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.
Last tuesday, flushed with the success of being awarded gold in the Brighton & Hove Camera Club Projected image competition I impetuously volunteered to give a short talk about my work to an audience more used to hearing from proper photographers like Guy Edwardes and established photojournalists like Toby Smith and Andrew Hasson. This week has been spent in the main trying to work out what I can talk about that wouldn’t come across as arrogant, patronising or fatuous!
Interestingly, for me at least, the realisation that I was going to structure the talk around a set of images meant that I looked at my portfolio in an entirely different way and this helped me to discover a few things about myself and my photography. It helped me to pick out threads of commonality that I wasn’t particularly aware of, or perhaps hadn’t considered before.
I started with digital photography about five years ago, but only began to take it seriously two years ago after I’d lived in Brighton for a year and a half. It’s been a hell of a learning curve and I’ve enjoyed every minute. I bought a Canon EOS 550D in spring 2010 and upgraded to a Canon EOS 5D Mk III this summer after realising that a lot of my work could broadly be described as landscape photography.
And that is an important step – I’d deliberately refused to specialise, reasoning that as a relative beginner, albeit one with a degree in Photography, Film & Television gained in 1984, I had a steep technical curve in front of me and I didn’t want to box myself into a corner by learning a limited set of techniques allied to a particular style of photography. So for twelve months I’ve dabbled with Street photography, Macro photography, Landscape, Urban, Architectural, Night, Travel….you name it, I shot it.
I have learned a lot of technology in the last two years, not least about light. I’ve been using Lee filters, Polarising, Neutral Density, and am leaning towards getting it as right in the camera as I can, before working on the picture in Lightroom. And all the while, reading , looking and learning from other photographers.
Realising that compared to many people in the audience I am a raw beginner encouraged me to think of a framework in which I had something to offer that would be interesting and I hope amusing. Eventually I decided to structure the presentation around the notion of deliberation. By this I mean that the percentage of my best work that could be described as happily accidental has fallen over the last two years and I am now much more likely to capture the image I set out to capture, even when time and conditions are unfavourable. Accident still plays a part, in fact I would say that experimentation and pushing the boundaries are just as important to progress as technical mastery, however I’m now in the position where I can be pretty confident of getting decent shots regardless of the conditions I’m working in.
I chose seven images to talk about, all of them flawed from a purely technical perspective, but all were in some manner experiments and in concept at least say a lot more about me as a photographer. These pictures represent where I want to be. I’m remembering the influences that made me go to Film School, the cinematic genius of Orson Welles, Nicholas Roeg, the german expressionists and american directors such as John Huston. And I’m seeing the influence this has had on my photography, the drama of “A taste of Evil”, the abstract expressionism of “Walkabout” and “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, the sweeping landscapes of John Huston all bring a sense of drama that I’m seeing in some of my own work.
Skywalking for example was an image I planned fairly meticulously. The inspiration was a sequence from the film “Walkabout” directed by Nicholas Roeg in which a girl becomes lost in the australian outback and there is a wonderful point of view shot of people walking towards her, rendered indistinct by the heat haze they seem to float above the desert floor. This shot was taken at low tide and sunset on Brighton Beach, reflected in a large puddle and flipped 180 degrees to get that other worldliness.
‘My Bird Sings’ is a different kind of shot. One that I’m particularly proud of given that it was taken in a tiny window of opportunity (about 90 seconds) in very difficult lighting. The picture is a very private moment shared between the lady cleaning the floor and a bird, singing on the window. I knew the moment wouldn’t last so my challenge was to capture enough detail to be able to bring the lady out of the shadows, without blowing out the window entirely. I composed the shot into three zones, leaving a lot of foreground to emphasise the privacy of the moment. The camera is an interloper here.
The final image, “Hope” was one that presented itself by accident. I was in the right place at the right time. as soon as I saw this couple, the picture was fully formed in my mind. The pose reminded me of second world war propaganda posters – people looking up into the sky at the sparring fighter planes. Without wanting to validate the prime minister’s ridiculous assertion that we are in the economic equivalent of a war, I saw in this couple’s demeanour an element of hope for a future. Another private moment.
I rarely shoot people and don’t think of myself as a people photographer. For all that, people bring another dimension to some photographs and I am seeing more opportunities as I continue my journey.
Finally, the evening wasn’t just about my journey! There were nine other photographers presenting, none of them less than fascinating! It made me realise more than ever the value of the advice my tutor at Film School gave me “Don’t worry about ‘style’, you are who you are, your ‘style’ is in everything you do.” Looking at the variety and quality of work on display yesterday I couldn’t help but agree.
I really enjoyed the experience of presenting to an expert audience. Beyond that, it’s an interesting way to get to know people in the Club and encourages interaction. I certainly hope to do more in the future – must go and shoot a few more photographs first!
Three days photographing Beijing was an opportunity i was never going to pass up. So I flew over to China last weekend, slept on Sunday, worked on Monday & Tuesday and spent the rest of the week grabbing as many photographs as possible.
Beijing is an incredible city, extreme in every sense, architecturally especially. The scale is breathtaking, an urban sprawl bigger than London and much more densely populated, it is strange and exciting and I had a wonderful time there.
I managed to get around the places I would never have forgiven myself for not photographing. The Great Wall is truly breathtaking, the Ming tombs extraordinary and the Forbidden City easily lives up to its reputation. One place I was not familiar with before the trip was the 798 Space, a converted factory from the bad old days, designed by East German architects, based on Bauhaus designs in the 1930’s. It is well worth a visit.The Worker’s Stadium is another impressive monument from the communist days, with it’s iconic statue and slogans extolling the virtues of work. China is a country that I suspect is misunderstood. In the west we have a view distorted by the prism of American foreign policy; the jobs are going to China, cheap Chinese goods are undermining our economies etc. In fact China is the second biggest economy in the world and probably the most robust. The financial crash that crippled the west was self inflicted and has impacted China too.
I digress, what did I learn about photography on this expedition? A lot as it happens. My trip to Tiananmen Square was blighted by extreme humidity – so much water in the air that visibility was down to about fifty yards. Hardly ideal for landscape photography. The glare from the sky was overwhelming. I underexposed all the external shots from that day with a view to capturing the detail so that I could bring it up selectively in post processing. Worked a treat. I could have used ND Grads, but there was no feature in the sky, just an endless expanse of grey. I’ve brought a lot of those images to life with monochrome treatments performed in Lightroom and Nik Silver Efex Pro. I took a lot of detail shots inside the Forbidden City and here the 50mm f/1.8 really excelled. Such a great lens. Sharp as a tack.
The Great Wall was a challenge in every way, 35 degree heat and 70 degree inclines do not make a good combination, especially when combined with a backpack full of camera gear. I was grateful for my Lee Polarising Filter and the tripod was a life saver – I used a long lens for most of the shots, to bring the architectural features into a more compact frame. The challenge with photographing a wall in the middle of the day in high summer is that although the scale is immense, a wall surrounded by green is not in itself particularly interesting. It would have been better to have gone in the early morning and captured the mist rolling off the hills, but I couldn’t organise a driver in time and that would also have meant climbing up to the wall on foot! The cable car took minutes, easily an hour’s climb on foot.
The kit I took with me was just about right for the trip, everything got used, it wasn’t too heavy (one day I walked at least 15 miles), the Kata back pack was comfortable durable, in fact the only hint of trouble came when the West German Security asked me if I’d bought it all in China. In fact Canon kit is just as expensive there as it is here, and I’ve never encountered a fake 7D!
I took two cameras – Canon 7D and G1-X. Lee Hard and Soft Grads, Polarising Filter and Big Stopper. My everyday lens, the 17-55mm, a 50mm prime and a 10-22mm wide angle plus the 70-300mm zoom. The Giottos Vitruvian tripod really earned its keep, very light and small when folded. Virtually no wind, so stability was never an issue. I was a little concerned I’d taken too much, and very concerned about the fragility of the filters, but as I said, everything got used and nothing was wasted.
Check out the images from the trip here: http://electricalimage.com/galleries/travel/china-2/
This is the time of year for Poppies to show their faces. Only this year there’s not been a lot of sun and finding the Poppy fields has proved rather more difficult than I expected.
This shot was obtained via a comment made on Flickr that mentioned there were Poppies in a field about twelve miles away from where I live. So into the car and off on the search. These poppies were about half a mile from the road and I needed to climb over several barbed wire fences to get to them! And I obviously wasn’t the first, there was quite a well worn trail.
To get this shot I used a Lee 0.6 Grad ND Filter to bring the sky down to the same level as the fields and the Lee Polarising Filter to bring the clouds out a little more and bring up the blue of the sky. I then shot nine overlapping exposures from a tripod , very low down to get close to the Poppies on the right hand side and to make sure the camera stayed in the same plane throughout. I used the Canon EFS 17-55mm lens, which has pretty much become my favourite lens these days. Wide enough to do convincing landscape photography but not so wide as to include my feet! More seriously I don’t get as much vignetting with this lens combined with the filters as I do with the EFS 10-22 Wide Angle lens.
In post, I used a program called AutoPano Pro to stitch the nine exposures together, imported the completed panorama back into Lightroom and made a few adjustments to light and shade to bring out the best of the shot. Its the firsttime I’ve used this program and I’m impressed with the results. I’m not sure if this is the best workflow – from the perspective of image quality I may have been better advised to do the adjustments before the stitching, but I was concerned I might mess up the matching of the shots.
More experimentation required, I’ll write up the results!
I’ve been experimenting with old fashioned on camera filters recently and have realised that there is a learning curve associated with them, much more so than in post production. I’m coming at this from an angle of being very comfortable with my ability to learn software. I’ve been doing it for years and it comes very easily. There is a pleasing characteristic of software that encourages me to experiment – try it and if it doesn’t work, throw it away. However it is fundamentally different to the learning process associated with mechanical techniques.
The more mechanical business of learning to manipulate equipment and establishing those intuitive links between thinking and doing is at the same time, more difficult and more satisfying. The photographs I have been taking have become less complicated as I’ve subconsciously thrown out all the clutter in order to make evaluative judgements on my learning of a technique. In fact I have created a constraint for myself in order to focus my learning. I dont pretend to be a minimalist, but I am attracted to a style that throws so much back at the creativity of the photographer.
And I’ve been thinking about technology. I love the way technology makes it so easy to experiment. But I remember when the World Wide Web was just beginning to make its presence felt, somebody observed that its no longer necessary to know something, just to know where to find the answers you need. And to a point I agree with that. There’s a difference between Knowledge and Information and I think something similar is going on with software that purports to facilitate creativity. It is incredibly easy to use and because of that, creativity is in fact being diminished. If you don’t believe me check out Instagram and even 500px. Reams of photographs that look exactly the same because the process of applying a so called creative filter is reduced to the click of a button.
I think technology can be a distraction. The possibilities are endless, but I feel like I’ve fed the technology demon enough. Time to reduce the options and focus.
So I’ve had a kind of epiphany. I’m not going to stop buying or writing about technology, but I am going to focus rather more on what I think matters. Because it’s that that makes me unique. And its what you think matters that makes you unique. When I was at film school, my tutor gave me the single most valuable piece of advice anyone has ever given me. “You don’t need to copy other directors, stop trying to create a style and let your own style come through. Because in the end, it will and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.” Imitation has its place – after all the old masters had their apprentices, many of whom went on to become old masters themselves, but it is what it is, imitation, a means to an end, a polishing of a technique. Its important to acknowledge this I think in order to step off the merry go round and start on the important stuff. Pictures.
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.