WATERDANCE Maui, Hawaii
Hi Workshop Participants!
We all see the world and choose to interpret it photographically in our own unique way, and with the photographic tools available to us, there are countless ways to do this. I often speak of keeping the tools we use as photographers simplified and kept somewhat to a minimum, but certain tools are requirements to achieve specific results. Most of my landscape work is based on the element of extended time and dealing with dynamic range from bright skies to darker foregrounds, so the use of neutral density (ND) and graduated neutral density (GND) filters are a must. In fact, I'd say that graduated neutral density (GND) filters are a must for any photographer looking to walk down the path of outdoor/nature/landscape photography...unless, you are taking multiple-bracketed exposures and aim to blend them later in post-processing, either through HDR software or manually. Personally, I do not take this approach and always try and get the best possible exposure in-camera, and in-one-frame. With that said, there may be times where taking multiple exposures and blending them is the optimal way. I have always had one foot in "the traditional" and I believe it is important to teach that - for you to learn and understand how to use filters. Once you know how to use ND and GND filters, then taking the next step to blending exposures becomes much easier.
Whether you dedicate your entire photographic path to long exposures like I have, or not - it is worth understanding how a couple of simple tools can open an entire world of creative possibilities. Also, I believe teaching "exposure" in terms of seconds or minutes, as opposed to fractions-of-a-second, really hits-home the entire concept regarding exposure, leading to a better overall understanding of creative exposure.
In my workshops, we will use these filters and tools. Here are my thoughts regarding this gear and links to the products. I use B&H Photo out of NYC for ALL of my photographic purchases and have for over a decade. They have always offered impeccable service, the best website, and is the industry standard for all photographic products.
FILTERS & GEAR
HERE is the B&H filters page where you begin your search for all things regarding filters.
I strongly discourage purchasing "variable" ND filters where you can adjust the amount of neutral density. They cause unusual loss-of-contrast and other odd degrades to the image, not to mention a lesser amount of control. They are expensive and a waste of money, therefore it is recommended to purchase 1-3 ND filters.
HERE is the Lee Big Stopper - a 10-Stop ND filter that fits the Lee Foundation kit.
HERE is the Lee Little Stopper - a 6-Stop ND filter that fits the Lee Foundation kit.
HERE is the 3-Stop ND filter that I will use for this setup. Lee does not currently have this filter, so I will use the Formatt-Hitech.
You should understand too - there are more options than ever. Just a few years ago, there were few options with ND filters because there weren't many doing long exposure work. With the proliferation of video in all of the latest DSLR's, the video peeps need ND's, so therefore they have become much more available and affordable. I use to pay $350 for a filter you can get today for $125! I personally am happy with the Lee designed holder.
Update: (Oct. 2017. A few months back I heard of Breakthrough Photography and their claims to have made the best neutral density filters on the market. With a trip to Iceland coming up, I decided to see if their claims were valid. I spent over $500 to get three 82mm circular filters and figured I'd give them a try. With a 300 day return policy, I figured I didn't have anything to lose. After several thousand frames shot using their filters all around Iceland and some shooting here in Maui, I can say - these are the best ND filters I have used to date. Totally color neutral and no apparent image degradation, even while using 50+ megapixel medium format digital cameras and looking very closely for any issues. I'm not seeing any! Unfortunately, their 100mm rectangular filters and X100 holder have been on back-order since I discovered them 3 months back. I do plan on reaching out to the owner and attempting to form a relationship, so check back - I'll shoot for discounts for my workshop participants and hopefully discover what their long-term plans are and when their products will be readily available. HERE is a link to their site. Personally, I will hope to switch all my filters over to this company within the year. I started with the 3-stop, 6-stop, and 10-stop X4 ND in a 82mm size. Then I added the 72mm-82mm step up ring in their accessories (which I have to say - best step-up ring ever!) This allowed me to use these three filters on all the lenses I took to Iceland, which were 77mm and 82mm. After several years of not working with screw-on filters, I was curious to see how it would be. I still find them to be a bit of a pain vs. the rectangular filters. I prefer to work with rectangular filters on a holder and adding a graduated ND - this way all the filters are on one holder and can easily be taken off to make quick adjustments to focus or composition, then placed right back on. Constantly screwing expensive filters on and off, in the field and out in the elements - it's not ideal.)
With the above ND filters, you don't necessarily have to go out and purchase them all at once. There are other ways to photograph long exposures - at night, and in low-light. My long exposure journey began because I was never ready to go home after the sunset so I kept on shooting into darkness, resulting in longer and longer exposure times. You will have to determine which ones and in which order to purchase. Now that I use all 3, I could not choose - I use them all equally, depending on the light and my intentions at the time. With these in your bag, you can literally work backwards from the exposure time, which can be creatively liberating!
So, that's it for the ND filters.
Next, you need to have Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filters, and a Lee filter holder to hold it all. Here is what I am now using:
Lee Filter Holder. This is the best designed of all the various holders, IMO. Don't forget your adapter ring to be able to connect the holder to your camera. I use the 77mm wide angle - designed to fit all my 77mm lenses and gives much less possibility of vignetting. You could get a different size adapter ring for your various lenses - just use the site search to find the correct one.
They make all kinds of GND's, but these 2 are the 2 that I use most and couldn't live without. The "soft" refers to a soft transition of the density, so they are easy to work with. 95% of the images on my website are using a combination of these filters.
This above setup is a larger, more "pro" setup. I prefer this because you don't have vignetting issues as much - and the products are better made and designed. There are smaller/more-affordable options that can work well too. Here is a kit that would be a good starting point without spending the kind of money you would with the above items:
Cokin Adapter Ring. Don't forget this for the above kit.
PAINTED FOREST Maui, Hawaii
TRIPODS & OTHER ACCESSORIES
For this kind of work, there are a few more items you need. You've got to have a tripod. There are many options for tripods, so recommending one is difficult. I recommend getting the most expensive but lightest tripod you are comfortable purchasing, and carrying. Personally, I use Really Right Stuff carbon fiber tripods at home and LOVE their ballheads like the BH-40. When I'm traveling and on the road I use the Gitzo Traveler and love it's combination of light weight, sturdiness and small footprint. These items are not cheap, but they are excellent!
For more affordable options - A fair number of my workshop participants over the past couple of years have been using the Mefoto tripods found HERE. I must say - for how small, light and affordable they are, they seem quite stable too. If you are looking for those qualities in an affordable package, you might want to give them a try.
Somewhere between Mefoto and Really Right Stuff tripods might be the Induro brand and a setup like this HERE. I've seen these in action and they seem quite good. Ballheads are the easiest, most versatile tripod head and work very well for the landscape photographer. I don't recommend video-style heads, or gun/grip style heads. They just complicate things. Keep it simple!
And finally, regarding tripods - if it's not stable, it's pointless! If a tripod is so pathetic that when you breathe near it, it quivers - then that is something that you should immediately donate to Goodwill and get online and purchase a new tripod. A tripods sole purpose is to keep your camera stable and steady. This tool, paired with the filters and other tools discussed, open up worlds of creative possibilities - if they are capable. Buy right in the first place and you'll save money in the long run. Buy cheap crap now and you will surely spend more in the long run. Trust me, I'm speaking from experience.
Finally, you've got to have a "shutter release" for your camera. Your shutter speed time will only go up to 30 seconds, so to work in the Bulb mode, which we will do often in exposures beyond 30 seconds, you have to be able to control the shutter via a shutter release. For Nikon cameras with 10-pin plugs, I use THIS. For Canon I use THIS. Unfortunately, all the cameras these days are different and these shutter releases don't attach to all cameras. I recommend going to the B&H site and doing a search for: "YOUR CAMERA BRAND Shutter Release". You should be able to figure out which one to get. Your camera manual will also be able to tell you which one to purchase.
One last item that is worth adding to your bag, if you are as awful as I am at lining up horizons, is a bubble level. (Although most cameras now have this level capability built in.) It also serves you well to more-easily see if you are getting camera shake, or not, in windy conditions.
I think that's it for now. Let me know if I'm forgetting anything.
If you are reading this BEFORE your workshop with me - I have extra filters and can setup 1 or 2 workshop participants with the above ND and GND filters.
If you are reading this AFTER our workshop together, you should be all set. Let me know if I'm missing anything or not.
It's a pleasure to play some small role along your photographic journey.