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Thursday, September 1, 2005

Wrangling The Light


Use simple and affordable accessories to take your landscapes to the next level


lightMy job requires me to look at a lot of photographs, thousands of them. It’s something that I've always enjoyed, and I consider myself lucky to be able to review the images of some of today's best photographers. When it comes to landscape images, I often see familiar locations: Yellowstone, Arches, slot canyons. The places are immediately identifiable because of some distinguishing landmark and because I've seen the location photographed hundreds of times before.

Yet despite the familiarity of a location, I sometimes have the experience of looking at an image that takes my breath away. Although this may be the thousandth time I've seen a picture of this exact same locale, there's a quality that elevates the photograph above the rest. That uniqueness often isn't the result of the camera or lens or tripod, or even magic pixel dust used in the computer; rather, it's one simple element: light.

As outdoor photographers, we're all aware of the importance of good light. We know that the early-morning hours and late afternoon offer the kind of light that's perfect for photographing the landscape. And because so many of us know this, it's not uncommon to find a herd of photographers with the same gear, photographing the same location, using the same light. How do you differentiate yourself? How do you use light to make your own vision unique? The answer is to do more than just shoot in good light. You have to learn to control it.

1 Managing The Light
I find it amusing that those of us who love photography can spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on high-end camera bodies and lenses and not spend the dollars on tools that allow us to control light—tools available for a fraction of the cost of our main gear. While the quality of the camera and the optics are certainly important, it can be a small, inexpensive accessory that makes the difference between an unforgettable landscape and a forgettable one.

Using these tools to wrangle the light in the landscape can have a big impact. Although the effect of a filter or a reflector is seemingly small, it often results in the telling detail that makes a photograph great.

2 Getting The Exposure Right
Today's film and digital SLRs include multi-pattern metering systems that deliver excellent results in complicated lighting situations. Using multiple sensors and advanced algorithms, in-camera metering delivers accurate exposures for many shooting situations. The most accurate exposure doesn't mean it's the best exposure, however.

That's because many landscapes include a broad tonal range. The difference between shadow and highlight may be beyond the ability of the film or the digital sensor to capture. The camera may attempt to deliver an exposure that's a compromise between the shadow and the highlight; however, this sometimes results in the loss of critical shadow and highlight detail, which can't be regained even in Photoshop.

This is where a spot meter makes a difference. Although many SLRs contain a built-in spot meter, its angle of sensitivity changes depending on the focal length used. If you're using a wide-angle lens, the angle of sensitivity will be wider than when a telephoto lens is attached, resulting in much less precision.

A handheld spot meter delivers a consistent angle of view. The Sekonic L-558R DualMaster and Adorama Ambient Digital Spot Meter provide a one-degree angle of view (the Sekonic also includes ambient and flash metering). Point the meter to a specific location in the scene and you can immediately determine the exposure for your highlight, shadow or midtones. This information not only provides you control over your exposure, but it also lets you know whether you'll need an accessory like a graduated neutral-density filter to compress the contrast difference in the scene.

3 The Other Glass
Problems such as reflections, extreme tonal range and even dull color and contrast can be improved by attaching a filter in front of the lens. Whether it's a screw-in filter or a system filter slipped into a special holder, filters provide a great way to control light with both film and digital.

When using your spot meter, if you discover that the difference between your highlight and shadow exceeds what can be captured by your film or digital camera, a graduated neutral-density filter can solve the problem. Grad ND filters commonly are neutral pieces of glass or high-grade plastic, with a dark top half, a clear bottom half and a graduated blend through the middle. With landscapes, it cuts down on the amount of light from a bright sky and brings its exposure closer to that of the foreground.

Available in a variety of different strengths, these filters can handle differences of exposures of one, two, four or more ƒ-stops. The transition on these filters is either gradual or abrupt. I prefer the gradual transition, as it can produce a more subtle effect that's less apparent in the final shot.

Along with a graduated ND filter, another indispensable filter is a polarizer. This affects the light on a scene by eliminating reflections and glare from surfaces, such as leaves and water. The intensity of its effect varies depending on the rotation of the filter. It can be used to darken the sky, although this works best at 90 degrees to the sun. Be aware that when using wide-angle lenses, you won't get polarization evenly across the entire sky.

If I want to enhance certain tones and color in an image, I use filters such as the B+W Red Enhancer to enhance red and orange-brown tones in a fall foliage scene, for example. The Sunpak Green Enhancer pumps up the greens of foliage in a meadow or forest without appearing exaggerated. With a digital camera, you need to set the white balance to a preset such as daylight for these to work.

Remember that all of these filters will reduce the amount of light reaching the film or image sensor. You'll need to take this into consideration when you're using a handheld meter.

4 Redirecting The Light
Reflectors and diffusers are two of the most popular ways of controlling light for foreground elements in a scene. Rather than allowing the foreground to fall into complete shadow, a reflector can direct seen light to an element close to the camera. This not only brings out details that otherwise would be lost, but it creates a pleasing counterpoint to the dominant element in the background.

Collapsible reflectors from Photoflex, Lastolite and Adorama are easy to carry in your camera bag or backpack. Expandable and collapsible within seconds, reflectors create a bit of fill-light. Made of different reflective materials, gold reflectors create a warm light that matches the late-afternoon light conditions under which I'm frequently shooting. There are times when I can't manage holding a reflector and take the picture at the same time. Frequently, the subject at which I want to direct the light is too far from the camera. That's when I use flash. Rather than leaving the flash mounted on the camera, however, I'll use it off-camera using a TTL cord. This allows me the ability to control the direction and angle of the flash while maintaining the most automatic functions.

If the foreground element I want to illuminate still isn't close enough, I can magnify the output of the flash by using a flash enhancer, such as Kirk Enterprises' Flash X-Tender and the Project-A-Flash. These extend the range of the flash by concentrating the light into a smaller angle of coverage. By narrowing the beam, it increases the distance the flash can reach.

For even greater control, I often use a secondary slave flash. Flash units such as the Nikon SB-800, Canon 580EX, Sigma EF-500 and Konica Minolta 5600HS feature wireless TTL technology for maintaining TTL exposure with compatible cameras. Even if you don't have such cameras or flashes, there are non-TTL alternatives such as the Sunpak Digital Flash Kit.

Radio slaves that use radio frequencies rather than line-of-sight light triggers provide another alternative. Devices such as the MicroSync Digital Slave allow you to place a secondary flash virtually anywhere, even behind objects like rocks and trees, and still trigger the flash up to a distance of 100 feet.

I can place the flash almost anywhere in the scene to illuminate something in the foreground. I find this useful when I'm shooting images near sunset or after dusk. The rich color of the sky is complemented by a plant or tree that's lit by the slave flash in the foreground. Just a single flash can make such a shot more than just another sunset image.

5 Blocking Stray Light
Stray light hitting the lens can ruin a perfect image. Light that hits the lens and bounces back and forth between the elements causes flare and ghosting. While I now have hoods for all of my lenses, that wasn't always the case. I spent good money on the lenses, and at first, I didn't see much of a need to spend more money on a piece of metal or plastic. That was until I saw images that I thought were going to be beautiful ruined by lens flare. The reduction in contrast and color saturation kills an otherwise great shot. Although you don't always need a lens shade, when you do need it, it's worth every dime. As well as a lens hood, products such as the Flare Buster provide greater protection against flare.

With many landscape compositions including a prominent foreground, it's not uncommon to have light falling on it. While this can be used effectively, there are other times when the lit foreground element is more of a distraction than a complement to the scene.

A flag, a term commonly used in the film industry, is anything that can be used to block light from a scene. Similar to reflectors, which deflect light, a flag such as a Westcott Fast Flag completely obstructs it. Available in various sizes and designs, flags often are used in photo studios, but they also can be used quite effectively in the outdoors. You can use a reflector to block light, too, but it's reflective and has a different effect.

Although we can't reach up and position the sun where we'd like it, these tools can go a long way toward allowing us to control those things that we can, such as light, improving our chances to come away with a unique and memorable photograph.

Essential Gear...
The world revolves around the sun and your outdoor photography does, too. You can't always count on the sun to go your way, but with the Sunpak TR-2000 battery pack, you can count on your flash. The battery pack works well with high- and low-powered flash units and exerts a steady power supply. Its technology ensures you can consume every last drop of energy, and its power status indicator informs you how much juice is left. Plus, it weighs a mere 24 ounces and measures 5x6x2.5 inches. List Price: $499.95. Contact: Sunpak (ToCAD), (973) 428-9800, www.sunpak.com.


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