Rebecca Wilks

Rebecca Wilks; Photographer, Teacher, Yarnellian, Do-Gooder

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

“Do I have to?” Chapter Two; Filters

Well, sometimes you don’t have to.  Modern photographic processing software will do a lot of what used to require physical filters.  There are a few types of filters that should be in the landscape photographer’s bag, though.

First, the circular polarizer (CP) filters. The CP does things for you that Photoshop just can’t do. 
Typically we think of polarizing filters as tools to make a blue sky darker.  This it will do, though what’s really happening is an increase in contrast.  This effect of the polarizing filter is greatest when the sun is at ninety degrees to the axis of the camera, that is off one of your shoulders. 
Funky polarization effect, Grand Canyon
When the sun is behind or directly in front of you, you won’t see much effect.  With wider-angle lenses (you can start seeing this at 30-40mm) there’s an uneven effect across the sky which can look quite unnatural.  Sometimes that’s hard to see on your LCD screen.  When in doubt, shoot the same image with varying degrees of polarization.  
Reflection optimized with CP filter
The CP can do much more for you, though.  For example it can minimize or maximize reflections in water and it can reduce unattractive shine on foliage.

It is wisest to remove the CP when you don’t have a specific purpose in mind for it, as it can reduce light transmission through the lens by a full stop or more.

The second group of filters you won’t want to be without are neutral density (ND), a subset of which is graduated neutral density filters (GND), also known as split neutral density filters.  I’ll get back to that.

Grand Falls, Little Colorado River without ND Filter (1/20 second shutter speed)
Grand Falls, Little Colorado River with ND Filter (10 second shutter speed)
The concept of ND filters is simple; they’re dark.  “Neutral” in this case means that they don’t alter color. Sometimes the goal is to use a slower shutter speed than is possible without a filter.  Commonly we want to do this to “slow down” or smooth out moving water.  The effect is easy enough to do at dawn and dusk, when the light is low.  To create the effect under brighter conditions, though, we need the help of NDs. 

Longer exposures of moving clouds can be lovely, too.  These filters are available to screw in or as flat plates which are used with a holder.

GND filters are almost always used as flat plates in holders.  They’re useful for scenes which have a fairly abrupt transition from light to dark areas, like a bright sky and much darker land.  
Grand Canyon, with GND Filter

Grand Canyon, without GND Filter

While many argue that bracketing exposures and combining them using HDR (“high dynamic range”) software can take the place of GNDs, there are still times when it is desirable to shoot the image properly in one exposure.  You will find that this is a controversial point.   

GNDs are made with soft or hard transitions, the choice depending upon the requirements of the scene.  The reason that screw-in GNDs are not commonly used (though you’ll see them for sale) is that the transition, and therefore the horizon, will fall in the center of your composition.  Occasionally composing a scene so that your horizon is centered may be desirable, but the vast majority of good compositions will feature horizons above or below center.  The flat filter in a holder can be adjusted up and down as desired.  In short, don’t use screw-in GNDs.

Sometimes GNDs create artifact that must be corrected (or in some cases cannot be).  For example, if your scene includes trees which extend in front of the sky, darkening them along with the sky can look unnatural.

One last thought; buy good ones.  There’s little point in putting an optically poor filter in front of your sharp, state-of-the art lens.  With good care, they should last a lifetime.
Mindshift Filter Hive
You might want to check out some of the innovative and space-saving filter holders from Mindshift Gear.  I love my filter hive.

As always, thanks for the visit.  I hope to see you out there.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


Lupines and Aspens, FR 610

Monsoon season in Arizona can be a photographer’s dream with clouds and thunderstorms and this year we started early, skipping the dry heat we talk so much about.  June was wet, too.  The other side of that coin is the humidity, with dew points in the upper 60s, mosquitoes, and no evaporation to speak of.  Seriously, why sweat if it doesn’t cool you?

The remedy, when my attitude reaches its limit, is altitude.  Last weekend I cobbled together a road trip, partly with friends and sometimes alone.

I met Greg at the V Bar V Heritage site on Friday.  It was his idea and it was a good one.  I don’t know how many times I’ve driven by this place; it was certainly worth a stop, with more than 1,000 Sinagua petroglyphs.  The image above depicts a solar planting calendar.  The rocks were modified to cast a specific beam of light on the wall (which we were fortunate to witness; it lasts just a few minutes each day.)  The light’s intersection with the zig-zag line at lower left is thought have guided the Sinagua about when to plant.

Last Light on the Grand Falls
Then we bounced (literally) along dirt roads to the Grand Falls of the Little Colorado River.  This 185-foot cascade is on Navajo Nation land. Flows fluctuate a great deal, sometimes to nothing (this is an intermediate flow) but the water is always brown. It is sometimes called chocolate falls or mud falls.  I’d seen the falls several times from the air, but this was my first view from the ground.

One of my favorite things about Arizona forests is that there are lots of places to “dispersed camp,” which is essentially pulling off the road (in places that have already been disturbed) and making camp.  I appreciated this and my Four Wheel Camper as is was good and dark by the time I found a spot that night.

Saturday Morning I met Jeff on his way up from Tucson, and we caravanned to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  We stopped at the backcountry permit office to learn about road conditions and make a plan.  We felt fortunate to get last-minute camping permits for two overlooks.

We were advised to take the “easy way” to Point Sublime, which was about 3 hours travel from the office.  Now, I know the rangers know all about this, but we met a young couple in a rented minivan who went the “hard way” and said it was quite straightforward.  Oh well, we saw some lovely country and splashed in innumerable mud holes, one of Jeff’s favorite things.
Sunrise, Point Sublime.  The Colorado River is visible at the center.
Point Sublime was, indeed, sublime.  The river was visible and the sunset sky was impressive.  We even had a pit toilet and picnic bench.

We retraced our steps partially and ended up at Fire Point.  The wildflower (especially lupine) bloom is impressive this year and I had almost as much fun in the forest as at the spectacular viewpoint.

Lupines in the Forest, near FR 223
Monday morning Jeff had to hit the road back to Tucson and I reverted to my disorganized, somewhat spontaneous travel rhythm, puttering around in the forest and changing my mind repeatedly about the day’s destination.

Clearing Storm Near Saddle Mountain, Grand Canyon
I ended up at the Saddle Mountain Trail head, hiking, watching the light, and shooting some old favorite spots along the road which were also resplendent with flowers.  The sunset sky cooperated as a thunderstorm cleared.  I was a happy camper indeed, even though the weather when I got back to the desert was still abysmal.

Thanks for taking this little journey with me.  More images from this road trip are in the summer 2015 Gallery on the website.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

“Do I have to?” Chapter One; Tripods.

You’ll get no argument from me; a tripod sometimes feels like one more thing to haul in an already heavy photo kit.  I do carry it for landscape work though, and there are some compelling reasons for that.
Water takes on a fabulously dreamy look with long exposures.  Grand Canyon.
Night and twilight photography, for example, absolutely requires solid stabilization.  Even if you know you’ll be shooting in daylight, though, there are others.  Images of moving water, for example, take on an entirely different character when a long exposure is used; likewise for clouds and other moving subjects.  If you’re planning on combining images, for example for High Dynamic Range or exposure blending, you’ll generally get much better results if your camera is tripod-stabilized.  Panoramas constructed from several images will also be much easier to create with a tripod. If you don’t have a good tripod, you’ll be giving up the opportunities to use these techniques.
After several hours standing in the river, my arms would have given out using a heavy lens without a tripod.  Katmai NP Alaska
We’ve been talking about landscapes, but all but the physically strongest among us will do better if our long wildlife or sports lens is supported on a tripod.  There are specialized heads for that.
Detail shots require minute adjustments and meticulous composition.  Redwoods National Park CA
Beyond the technical, though, there are other reasons to use your camera on a stable platform.  We have a tendency, especially in the early part of our photographic career, to take lots of pictures quickly.  Some people call this the “spray and pray” method.  In most cases in landscape photography, we can take time to set up and to think.  We can (and should, if we’re honest with ourselves) slow down and really work on the best images, one at a time.  We’ll improve composition this way, including leveling the horizon, carefully policing the corners and edges to use them to best advantage, and thinking about shapes, balance, color, and the best background configuration to name a few.  It’s just a higher-quality experience to shoot with a tripod; more meditative and intentional.

There are many options and is a wide price range for tripods and heads.  Generally the best legs and heads are sold separately.  Really Right Stuff, Gitzo, Manfrotto, and Induro make sturdy, high-quality legs.  A set without a center column will work best for images shot close to the ground.  As for ballheads, the best ones, though expensive, come from Really RightStuff.  I use both the 40mm and 55mm RRS heads in conjunction with their L-bracket.  The L-bracket attaches to the camera and allows it to clamp to the ballhead in either the horizontal or vertical orientation.  The L-bracket allows us to avoid hanging the camera along the side of the tripod for all vertical shots.  Most people who have tried this configuration have had a bad enough experience to swear off it.  Make sure you carry all the allen wrenches that your rig requires as well.  RRS also sells a compact all-in-one tool which is worth carrying in case something shakes loose in the airplane or safari vehicle.

Are you convinced?  No, you don’t have to but you should.

Happy shooting and thanks for the read.