Tutorials

I've written a few tutorials in response to the most frequently asked landscape photography questions I get asked, I hope they can benefit you in some way.

Tutorial Contents

Light - A time and place for it. My handy guide to reference sunrise/sunset angles and times.

Exposure - A balancing act. Advice on selecting and using ND Graduated filters.

The Big Stopper, the big question? The selection and use of a 10 stop ND filter.



Light - A time and place for it.

For many of us natural light is the substance that reflects and bounces around to provide us with the ingredients to make our pictures. Knowing where and when it will do it's job is a useful thing to know.

I'm constantly curious to know what time the Sun will rise or set or in which direction it will be shining to be able to plan the optimum time and place I should be to get a particular shot.

Usually I search the websites to find where the Sun will rise and at what angles but this is time consuming and I don't always have access to a computer so I made my own small charts to give me a quick and easy reference guide.



My Sunrise and Sunset angle chart and Sunrise/Sunset times for my area.

Where I live and photograph in northern England and Scotland the Sun can rise or set a difference of 90 degrees between January and July, a huge range over six months which can give great versatility to a location but it is very useful to know where the light is likely to strike at any given time for the year.

I took the sunrise and sunset angles for the 1st of each month form the Azimuth tables for my area then using a protractor or compass plotted them out in relation to North and South. The difference between the corresponding months is small so I doubled them up. I also noted the Sunrise/Sunset times for a town close to my area.



All I have to do now is put my chart on my map, line it up North to South and see at what angle the Sun will rise or set for a given location.

If I wanted to photograph the crags (Blackcombe Screes) on the map in Winter with the Sun striking at 90 degrees then I can simply see that the first two weeks in February or the last two in October will be the optimum months and a look at my time chart says that for Sunrise it will be around 8am.

The source of my info was www.timeanddate.com, a wealth of information concerning times and dates.

My particular interest is Landscapes but this could be handy to know for Architectural or any other outdoor photography types.

Exposure - A balancing act.

As most of us know, the modern DSLR sensor, for all its sophistication can?t always adequately record in detail all the available levels of light in a scene. The actual range of light levels are often too wide for what the sensor can comfortably record and an image can often have one end of the light range compromised and not adequately recorded. We see this in completely black areas or completely white areas of an image and we refer to this as blocked-up shadows or blown-out highlights. This phenomenom can be desirable in certain types of images and not particularly important to correct but in a landscape image where you desire a full viewable range of exposure in the final image it can be important to control.

There are several ways to combat wide exposure levels by employing shooting techniques, post processing techniques and a combination of the two.

Shooting techniques.

Use of ND graduated filters.

Taking of two or more shots at different exposures to combine later in PP either in an HDR program or a manual blend in your editing software.

Post Processing techniques.

Developing one RAW file that is exposed for the mid tone exposure then recovering blocked shadows and blown highlights. This method can be useful for shots that aren't too blocked up or blown, RAW processing can often recover one or two stops of light either side of the exposure taken.

Combining two or more shots at different exposures and using a dedicated High Dynamic Range (HDR) software program to produce a final image.

Combining two shots of different exposure, one for the sky and one for the foreground for example then manually combining with masked layers in your editing software.

I personally prefer the use of ND graduated filters but I do resort to manually combining two images in PP if the exposure is particularly tricky that the filters can't handle.

The most frequent question I get asked regarding exposure control is "What are ND Grads", "How to use graduated filters?" and general advice about them. So this tutorial will deal with ND graduated filters.

ND grads are simply a resin or glass filter that is darker at one end and clear at the other, there are three common types:
Soft ND Graduated. The top is the darkest and gradually fades to clear at the centre line with a very smooth or soft transition. This filter is best used for horizons or skylines that are very uneven or have objects in the sky, the filter will soften the graduation and make the darker section much less visible in the image.

Hard ND Graduated. The top is the darkest but there is a very marked transition to the clear section, a harder line. Not really best for uneven horizons or objects in the sky, a mountain for example. Good for beach sunsets etc though and gentle rolling countryside etc.

Neither of the above are suitable though for a skyscraper that protrudes into the sky, better use a different technique altogether.

Reverse ND Graduated. This filter has the darkest part at the centre line and fades to graduation at the top, the bottom half is still clear. Use this for sunsets where the brightest strip is on the horizon.

There are combination grads as well with a warm up or colour in the clear section but I'll stick with the basic ones here. My personal choice is a set of Soft ND grads, I find these the most flexible for my type of photography, often a mountain sticking up in the sky.

They come in different densities of graduation from 1 stop to about 5 stops in one filter but the most common set are three, 1 x 1 stop, 1 x 2 stop and 1 x 3 stop. With these three you can combine any amount of stops you are likely to need, well not really true in extreme exposure conditions but will serve you 95% of the time I'd say.

The most common and best are 100 x 150mm resin or glass 2 or 3mm thick filters that slot into a dedicated holder, the holder can rotate on the adapter ring attached to your lens so you can angle the grads if there is a sloping light variation. I have two slots on mine and a polariser threaded adapter on the outer side so I can use 2 x ND grads (5 stops) and a polariser at the same time. A very flexible and easy to use set up.

The adapter rings come in different sizes for your lenses so you only need one holder and maybe two adapters for all your lenses.

Very wide angle lens with 10mm focal length need a bit of care to prevent vignetting but the set up I use accounts for this and isn't a problem, care though before you choose which set up you want to buy and see if compatible with your lenses.

There are several manufacturers, I only have experience of Hitech and Lee with limited knowledge of Cokin P series. I know though that Singh Ray make good quality ones. There are circular ones available but my advice is to avoid as they are not flexible enough.

The Cokin P series is smaller than the Hitech or Lee ones and are not suitable for wide angle lenses, they also create a red colour cast which is undesirable mostly. The Lee ones are completely colour neutral and I have not experienced any significant problems with the Hitechs.

The Lee filters are around £55 each but cheaper bought as a set of three, the Hitechs are around £26 each or about £60 for a set of three. The Hitechs are 2mm thick, the Lee 3mm thick and a bit more scratch resistant but care is needed with either.

The image shows my set up:



Adapter ring for lens, a two slot holder with one filter in it, the polariser shown which can screw onto the outside of the holder and a set of Soft ND grads from 3 stop, 2 stop and 1 stop.

How to use ND Grads?

There are a few variations on technique but I will give my preferred method as it is one I have comfortably settled on. I have built up a feel for what grad I will need or even if I need one from experience of certain lighting conditions however, I still go through a methodical routine even if it is to test my estimates if and what grad I need. With experience using these filters you should also start to build up a feel for their use.

> Before I mount the camera on tripod or fine tune the composition I use the camera as a light meter, I always use Spot Metering mode and exposure in Manual. Set the spot meter to the centre focus point position, my Nikon can move the spot meter around any one of the focus points.
> Set desired ISO and Aperture say ISO 200 and f/11 (this will depend on your creative intentions as well). Cast around the scene to gauge the difference in light intensity, I always start at the foreground or closest focal interest (boat maybe) and set the Shutter Speed so my light meter reads -1/2 EV, I then meter for midground and the sky to find and gauge the light differences. So if I point my spot meter to the sky it may go way off scale, I adjust the Shutter Speed to bring it back to -1/2 EV and calculate or just count the amount of clicks on the Shutter wheel, say the difference is seven stops EV. I will need an ND grad or two to bring the sky into range of my sensor. In this instance I will probably choose 5 stops of ND grad, try and avoid too much grad as it will show up with very dark areas in the sky that don't really need it, dark clouds etc and it can look too overdramatic and artificial.
> Set the shutter speed back to the foreground setting and check the conditions haven?t changed.
> Set up tripod etc and fine tune composition.
> Place appropriate ND grads in holder at the right height and angle for the brightest parts you have metered for. Sometimes you need to gently move up and down in the holder to get the optimum position, some folk use the DOF preview to get a better view of the grad, never works for me though?
> Take the shot and take pride in the fact you have successfully crammed all the different light levels of the scene into your camera's sensor.

Note: I usually use -1/2 EV as my base exposure to gauge off and actually use, I prefer more saturated and contrasty images in camera and don't really believe my Nikon gives good exposure advice at 0 EV. I don't tend to "Shoot to the right" neither against all accepted wisdom. I find it hard to prevent clipping the highlights and it is work to process these in PP. Once I have got my basic exposure triangle of ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed I can happily modify my creative intent by altering any of the three and I don't have to go back and spot meter anymore. I tend to ignore the light meter and use my experience and Histogram for confirmation.
If the ambient light drops over half an hour say then I check the creep on the histogram and compensate by altering the exposure triangle.
Sometimes you need to check the actual shape of the histogram as well as this can give you info if you are using too much grad if the light in the sky has decayed away for example.

The Big Stopper, the big question?

The ten stop neutral density filter is becoming quite fashionable these days for long or even very long exposures, if you're not a fan of the silky water or blurry clouds image, look away now......
However, if you think that the 10 stop filter has a place in your kit bag and can be used to good effect in certain circumstances then I hope to be able to impart some knowledge and advice.

The ND 3.0 or ten stop filter is simply a piece of resin plastic or glass that will reduce the exposure by around 10 stops of light if placed in front of your lens. I have tried and test three different ones with varying success and performance and I'll base my findings on these three. I'll give pros and cons for each then a little guide how to use them should you be interested to try one out.

An image of all three and a Lee filter holder.



1. The Hitech ND 3.0 manufactured by Formatt is a 100 x 100mm filter made of resin.

Pros
> Cheap at around £40.
> Easy to purchase, compared with the Lee one!
> More useful for mono images using a digital camera. (See Cons)
> More useful for film cameras. (See Cons)

Cons
> Thin resin filter that can let light seep behind it into the lens and cause aperture flare spots.
> Susceptable to leaking IR pollution which causes a red/magenta colour cast when taking colour images.

This filter is cheap but because light can leak past it when held in a holder you can often get shot ruining aperture shaped light flares over the image, this coupled with the red/magenta colour cast which can be difficult to remove makes it a very frustrating filter to use. When used with a film camera or in mono for a digital camera then this will negate the red/magenta cast produced by the IR pollution but you will still have to deal with the aperture flares. I have had mixed results with this filter.

The following two images taken with the Formatt filter however, many more ruined by the above problems.





2. The B+W ND 3.0 filter is only available in a circular thread to screw into your lens.

Pros
> No light leakage as it screws into lens.
> Less colour cast but still some IR pollution.

Cons
> Quite expensive at around £80 £120 depending where you buy!!
> Circular so limiting to your lens or lenses with that particular thread size.
> Awkward to set up and to use in conjunction with other graduated filters.

This filter is glass and has some protection from IR pollution but can be more frustrating than the Formatt one to use because you are limited to one lens and you have to screw this in then have to screw your regular filter holder onto it if you want to use ND grads, a pain in the backside....

3. The Lee ND 3.0 or more widely known as The Big Stopper, made from 100 x 100mm Pro glass with a foam light seal and IR reducing coating.

Pros
> No light seepage
> No IR pollution red colour cast, but a blue tone instead but easy to fix.
> Can be used as a regular filter in your holder and combined with an ND grad.

Cons
> Pricey at £95 but worth it for me.

This filter can be used successfully for full colour long exposures, it does create a blue tone but I have found that using WB on Shade reproduced a similar colour to a normal shot in Auto WB. The blue tone can easily be fixed in RAW processing as well. It is far easier to use when setting up with much less hassle than the circular one. Overall this is my preferred choice of ND 3.0 filter.

How to use an ND 3.0 filter?

Some simply steps:
> set up your camera and tripod as if you were taking a normal exposure image.
> set composition.
> set focus as normal then select manual to lock it.
> set WB to Auto.
> note your exposure particularly shutter speed, lets say ISO 100, f/16 and 1/30 second. Use manual mode.
> calculate your exposure for 10 stops reduction in light by adjusting shutter speed keeping ISO and aperture the same. You can either do some mathematics and decrease the shutter speed by one full stop, 10 times or simply adjust the wheel clicks by 10 or 30 times if you use 1/3 EV adjustments on your wheel.
1/30 actually equals 30 seconds.
> place the filter in the slot nearest the lens of your holder.
> put the viewfinder cap on to prevent light entering the eyepiece.
> use a remote release and mirror lock up to minimise shake.
> Press the shutter and pray your maths is as good as it used to be.....