Milky seas and murky clouds have become something of a cliche these days as a short trawl through Flickr will certainly demonstrate. Its a device I’m certainly guilty of using, perhaps more than I need to, so receiving a copy of Michael Levin’s Zebrato on my birthday was a welcome reminder of just how powerful this effect can be in the right hands.
The effect is achieved through the use of, typically, a ten stop filter, applied to reduce the amount of light entering the lens and thereby extend the exposure without blowing out the highlights. I use the Lee “Big Stopper” filter and although expensive, I haven’t seen anything better although the B&W equivalent runs it close. The B&W filter is a screw in that effectively requires a further step up adapter if you want to use it on more than one lens. The Lee filter requires the Lee filter adapter which has the advantage of offering further slots to insert for example a graduated filter to further control the exposure across the whole image. In addition to the filter, a good tripod is required in order to minimise movement in the camera and, for the same reason, a remote trigger. I use the Canon intervalometer which enables me to precisely time the exposure, but the ordinary remote trigger without timer is perfectly adequate for the purpose as long as you have a watch which displays seconds.
Levin’s work makes a virtue of the long exposure by using it to isolate the subject and generate a sense of timelessness. Minimal in extreme, the effect is to make a point of the apparently pointless, to take one part of a landscape and focus all of the viewer’s attention on the purest representation of form.
Zebrato is exclusively shot in monochrome in locations all over the world, including Brighton, where mysteriously he passed on the opportunity to add yet another photograph of the West Pier to posterity. Instead he shot west to east along the seafront, making a virtue of the natural curve where beach meets water. A solitary mysterious figure is seen lying in the foreground.
This book has made me re-evaluate what I’m doing with long exposures and has sparked some ideas about how I can photograph my new surroundings in Shropshire with a style I am comfortable with. What more can you ask of a book? Highly recommended.
Brighton’s ruined West Pier is one of the iconic landmarks of the South Coast. Certainly one of the most photographed and when I started my 365 Day Project, I made a resolution to try and avoid repeating the most cliched of the shots I’d seen. In fact I almost went out of my way to avoid shooting the damn thing!
No matter how many times a subject has been shot, there is always a different approach and it is worth taking the time to find that different shot because that’s what differentiates one photographer from another. There is nothing wrong with recreating shots with a view to understanding how they were done and in so doing mastering a technique, I’ve done that plenty of times, but I’ve tried not to publish those shots as a rule.
The reason the pier has become such an emblem is that it symbolises the best and worst of human nature. Even in ruins, the ironwork is beautiful and so far, resists the fiercest storms. The shape is instantly recognisable, even as here, when it is abstracted. The worst? The persistent rumours that the fire that destroyed it was started deliberately. Legend is that a speedboat was seen leaving the scene as the flames took hold. The identity of the arsonist has never been discovered and as long as there is no proof, there can be no accusation.
One of the challenges in landscape photography is to find a way to connect the land to its occupants. This is what elevates the best landscape photography above the biscuit tin class. West Pier does this at a stroke, the contrast that can be achieved by showing the ruin in the context of its surroundings is very powerful. The opposing forces of nature and architecture caught in perfect balance.
This shot was made with a Lee 10 stop “Big Stopper” filter around dusk at low tide. An exposure of a couple of minutes. The effect is to calm the ocean and the wreckage rises out of this preternatural stillness like a ghost ship, encrusted with barnacles and seaweed. The intent here was to stretch time, to show something that has been with us for years and to imply that it might just be here long after we’ve gone. I genuinely hope it is and during the last set of storms have fretted, hoping that they haven’t succeeded in bringing the old girl to her knees.
The final challenge I set myself was to show the pier with people. People playing, people watching or even photographing, the important thing was that they shouldn’t be interacting with me. I wanted to be the observer.
I chose to shoot at sunset again, the idea being to frame the participants in silhouette. This shot was one of about fifteen I took over a period of about twenty five minutes. I like the composition because there are distinct layers in the photograph and the pier is not the dominant figure, instead the eye is drawn from the couple in the foreground along the edge of the beach to the man playing with his dog in the middle. If anything, the dog is the dominant figure in the photograph and from there the eye can wander to the pier, with the sun directly behind it, silhouetted against a sinking sun.
Technical notes, the first and last images were processed in photoshop, using layers to bring the right textures to all points of the photograph. I use a very slight vignette to pull the eye towards the centre. And in all of these images except the last, the pier is centre stage. I used Nik Silver Efex Pro to process the colour conversion to monochrome in all instances.
Silky smooth waters and frantic skies are the outstanding features that we see in a lot of daytime long exposures and so I decided to take the filters out to Seven Sisters Country Park in East Sussex where there is an abundance of both, to continue my experiments with the Lee Big Stopper.
Having checked the calibration of the filter and finding it to be closer to 11.5 stops than 10, I had a much more productive day today. I was also a lot more comfortable with the physical process of setting up the image:
A couple of tips – I noticed on day 1 that sand and dirt were blowing onto the filter wrap while I was working. Obviously sand and a glass filter will not mix, even worse with the Resin filters – a scratch will ruin the filter permanently. I also worried about accidentally treading or kneeling on one while adjusting the camera settings. The solution, for me was to invest in another camera bag. The Kata DC445 is perfectly sized for the filters in their Lee protective covers. I carry two sets of ND Grads, hard and soft at 0.3, 0.6 and 0.9, a set of ND Glass Filters at 0.3, 0.6 and 0.9 and the Big Stopper. There’s room left over to carry a pan & tilt tripod head too, separated by the dividers provided. As a bonus, it also provides a platform to shield the wrappers from the wind and keep the filters off the ground. A good investment? Well it works for me. Using the Lee filter system is most suited to Landscape photography where setting up the shot and waiting for the light can take hours, a modus operandi that is a world away from the rapid response mode of the street photographer! Taking one extra bag in addition to the camera bag and tripod is not a big deal if I’m setting out to take landscapes.
On with the show – The shot at the top of the article was 23 seconds at f22. The water in the foreground was very fast moving and this length of exposure was enough to render it milky white. The shot of the river was made with a 30 second exposure at f22. The intention again, was to smooth what was a fairly briskly flowing river until it was glassy smooth. The light was different in this shot, hence the slightly longer exposure time. I was happy to use relatively short exposures because there was so much cloud and I wanted to keep some of that texture.
Learning point was that now that I have the right calibration to use as the basis for calculating the exposure, I can get to a usable image much more quickly. Its still a little less scientific than I would like, but I’m finding that I’m developing a feel for this filter now that allows me to take the calculation and adjust it for changing light conditions etc without engaging in complex mathematics.
Perhaps the greatest lesson was one that has been true for the whole of my experience with photography. At first, engage with the technique. Once you are comfortable with the technique you will find yourself able to engage with the creative side of the image much more effectively.
Lee Filters “Big Stopper”, a filter that has become so popular that queues last for nine months, E-Bay prices mark up to around 175% original price and getting your hands on one quickly is frankly in the hands of the gods.
I’d been waiting since last September for one on backorder and finally lost patience and paid £175 for one on E-Bay. Which arrived very promptly, in three pieces. Thankfully, the vendor refunded all my money + the cost of returning it, so thinking that the gods were on my side I bought a lottery ticket and searched on Google for another. Well, I didn’t win the lottery but I did find a seller who had just received stock. So perhaps the gods were smiling just a little that day!
This post is a quick guide to using the thing. Sounds straightforward, but there are a couple of gotchas I’d like to share.
First and foremost, the Big Stopper is hand made and almost never exactly 10 stops. You need to work out what your filter really is because it will save you hours of pain in the field. To do this, you need to take a photograph in consistent light without the filter. Then look up the equivalent timing for 10 stops and take a picture with the filter. Compare the two. If your second picture is darker than the first, extend the time and try again. Repeat until the two pictures more or less match. Then work out the difference.
In my case, I shot indoors to get a constant light source and boosted the ISO and aperture until I got an exposure of 1/250 seconds for my first shot, without the filter. From the table included with the filter, this gives you an exposure of 4 seconds. My 4 second exposure came out underexposed, so I adjusted up a full stop – to 8 seconds. Amazingly, this was still too dark, so I adjusted up another half stop to 12 seconds. Still too dark. I eventually settled on 14 seconds, very nearly two whole stops. So my Big Stopper appears to be about 11 2/3 rather than 10 stops. The Bigger Stopper?
The picture at the top of the post was timed at 15 seconds with an aperture of f22 in very bright sunshine. I used an additional Lee ND grad 0.6 to balance the exposure, otherwise I wouldn’t have got the clouds.
All of these things I learned the hard way.
On the composition front – if you have a lot of cloud and its windy, they may look spectacular to the naked eye but with a long exposure it will probably come out white. You’re much better off with a few well defined clouds moving slowly.
I like this filter a lot and I’m going to keep experimenting, so I’ll post updates from time to time. hope this has been useful in the meantime.