out now, so the sky was burning out more now than the previous shot. In hind-sight, this all worked out pretty well for me.

Again, I did a little bit of post process to bring out detail in the front of the boat, and had to use a little highly recovery to bring the blown out highlights around the sun a little more under control, but the sky was brighter in general now, so there was no local adjustments needed for this shot, just a bit of slider work in Lightroom before I again converted to black and white in Silver Efex Pro. In comparison to the first shot we looked at, you’ll notice that the water has smoothed over to lose most of its texture, especially on the right side where the sun is hitting it more, and I really quite like this effect. Again, I kind of like this look, as with the longer exposures I’m doing of the moving water and waterfalls that we looked at last week. The clouds here also are flowing out of the top of the frame because of the long exposure, which I also find quite pleasing.

The only color image that we’re going to look at today is from the afternoon of the following day. As I’d pretty much worked the mountain stream as much as I wanted to, I decided it was time to be a better husband and just relax with my wife, so we drove back to the hotel, and went for a ride on one of those pleasure boats. I wasn’t expecting to get anything great photographically, but did take my camera, and the 24-70mm F2.8 and 70-200mm F2.8 L lenses. I was pleasantly surprised to see the scene that I captured as image 2316 though.

Towadako (Lake) Shore

Towadako (Lake) Shore

The plankton in the lake give the water a beautiful cobalt blue coloring when the sun hits it, and with the sun also on this line of trees on the shore, then the dark mountains and heavy detailed sky in the background. I had the camera set to F8 for 1/125 of a second, at ISO 100. I was far enough from the sure that F8 was going to give me plenty of depth-of-field, but I wanted to keep my shutter speed high enough to stop camera shake, as I was shooting from a moving boat, with a certain amount of vibration from the engines. It turned out pretty well with bright foreground and somewhat foreboding sky, and that slightly lighter patch above the mountains. I was happy that I’d take my camera out for our relaxing excursion and I managed to not take many more photos until the evening, when I shot the next two images that we’ll look at.

Night Jetty

Night Jetty

On the way back to the hotel after the cruise around the lake, I noticed the wooden jetty that we can see in image number 2319. I came back later to actually shoot this, when it was getting dark, but as I studied the jetty, it became obvious that it was not publicly accessible. It was out the back of a small café on the side of the lake. We decided to go in for a coffee, and when we’d done, I asked what time the café was open until, and the lady that runs it said they open at 5AM and stay open until 10PM.

Night Jetty

Night Jetty

She lives on the second floor, and so basically is open all the time she’s awake. I asked if it would be OK to photograph the jetty later, and she said that was not a problem. After dinner, we went back, and we were allowed to go out back and start photographing the jetty. I made a number of exposures, the first half of which were using the ND400, for nine stops of darkness before it actually got dark. This first shot that we are looking at was a two and a half minute exposure. The water is almost totally texture-less, and the clouds have blurred nicely as they sometimes crept over the top of the mountains the opposite shore of the lake. There’s still a little detail in the trees at this point, which adds a little texture back, and the sharpness and clarity in the jetty itself are very nice here. Luckily, although this is a wooden jetty, its foundations are wooden pillars firmly set in bed of the lake, so it’s not floating on the water as I had kind of expected. Had it been floating it would have been constantly moving and there would quite possibly have been no picture here, at least not for a two and a half minute exposure.

Having gotten a nice shot in the landscape aspect, I turned the camera on its side for a portrait aspect shot, as we can see in image number 2320. This was shot at 7:40PM, and the sun had gone down almost forty minutes earlier, so it was pretty much dark now. I’d removed the ND filter, as I no longer needed it, and I still needed a 90 second exposure for this at F11. I was using the 24-70mm F2.8 lens by the way. Notice here how the jetty intersects almost perfectly spaces from the bottom corners. Through the viewfinder I’d gotten this close, and then fine tuned the composition almost blindly based on the feedback from my first few exposures. It was also perfectly straight because I use a spirit level in the flash shoe. I didn’t have to do any cropping or rotation though to get this image like this, so I was pretty happy with the alignment. As it was pretty much totally dark at this point, the mountains have lost their detail, but there’s some interest in the sky with the flowing clouds lit by the pretty low light in the middle of nautical twilight. This image also has some light from the café itself too, as the lady had now turned the lights on. The light from the café was pretty warm, compared to the cold natural light outside, but this actually helped to make the jetty stand out in the black and white conversion, again done using Silver Efex Pro.

This image is about as close to Michael Kenna’s work as I think I’d like to get. Of course Michael Kenna’s work is beautiful, but I don’t really want to emulate it. With the jetty and the smooth water, as well as the black and white conversion, I was very much aware that I was getting close to emulating his work here. The scene just cried out for this kind of exposure and post processing though, so I allowed myself the indulgence.

(Note that I have also posted the transcript from Podcast 190 , “Ten Steps to Great Long Exposure Images” as that is pretty relevant to this post.)


Podcast show-notes:

Music from Music Alley: http://www.musicalley.com/


Audio

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Podcast 190 : Ten Steps to Great Long Exposure Images

Podcast 190 : Ten Steps to Great Long Exposure Images

Following on from Episode 201 of the Martin Bailey Photography Podcast, I thought I’d post the transcript for Episode 190, in which I gave you ten steps to great long exposure images. So here goes…

Long Exposures can push a photographer and our gear a little out of our comfort zone, but they can also be a lot of fun. In April 2009 I was reminded of this when I did some long exposure photography over at a small harbor town called Ooarai, roughly translated as the Big Wash, in the Ibaraki Prefecture. I’ve been doing a lot of travelogue type podcasts lately though, so today I thought I’d move away from that and do a 10 step guide, but of course, interweave some of my real world example shots to make the points easier to understand.

Firstly, let’s make a distinction between Long Exposure and slow shutter speeds. I personally don’t like to use the term slow shutter speed in this case, because it’s pretty subjective. If you are shooting a flying bird at 1/60th of a second, this would be considered a slow shutter speed, if you were trying to freeze the movement of the bird’s wings, because it will be too slow to do so. It may not though be slow enough if you want to pan with the bird and create that beautiful sine shape made by capturing the wing movement. 1/60th of a second will also not be slow enough to make a large body of water smooth over into a dreamy blur. Anyway, let’s start looking at my 10 steps.

Step #1: Find a subject that will be complemented by a long exposure

As we get into Step #1, let’s bring up image number 1802, which will be on your screen now if you are listening in iTunes or on your iPhone, or you can view on the Podcasts page at martinbaileyphotography.com. So, the first thing you need to do, is decide on a subject that will be improved or have something accentuated by capturing it with a long exposure. It could be shots of fireworks displays, lightning strikes and car light trails. I’ve done all these, and have some example images, but maintaining my main nature photography theme, I thought I’d look at this landscape shot from almost a year ago, in Nagano prefecture here in Japan. I talked about it back in episode 141 as well. There are a few points that we’ll make while looking at this image, but the first, as I say, is finding a subject that will work with a long exposure. Your entire shoot doesn’t necessarily have to revolve around the Long Exposure shot. This image was very much opportunistic. But when I turned the corner on my way to the hotel, I saw the scene, and knew instantly that this would make a nice long exposure image. There were both heavy, textured clouds in the sky and a thick cloud layer in the valley, both of which would blur nicely with a multi-second exposure. It was also getting dark, with literally just a few minutes of light left in the sky, so I had to move quickly. This image was shot at F11 with ISO 100 for 20 seconds. Not incredibly long yet, but it was long enough for the clouds to move towards me, making this wonderful radiating pattern in the sky. This is accentuated of course because I was using a wide angle lens and the clouds closer to me appear to move faster than those in the distance. The 20 second exposure was also long enough to make the clouds in the valley blur making them almost look like a lake down there, behind the silhouetted foreground trees.

Yachiho Evening Sky #1

Yachiho Evening Sky #1

Step #2: Include a static anchor object

I find that long exposure images work well when you have something that will remain stationary in the image. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in the foreground, but if you don’t have something in the shot that doesn’t move, then the whole thing becomes a blur, and although that can work, it’s not going to be as powerful as having a rock solid anchor for the eye. In the image we’re currently looking at, the line of trees is the anchor. It’s a sharp, solid line for us to come back to, to keep everything in perspective, with that big sky adding drama to the scene.

Step #3: Use a sturdy tripod and good ball-head

Of course, if you are going to be doing long exposures, to keep the anchor object sharp, you’re going to need to keep your camera very still during the exposure and this requires a good sturdy tripod. One of the biggest mistakes people make when getting involved in photography is underestimating the value of a good tripod. It’s understandable, because when you first start out, you have the expense of getting a new camera, a few lenses, a camera bag, and these days if you don’t already have one you’re going to need a reasonably powerful computer and then there’s all the software. It seems to be never ending. So the last thing you want to spend a lot of money on is a $500 or even a $1,000 tripod. The problem is, at about the time you figure out why you need a tripod, you probably also find out that the one you picked up for $30 is about as useful as a chocolate frying pan. Don’t get me wrong, I did this myself. I’m right in there with you.

The game is still changing though, believe me. I thought I was doing just the right thing buying a nice Manfrotto tripod for around $450, and I stuck an Acratech Ultimate Ball-head on there, both of which are excellent pieces of kit, but when I moved from 12 megapixels with the 5D to 21 megapixels in the 1Ds Mark II and now also with the 5D Mark II, I found that with my longer lenses, like the 300mm F2.8, even my $450 tripod wasn’t quite cutting it. It had seen some wear though, but it was perhaps a bit small, and not really rated for such heavy gear either. The only way I could get things locked down enough for good sharp results in such high resolution images, was to buy a $1,000 Gitzo Tripod. The Acratech Ultimate Ball-head is still used from time to time on my second Gitzo Tripod, and it is a great ball-head, but my main ball-head right now is the Really Right Stuff BH-55. This is simply a work of engineering art. It not only operates beautifully, and locks the camera in position, stopping it dead with no effort, but it also looks and feels great. We can get into that in more detail in another episode though. The point is, buy the best tripod and ball-head or tripod head that you can afford, especially if you are going to be doing long exposure photography. If your camera gets blown around in the wind during the exposure you’ll end up with soft images.

Step #4: Use ISO and Aperture to go long, but beware of Diffraction

You should also use your lowest standard ISO for long exposures. Even if you are shooting in very dark conditions, set your ISO to the lowest standard setting, because if you start to bump it up, you’ll not only get shorter exposures, you’ll also start to introduce noise, where you really don’t want. Now, by the lowest “standard” ISO setting, I mean the lowest ISO rating that your camera has without going into any kind of expanded ISO. If your camera has expanded ISO settings, it usually means the manufacturer wasn’t comfortable making those ISOs available by default for one reason or another, so if ISO 100 is the lowest your camera goes to without you making any custom settings, then use that.

On my camera I usually use ISO 100 most of the time, but pretty much always unless I’m using the Highlight Tone Priority setting, in which case ISO 200 becomes my lowest ISO. Let’s bring up image number 1668, to help make this point. In this image, I was using Highlight Tone Priority to preserve the highlights in the snow. I don’t use Highlight Tone Priority much now, but at the time, that’s what I was thinking when I shot this image.

Snow and Stream

Snow and Stream

The next thing you’re going to want to think about is using a smaller aperture. Note though, that if you stop your lens down too much, you’ll find that diffraction starts to degrade your image. When we force light through a very small aperture, we start to lose resolution. It varies, but most lenses start to suffer from around F16. I generally tend to use down to F11, and only go as low as F16 when I really need to. F22 is for emergencies only in my book, and I only go there when I can live with lack of sharpness in my resulting image. I shot the first three images that we’ll look at today at F11 by the way.

Step #5: Use a Neutral Density filter when there’s still too much light

So, even when we have selected the lowest available ISO, and the smallest aperture that we are prepared to use, we sometimes still have too much light in the scene for the length of exposure that we want, and that’s when a Neutral Density or ND filter comes in. I’ll get back to what I used in the last image shortly, but for now, let me explain what an ND filter is. They are basically grey filters that cut out light without affecting the color balance of the image. They are rated with conveniently confusing numbers. An ND2 for example cuts out 1 stop of light, an ND4 cuts out 2 stops of light, and an ND8 cuts out 3 stops of light. There are much darker filters such as the ND64 at 6 stops, and the ND10000 at 13 stops etc. You may actually remember two wonderful PDF files that our good friend Landon Michaelson put together that we released with Episode 111. (Long Exposure PDF and Dark Frame Subtraction PDF). Well, I’m mentioning this right now, because the first document contains information on the various density filters and how many stops of light they cut out, so go back and check that for more detail.

Another type of ND filter that I should probably touch on before we move on, is the Vari-ND from Singh-Ray. This filter turns, a little like a Circular Polarizer, although contrary to common believe, it doesn’t simply use two polarizing filters to work. As you turn the filter though, you get a totally variable neutral density between 2 and 8 stops of exposure. Going back to the image we brought up earlier, I used a Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter in this shot to increase my shutter speed to 8 seconds. The Vari-ND is a bit expensive for what it is, and it can create some weird, unwanted effects with wide angle lenses in certain types of light, so it is not a magic bullet. But I find it works well with longer lenses, like the 70-200mm that I used here. I can’t remember exactly but probably dialed in about 6 stops of darkness for an 8 second exposure, which gave me this nice silky feel to the water in the shot.

Step #6: Take the guess work out of exposure

If you are using very dense neutral density filters, and you are working at a time of day when you can’t afford to do a multi-minute exposures only to find that you got it wrong and then the light is gone, you need to do a test first. The best thing to do is to meter and find your required exposure, maybe even shoot a text image, without the ND filter attached. Then when you are happy with the exposure, attach the filter and recalculate your exposure with the filter on. This will save you time, especially if your camera is using dark frame subtraction to reduce noise, and you’ll possibly also save yourself from making a mistake that could cost you your shot. You might recall that I mentioned an iPhone application called NDCalc back in episode 177. If you find the mental arithmetic difficult, NDCalc is perfect for calculating the new exposure in seconds, just by inputting your shutter speed before adding the filter and the density of the filter that you’ll attach.

Step #7: Focusing on what you can’t really see!

Focusing can be tough when it gets very, very dark. If you are working in normal light of course, and the darkness is coming from a very dense ND filter, the best thing to do is to focus before you put the ND filter on. If the front element of your lens rotates when you focus though, mind that you are careful not to rotate it when you attach the filter or you’ll throw your focus off. Even pushing on the front of the lens or grabbing the lens barrel can throw of the focus, so care is needed, but this will help you to focus while you can still see.

If it is already pretty dark, as it was when I shot the next image, number 2256, the chances are you no longer need an ND. Here I had some very faint light reflecting from the sea, but this exposure took four minutes at F8, so you can probably imagine how faint the scene was. I did a couple of things here though to focus, that I wanted to pass on to you. Firstly, through the lens, because there was a little bit of contrast, I could just about see when the outline of the main subject, which is the gate here. While turning the focus ring while looking through the viewfinder, I could just about make out the silhouette of the gate getting smaller as got into sharp focus. Once you go past the point where the focus is sharpest, it starts to get bigger again, so you just backtrack to where it was smallest and you’re there. If you have LiveView when you can faintly see, the image on the LCD can be noisy, but give it a try as well. Zoomed in to 5 times magnification, I could also see the outline of the gate getting gradually bigger and smaller as I moved in and out of focus.

Ooarai Torii (Shinto Gate)

Ooarai Torii (Shinto Gate)

If there simply is not enough light to focus visually, either through the viewfinder or on Live-view, you can try taking a powerful torch or flashlight, and actually throwing some light on your subject while you focus. If the light is powerful enough, it may even give your camera enough to auto-focus, but at the least, this should be enough for you to manually focus accurately. Be sure to actually switch your lens into manual mode though, especially if you use the default settings which have auto-focusing linked to your shutter button. You don’t want to manually focus then have the camera start to search for focus again when you go to trip the shutter. Also, if you are shooting with other people, you might mess up their photographs by shining a flashlight into the scene, so be aware of that. You could of course if you are alone use that same flashlight to do some light painting during your long exposure, which is fun, but that’s really another topic.

Step #8: Minimize camera shake with a cable release and mirror lockup

In addition to a good sturdy tripod, use a cable release or remote timer switch to avoid causing vibration with your hands when you press the shutter button to start the exposure. If you are using 30 seconds or less shutter speeds, you can use your camera’s timer, which will allow you to start the exposure, and then take your finger away from the camera, and allow any vibration to die down before the exposure starts.

If your camera has Live-view, and you use it, then you don’t need to worry about mirror lockup, because the mirror will already be up out of the way when you trip the shutter. If you don’t have Live-view though, or if at some point in the future the way Live-view works is changed, and that’s very possible because it’s still a new technology, you may need to set your camera to Mirror Lockup mode. This is basically where the first press of the shutter button makes your camera’s mirror jump up out of the way, exposing the shutter in front of the film or sensor, and then when you press the shutter button again, the shutter is opened and exposure starts. This helps to reduce vibration, caused by the mirror jumping up if you do that at the same time as you start the exposure. If you have a two second timer, you can often use this in conjunction with mirror lockup. What will happen is, if you set the two second timer and mirror lockup together, when you release the shutter, the mirror will lockup, and the two second timer will start automatically, and when the two seconds is up, the shutter is opened and the actual exposure starts.

Step #9: Use Bulb Mode

Most cameras’ longest shutter speed is 30 seconds. If you are going to go past thirty seconds, you’ll have to use Bulb mode, which is usually the B on the mode dial. This is basically where your camera’s shutter will stay open for the whole time that you are holding the shutter button down. Here, when I say shutter button, we’re talking about the button on the cable release, because remember, you don’t want to be touching your camera directly to start the exposure. You can hold the button down for the entire exposure, but most cable releases have a little slider that can be slid up or down, over the button once pressed, to stop it from lifting up again, effectively holding the button down for you. If you are timing your exposure, make sure that you use a stop watch with a beep when it gets to the time, or some sort of timer that will let you know when the time is up. If you use something like NDCalc that I mentioned earlier for the iPhone, not only does it help with the calculation of long exposures, but once you have the long exposure time displayed, you can start the count-down with the touch of a button on the display. It then plays a sound when the time is up, so you can stop the exposure manually. Of course before too long the iPhone will talk directly to the camera and stop the exposure for you, but we aren’t quite there yet.

The alternative to manually timing the exposure is a Timer Remote Controller like Canon’s TC-80N3, which allows you to dial in how many minutes and seconds, and hours for that matter, that you want it to continue to keep the camera’s shutter open. This is great for use in Bulb mode. You set the time of your required exposure, press shutter release on the Remote Controller, which is basically just a fancy cable release, and when the time’s up, the shutter closes. One other word of advice that kind of goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway, is when using bulb or doing really long exposure work, make sure you have fully charged batteries in your camera. It wouldn’t be much fun to get half way through a long exposure and your batteries die on you.

Step #10: Noise Reduction

Most cameras these days will by default automatically process images made with long exposures to remove noise. I find that the built in noise reduction in the camera and in Lightroom is enough for shots like the ones we looked at today. For this last shot, even with a four minute exposure, there was no real noise in the image after my camera had done its thing and Lightroom had applied its default noise reduction. Having said this, if you are shooting in warm conditions you can get more noise, and with longer exposures you can end up with a bit of noise. When I do have noise in my images, my favourite noise reduction software now is Nik Software’s Define, that can be found in the Noise Reduction package and the other Nik Software Suites. I also find that Noise Ninja from PictureCode does a good job of reducing the noise, and it’s highly configurable. There’s also a product called NeatImage, which is equally as good I believe.


Podcast show-notes:

Noise Ninja from PictureCode can be found here: http://www.picturecode.com/

NeatImage can be found here: http://www.neatimage.com/

Really Right Stuff are here: http://reallyrightstuff.com/

The Acratech Ballheads can be seen here: http://acratech.net/

The music in this episode is from the PodShow Podsafe Music Network at http://music.podshow.com/


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