Using Lightrooms graduated filter and adjustment brush to correct a landscape photograph

Vermont-Mount Mansfield-Winter-Clouds-landscape photograph
My final corrected image of Mount Mansfield in Winter from a camera raw file.

The initial image capture is only the beginning

When we capture our original camera raw files we need to look at them as simply the start of expressing our artistic vision. We are doing more than  just making an image. We are gathering enough data in our raw files to be able to realize that start into a finished image.

The image editing process is different for everyone but all of the tools are the same. Like in cooking there are a thousand different ways to peel an onion but eventually we get to the same result no matter what method we use.

It is the same for our raw files in that there is no one correct way to get there but by using the power  of our raw files we can come up with a final, polished and corrected image.

How can we get there? What tools do we need to achieve our photographic vision. The answer lies in The graduated filter and adjustment brush in Lightroom.

Camera Raw files are boring

The raw files come straight out of the camera with no processing so what you’re seeing on import into your computer is exactly what you shot. Keep in mind though that unlike a JPEG which is processed in camera, Raw files are flat and boring.

They need processing to bring out all of the best data in the image so a well composed and properly exposed image is essential. While JPEG’s tend to get corrupted over time as they are an already edited image, Raw files can be re edited over and over until your final image emerges. Take for example my original image file for the above image and it’s histogram in Lightroom…..

Vermont-Mount Mansfield-Winter-camera raw file example
View of Mount Mansfield with fresh snow and clouds from a field in Underhill, Vermont
Lightroom-histogram-camera raw file-example raw file image-landscape photography
My example image’s histogram from Lightroom.

Now this is a typical example of a camera raw file as it is straight out of camera. You can see that the image is rather flat with no contrast and there are some issues that need to be addressed in the editing process.

A scene like this can be difficult to shoot as the clouds bounce around bright light at times with the sun popping in and out from behind them. Couple that with it being Winter and the snow being really reflective and you have a pretty tricky exposure situation on your hands.

My Histogram is actually looking really good as the image was exposed to the right just before the highlights would be blown out. This is good as we can pull those highlights in during the editing process without messing up the shadows or making the image to dark. The issues I need to address are easily fixed but do require some time….

  1. The upper portion of the image with the clouds – It’s a little too bright at the top and you can’t really see a lot of the darker shadows in the clouds, Those highlights wash everything out and there isn’t much detail. The blue is washed out a bit as well even though when I shot this it was much closer to what the finished image looked like….That’s the trick really. Making our image look dynamic and just as we shot it without going overboard with out edits.
  2. The Mount Mansfield range in the middle ground – There are nice highlights there but it’s the shadows that are somewhat washed out due to some haze and the fact that in the image it’s snowing on Mount Mansfield itself as I was shooting. It’s really not bad but it just needs some work to make the image more appealing.
  3. The band of trees and forest below the mountain – Again this area is flat and has no contrast. The clouds were casting some interesting shadows in this area and it just isn’t dynamic enough for me. I need to add some contrast and depth to this area as the foreground draws you in and leads you through the trees and to the mountain beyond.
  4. The foreground – This area here is ok but it just needs to be brightened up with some contrast added.  All of the grass sticking out of the snow gets washed out in all of that white so I also would like to see some contrast here as well.

The graduated filter and adjustment brush tools

So we have our camera raw file and I am feeling pretty good about it but I know that this image can be so much better. The main tools that did the heavy lifting on this image were the graduated filter tool and the adjustment brush tool. Both of these tools are great as you can target them to specific areas and use them multiple times within one image.

The graduated filter tool is very handy for corrections because unlike a traditional filter You can spin the tool 360 degrees making it more versatile for correcting landscapes. Manual filters and their holders are a bit more cumbersome in the field so I use them to get my images as close as I can then do more detailed corrections with the graduated density tool.

The other great thing about the tool is that you can use them multiple times in an image where this is not possible manually so it opens up some more opportunities in images that otherwise might not make the cut. I use them quite liberally because I can use one for a clarity adjustment in one area of the image but I can also use one to enhance color in the sky of a sunrise or sunset.

You can selectively use them for different edits just like you ca with the adjustment brush…..While the graduated density tool is used for more broad edits over bigger portions of the image you can use the adjustment brush for more targeted, precise adjustments in select areas to really build on your vision for the final, corrected image.

The adjustment brush work just like any other brush in Photoshop in that you can change its size and use it for specific adjustments in very localized parts of your image. You can also use it multiple times per image so say you want to make an exposure adjustment in one specific area you can just brush the area you want to change then move the appropriate sliders.

Using both tools on our image

Without getting into a very long conversation about my workflow I used three different graduated filters in the image to target the sky, the middle ground and the foreground. The image had a great deal of highlights to contend with and it also needed some contrast and haze adjustments.

Now these initial edits really improved my image however I performed four corrections with the adjustment brush to really make the image pop and take care of some of its flaws. One edit was made for some of the highlights in the clouds, another was used for the mountain to get rid of the haze and add in some contrast, Another was used on the middle ground forest and trees to add contrast and another was used on the foreground to bring out the contrast in the grasses and add some pop to them.

Essentially my workflow goes from a starting point which is a landscape preset I use on all of my images as an overall first step. I then hone this some more with some basic edits again to the overall image and then I dial in more concise edits with the graduated filter tool and the adjustment brush.

Some images require more and some less and it all depends on where I want to go with the final outcome. Editing is as subjective as wine tasting and how we best utilize the tools at out disposal. This image was quite flat to begin with and originally I made a really nice black and white out of it but I also felt the color version was quite nice as I love the blue color in Winter scenes. Lightroom has a lot of powerful tools including ones that may be overlooked and the graduated density tool and adjustment brush can really help to lift your images from boring to exciting.

Under the Super Moon- A Star Trail tutorial

Vermont-ski lift-night sky-star trails
Ski lift tower illuminated by the super moon with star trails at Smugglers Notch ski resort. Jeffersonville, Vermont.

 

*Prints of this image can be purchased here!

Most people will tell you not to go out shooting star trails during the super moon or full moon due to the extremely bright light but I like to go against the grain. My schedule only allows me to shoot at certain times so if the conditions are good then I go no matter what. I had been thinking of this image for quite some time and finally the conditions presented themselves to make the shot only the super moon was out causing some really bright light in the night sky. You can however still do night photography during the super moon phases you just have to be a bit creative about what you shoot!

Circular star trails are achieved by pointing in a northerly direction at the North Star which you can see here at the center of the circles. The more North you point the more circular the pattern. As you move away from North the patterns will be less circular and more linear. I personally really like the circular pattern so when I am looking for compositions I try to point in a northerly direction. Generally as a rule of thumb for myself I always try to find static objects that don’t move simply because trees and other moving natural objects tend to sway and move even i the lightest of breezes. It’s simply a personal preference for me as I do not like the blur the wind causes but I never let that stop me from shooting a particular composition.

The full moon and the super moon causes some problems with the extreme bright light they produce in the sky. My simple trick to avoid this is to shoot in a northerly direction for two reasons…1. If you look North the sky will still be dark enough to shoot star trails regardless of the brightness of the moon when it is full 2. The full Moon will illuminate your foreground which allows for lower iso’s and eliminates the need for any light painting of the subject.  The Moon lit up the ski tower which allowed me to shoot at iso 400 versus 800 or above so the image file is much cleaner. Instead of not shooting at all and staying home I used what I was given to my advantage and got an image I had been thinking about for over a year!

The processing of these shots is really quite simple with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop cc. There are a few other ways to do this but for me this is the simplest and easiest. I don’t do anything in Lightroom until after I have merged the files together…It’s easier to process one file than 150!

1. The first thing that I do is import the raw files into lightroom and then export the entire series into a separate folder on my computer as TIFF files. You can work with JPEG’s to speed up the process but I like to work on TIFF’s so I can edit the combined file later. TIFF files will take much longer to process but I have never had a problem doing 140 to 150 files in under ten minutes.

3. Open Photoshop CC and in the menu bar chose File-Browse in bridge- Then choose the folder you placed the series of images into. Select all by right clicking on the first image which should be your base image and the start of your star trail series.

4. Once all of your images are highlighted in Bridge choose Tools-Photoshop-Load files into Photoshop layers. Photoshop will place all of the images onto one canvas in their own separate layers. Here you will have to wait a few minutes depending on how many images/layers you have. If you do not have bridge then you would have to do this one image at a time. There are a few stacking programs out there to do this but since I am already paying for my Photoshop subscription I process this way.

5. Once all of the images are layered in Photoshop highlight and select all of the layers and then set the blending mode in the layers panel to lighten. Before your eyes the magic happens and the star trail will appear! The lighten mode will only blend in the lightest pixels which will be the stars. In a few convenient commands you can see the fruits of your labors in just a few minutes!

Ten steps to breaking out of the beginners rut and getting better Photographs

Photography has opened up a whole new world for me as a visual artist. It allows me to fulfill my creative desires and express what I see and how I see it to the world.  Like all new experiences and endeavors, No challenge could have been more difficult for me than that of becoming a self-taught nature photographer.

With no formal training or education I dove head first into nature photography with the zeal of someone completely unprepared for the long road ahead of me. I think I must have been crazy to drop everything and take up this new career path as a photographer. My path over the last five years has been filled with the incredible highs of doing my first showings of work to the lows of constant submission rejections.

I suppose that living and shooting the Vermont landscape has instilled in me a sense of adventure, A drive to succeed, And the strength to overcome the initial frustrations as a beginner to becoming a more series amateur nature shooter. How does one climb out of this initial learning period? What steps do I take to hone my skills and become more successful in this very crowded field? I, Like most beginners and amateurs in nature photography had a lot of questions about how to gain some ground in the field with no sure way to answer them.

I have struggled and made a few mistakes along the way, But with a lot of hard work I now feel that my photography work is finally turning a corner. My drive and willingness to learn has helped me to succeed and with the same focus, You can too.

1. Learn self editing skills – You must be extremely critical of your own work. The tendency with digital is to shoot lots of images and not every one will be a keeper. As artists we tend to want to keep every image that we shoot but you have to put those feelings aside and be realistic about how many you are going to use from any one shoot. If I shoot thirty images at one location I will edit these down to about ten and I may choose one or two to print or show.

2. Narrow your focus – Periodically review your work and see the patterns that develop in your shooting style. Really take a hard look and see what you like and don’t like about your work. Ask yourself which styles of photography do I like the most? Macro? Low light work? Wide angle landscapes? You will want to go out and try to shoot everything you can but limiting yourself to a few styles will give your work more focus and give you a more clear direction to go in.

Last year I had two showings of my work in the same month and was reviewing images to show. This review showed me that I needed to make some changes in my work as I was shooting at the same times of day. I wanted my work to have more emotion and be more dramatic so I switched from shooting during the middle part of the day to sunrise and sunset times.

3. Go beyond the snapshot – You must go beyond getting out of your car at a location and snapping a photo. You need to think of yourself as an explorer and get away from the main trails or paths. Have an open mind and be willing to do more than the other photographer to get a great image. Ask yourself how far are you willing to go to get a great shot?

4. Do your  research – Great images don’t just happen on their own and they require a lot of prep work. I use any and all means to find a new location or to research an existing one that I already know about. Goggle maps and Google earth are excellent tools for initially scouting a location as well as route planning. I also use a free program called The photographers Ephemeris. This is a great freeware program which shows your sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moon set positions overlayed on Google maps anywhere you want on the Earth. I also use road and topographic maps as well as plain, old-fashioned talking to people in a specific area.   As an amateur time and money is at a premium so you have to make the most of both.

5. Think “minimalism”when it comes to your gear – I like to have the least amount of gear to make the best possible images I can. Remember that more gear = more weight = you get tired faster. Since most of us are on budgets we must think long and hard about the gear that we need that will be most essential to our chosen style of Photography.

6. Get off of the auto modes – Take your camera off of the fully automatic modes and really learn how to control your camera. The camera is just a machine but knowing how to control iso, shutter speed and aperture settings yourself will give you much more creative freedom. Waterfalls are a good study in learning the relationship between the three. When I first started learning I shot a lot of waterfalls which helped me to better understand depth of field with your aperture as well as how to use shutter speed to freeze or blur motion. You are the artist, not the camera. I have an older post on shooting waterfalls part one and part two that further explain how to make long waterfall exposures.

7. Three essential filters – The filters that I always carry with me are a circular polarizer, graduated neutral density and neutral density filters. These three essential filters can really help you to elevate your photography from the normal everyday image. Currently I am using the Cokin filter system as it allows me to stack these in different combinations which you cannot do with screw in filters unless you hand hold them which is not possible with a long exposure if you have shaky hands like I do. The circular polarizer is great for saturating colors and reducing glare especially on leaves or around water. Full neutral density filters have a neutral grey color and restrict light on the whole image while graduated ones restrict the light in only part of the image. These are extremely useful for slowing shutter speeds and giving you better exposures in landscape scenes where the sky and foreground would typically be difficult to expose for.

8. Social Media – Use social media and blogs to your advantage for spreading the word about your own work as well as for connecting with fellow Photographers. Facebook and Twitter are excellent resources for up and coming Photographers as well as pros, In this internet age as a struggling amateur you must become more savvy about using these tools. I also started my blog on WordPress as a way to really develop my writing skills which were a little lacking. Most pros don’t make money just off of print sales but through a number of avenues, One of which is writing.

9. Confidence in your  work – You must have confidence in your work and be proactive about showing it to others. If you have confidence in your work and know that it is the best it can be then it will show in your work and in yourself as an artist. There will always be people who don’t like what you do and you must be able to take criticism and negative comments. The negative stuff helps to refine what you are doing and get rid of any habits or work that isn’t making the grade. I have a regular 40 hour a week job so the amount of showings I can do is limited. However I am proactive about this and always looking for places in my community that I can show my work.

10. Dont think just about making money – Get the idea about buying an expensive camera and snapping away and making huge profits on your prints out of your head as soon as you start down the Photographers path. Ask yourself if you are an artist or a salesman. My main goal is making art…period. I know that eventually if I keep working hard than money will come at some point. I love what I do and the medium of Photography first. If your thoughts are more on the money side then on the art side it will show in your work. If you truly love what you are doing you wont ever have to worry about how you are going to make a living at it.

How to mount a photograph on mat board, Part one: The tools

Mounting a print to mat board is one of the many skills outside of shooting images that is a part of every Photographers tool chest. We are jack-of-all-trades, Renaissance men and women who are artists, business people, printers, computer wizards, software nerds, Weather reporters, travel guides, givers of advice, teachers, searchers and dreamers. We capture small moments of time and then have to figure out the best way to display those moments for all to see.

It can give one a great sense of accomplishment to really be in control of the entire process from capture to display. Learning how to do this however was sort of like trying to figure out who the killer is in a mystery novel. You get bits and pieces of information from various places and once assembled the brain finally kicks in and sees the entire puzzle.

It took me quite awhile to figure out the proper way to mount a print. Like the new guy on the team who wants to impress I said to myself “ This can’t be hard…Who needs instructions?” I am laughing to myself because I quickly found out that improperly matting a print just causes you way too much grief and aggravation, Not to mention cash from wasted prints. Being a person not to be discouraged by my earlier feeble attempts, I soldiered on and with practice and lots of research learned how to properly mat an image. It is actually quite easy when learned and customers who buy your prints will appreciate the fact that the artist captured and mounted the image which gives it more of a handmade quality. I finally feel like the process is complete when the image can finally be displayed.

There are several tools needed for the task which I will outline below. Some are a little more expensive than others but not so much to make doing this project really expensive. A small, clean work space is needed for the task, I used our dining room table which is small but adequate. You want dust kept at a minimum because it has a habit of clinging to the print and the mat so make sure to clean your work area prior to mounting the image. It’s just a precaution as nothing is more frustrating than finally slipping the mat and print into a plastic sleeve only to see dust or other contaminants in the sleeve…Just be wary of this.

1. The print – The print used here came from Shutterfly.com. I use them for all of my printing and have never had a problem or issue with their service. They use Fuji film crystal archival paper and inks and the prints look great. The print in this article is 11×14 inches in matte format, Shutterfly does not do glossy in any print over 8×10. My only complaint with them is that any print over 8×10 is shipped in a roll tube and not flat, When the print arrives you have to press it flat for several days to remove the curl. It is actually a pain because the print takes longer to deliver to the customer and it is very difficult to mount the print unless it is flat. 11×14’s at Shutterfly cost $7.99, I have a print package plan of 30% off any order so the total cost for this print with shipping was $8.58.

11×14 matte print from Shutterfly.com

2. The mat – You want to use a good quality, archival and acid free mat. You don’t want to buy to cheap of a mat as they wont be archival and most tend to yellow with age because they are poor quality. The black mat here was purchased at Creative Habitat for right around $6.00 dollars. It is a good quality mat although not museum grade. Normally I would have ordered it online however it is much cheaper to order several than one at a time so in this case I bought one locally. The same goes for the plastic sleeve, I would have preferred to have bought sleeves online but since I am only doing this one print at the moment I decided to save the sleeve it came in and reused it for packaging.

Black mat board for the image.

3. Hinging tape – Use a good quality, archival and acid free hinging tape. It is the main component for attaching your print to the mat so don’t be cheap here either. Hinging tape comes in two forms, Self-adhesive (pressure sensitive) which requires mineral spirits to remove or the gummed type that requires only water to activate the glue and for removal. I used Lineco’s hinging tape with a 1”x 130′ costing $11.00 dollars. It is a great tape, works well and this small roll will last awhile depending on how many prints you are selling.

Gummed hinging tape that I use.

4. Plastic sleeves – Good quality plastic sleeves of archival quality should be used along with a filler board for support behind the mounted image. The can be bought in all sizes and they are similar to comic book sleeves. Always be sure to purchase ones that are designed to fit a print that is mounted to a mat board otherwise it will be a tight squeeze in the sleeve. They are relatively inexpensive and they come in packs of 100. In this case as I was only doing this one print I reused the sleeve the mat board came in to  conserve resources.

5. Canned air-I always have these around and can be purchased from any computer store or warehouse stores like Costco. They are great for cleaning your computer hardware as well  as blowing any dust off of the print when packaging. Never mount a print without some of this around.

The canned air and the container I used to hold the water.

6. Three small items you will need also are a simple pencil for marking, A small detail paintbrush for brushing water on the hinging tape and in the case here of a black mat, Some type of white marking pen for signing the mat. I used a Pentec gel pen with white ink which worked well here. All can be purchased at an art supply store or office supply store and are really cheap.

Small paintbrush, pencil and signing pen.

7. Water container – Any small container will do and you don’t need a huge amount of water for the hinging tape. Use your best judgement here.

8. Paper towels – Any kind will do and these are cheap as well. You want these to clean up any water spills or for periodically cleaning off your hands. Small bits of glue will adhere to your skin if you are mounting a number of prints, Over time this glue builds up on your skin and creates these black smears on the print and mat. Work clean and always clean your hands every so often.

Cheap, handy paper towels!

9. Drafting T-square – A 24 inch one should be sufficient and costs about $11.00 dollars at staples. A t-square is important for getting straight lines when you mark the back of the mat. You want the print to be square and straight because it will extend ¼ of an inch past the mat opening.

10. Logan mat cutting rail with ruler – While not essential to this task, I have one and use it in the process for measuring. It is simply a long metal rail that either a straight or 45 degree mat cutter sits on allowing you to cut mat board. I like to cut mat board myself with the benefit of it being cheaper to buy than precut mat’s, However pre cut ones are cut by a computer and will always be straighter and look better than I can do myself. The final presentation will look more professional and it will be appreciated. The cost for a 24 inch Logan team system mat cutting rail is about $40 to $50 dollars. Expensive but I do use it enough to justify it.

Household scissors, Drafting t-square and a mat cutting rail with ruler.

11. Self healing cutting mat – This mat is self-healing which means when you cut on it the cuts in the mat close up and it can be reused many times over. This is an essential tool for this task and trust me, You don’t want to do this project or any mat cutting with out one. There is a grid on the mat in 1 inch increments for allowing you to get straight and even cuts. You never want to use cardboard to cut mats on because… As you cut with a mat cutter across the mat board, Cardboard has a tendency to bunch up under the razor blade making it skip on the mat board. Your cuts will be uneven and looked ragged. Always use a cutting mat of this type as it is designed to avoid this problem. I use a plain Staples brand one which cost about $10 dollars. In this instance we are not using it to cut on but  as a guide for marking lines on the mat.

Buy one of these! Trust me don’t cut mat’s on anything else…it wont work. You have been warned.

12. A handy pair of household scissors – Simple and cheap.

13. Business cards or some type of thank you note-While not entirely necessary, I think it’s nice to stick either a business card or a thank you note inside the print when packaged. It’s a nice gesture and you will be remembered for it. I am currently using the mini business cards from Moo.com and a package of 100 costs $20 dollars. These are great as they are a unique product and  you can use 25 different images per 100 for the front of the card, making each one you hand out different.

Moo mini business cards each with a different image.

(Please note – I am not paid nor do I receive any compensation from any of these companies. I list them because I use all of these products and believe in their quality.)

Ten pieces of Photography gear to never leave home without

An image of photography gear including a tripod, filter case, dust blower, tools, and related items

I am a huge fan of being a minimalist when it comes to the equipment that I carry on a hike. Weight and fatigue as I carry everything in my backpack are always a concern so I try to pack light and only carry the things I need. As Photographers have a huge bounty of available equipment to us and I must say that not all of it is useful. I always want to keep in mind variables like weather, where I am going, what I plan to shoot, how long I am planning to be out,  and what would be the minimum amount of equipment I would need to accomplish my goals for the day. This list covers only ten items but each are important and should be a part of any photographers basic kit of gear.

When starting out as a budding landscape photographer the tendency is to over pack with gear but with experience comes the knowledge that less is more. I really try to minimize what I carry down to the bare essentials because I would rather carry more water and food than anything else. Without the energy from the food you bring with you,  You may as well pack up and go home because it will show in your images. Keep your focus sharp, carry only what you need and your mind and body will thank you for it!

1. Dust blower -This is probably one of the more important items that I carry with me and I would never be caught without one. Often when there is wind present there will be small particles of dust in the air which can get on your gear. I have taken a perfectly clean and dust free camera out of my backpack and within a few minutes there is dust present on the lens. Use the dust blower first for getting rid of those larger, pesky dust particles, It really will be an image saver when your out in the middle of nowhere. Dust is our enemy out in the field and this is out first weapon to fight it. There are several companies that make these in various forms, I personally use the Giotto’s Red Rocket which cost me about 11 bucks. Simple, cheap and effective.

2. Microfiber cleaning cloth – After the dust blower the microfiber cleaning cloth comes in handy to gently clean your optics for removing fingerprints, water spray and other small dust particles. I always keep a few on hand so I can rotate and wash them as needed. These are very cheap running under 10 bucks but it’s always something I have on me. I clean mine with a tiny amount of liquid soap and some warm water every so often to keep them in tip-top shape. Always use the microfiber cleaning cloth…Never packets of lens cleaning tissue. The wood fibers in the tissues are just too rough for delicate camera optics and gear. I learned early on that they can leave tiny scratches in your glass, I’m just not willing to chance ruining thousands of dollars worth of equipment.

3. Tripod – Ah, Our old friend the trusty tripod. This is the most important tool that we can carry around and I am comforted to know that it is there and will perform faithfully for me. Getting my images straight and sharp are important qualities in a landscape shot. This is an instance where buying cheap will do you no good. Cheap tripods are just that…Cheap. You will never be happy and spending the money to get even a modest one that you will have for quite a long time is always better. Excellent tripods can be found in the $150 to $300 dollar range and will serve most Photographers needs. I use an Induro 8m alloy tripod with a bhd-1  ball head and together they cost me $300 dollars or so but worth every penny. It is well constructed, very stable and it is a panoramic ball head so I can do more types of work than a cheaper set up.

4. Headlamp or flashlights – Often I shoot on the fringes of the day at sunrise, sunset or late at night and find myself needing a little light once in a while. Headlamps are very useful and can be found at any outdoor gear store or online.  I use one made by Petzl and is very effective for night shots to illuminate parts of the scene or to otherwise add a little light on the subject at sunrise/sunset. You can find decent ones for $30 dollars and if you shoot when its dark out you are going to need one of these. Small, led flashlights are widely available on Amazon for cheap and I always carry one or two with me.

5. Circular Polarizer – One of the three must have filters for landscape and nature Photography. They reduce glare, Let you see through water and saturate colors.  They can help transform an otherwise dull shot into a great one and I always carry a screw-in type and one for my Cokin filter system. These can be expensive with a screw-in type at 77mm costing over $100 dollars but again well worth the expense. You will get immediate payback with much better image quality.

6. Graduated neutral density filter – Another must have filter for the nature Photographer which come in different strengths, Some block more light and some block less. These filters are neutral grey on one half and clear on the other half allowing you to even out the exposure and block light in areas of the composition such as sky with the landscape in the foreground. These will save your bacon when out shooting during the day. A basic set of one, two and three stops is more than enough to capture most scenes. Currently I am using  Cokin stackable ones with a Cokin filter holder and run about $25 dollars each but are worth the money. You can go all glass with this filters but then they start getting really expensive and you have to be much more careful with them.

7. Neutral density filter-The last of the must have filters for nature work. The neutral density filter works the same way as the graduated only the entire filter is neutral grey not one half which will block light throughout the image. These come in various strengths as well and help in achieving long exposure times. Again a set of one,  two and three stop neutral density filters and are great for for most situations and will really help you to make better images. One note of caution: Regular Neutral density filters are harder to stack together as it can create weird color casts to your images depending on the shooting conditions. However I routinely stack two graduated filters together and never really had an issue with the color cast.

8. Extra batteries and memory cards -It seems simplistic but I always carry a plentiful supply of both. Video and live view mode generally suck up a lot of juice and I prefer to shoot stills but I like to have enough power with me to do both. Memory cards can fail or you may be doing a ton of shooting and they are cheap so always carry a lot of them.

9. Remote shutter release-While not entirely necessary I do carry Canons rc-1 remote with me at all times. For night time shooting and star trail work they are essential and that’s mainly what I use it for as well as long exposure work. The Canon one is small, simple, easy to use and cheap to replace if lost. If you have shaky hands or it’s really cold out I would highly recommend one for those situations.

10. Tripod mount for a smartphone- I am using the Adobe creative cloud photographers subscription that comes with the lightroom app. In that app is a really good manual camera that lets you change exposure settings as well as recording the image in dng format. I find it’s easier to share online this way as I can shoot and edit raw files on my phone. It also transfers them into lightroom wirelessly when your near your computer so an excellent addition to the subscription.

 

10 tips for making better waterfall Photographs

Lower Bingham Falls cascade in Stowe, Vermont

Shooting waterfalls can be a great way as a beginning photographer to learn more about camera settings and filters. They provide great subject matter showing the power of nature and can be a great learning tool to master your camera. Here are ten tips that I have put together for you to use as a starting point when working in this type of photography. Mastering the waterfall shot can be a huge confidence boost when your are just beginning to learn how the camera controls work. Of course all shooting situations are different but by following these ten simple steps you can come home with more keepers.

1. Look for overcast light- Always check weather reports and look for overcast or relatively cloudy days. You will need an even light throughout the composition to avoid what I call “hot spots” or blown out highlights. (These are areas where the water is cresting over rocks or direct sunlight that is filtering down through the forest canopy. Without the overcast light these areas are difficult to expose properly in a long exposure.  I generally use evaluative metering as the camera is going to take into account the whole image area including the areas around the water which without even light can become over or under exposed. Experimentation is key here as it may take a few shots to nail down the exposure.

2. Use a circular polarizer – Don’t be afraid to use one of these bad boys. I was at first but once I did use them they became an indispensable part of my gear. In this instance, I would not buy cheap. You will have this filter for a long time and more expensive equals better. My first one was a B+W 77mm circular polarizer which I still have. B+W make excellent, well constructed filters. In fact the one I own I accidentally dropped on a rock, putting a small scratch in it but has no resulting loss of image quality. This investment will pay off as the filter will help to reduce glare from the water’s surface and give you that “see through” look to it. It will add depth to the image by saturating the colors and will allow a slightly longer exposure.

3. ISO- Right off the bat when setting up the image I know that if I want the long exposures I will be using Iso’s from 100 to 200 and no more. Using a low Iso will help to reduce grain in the image from the long exposure but is also another tool to make the exposure longer by allowing less light to reach the sensor. However if you are doing the opposite and freezing the waters motion Iso’s in the 400 range in sunlight will allow for a shorter exposure. Remember to use your judgement depending on the scene and the light. Ask yourself what you want to do..Do I want to freeze the water?,  Which would mean Iso’s above 200 or do I want to record the water over a long period of time? Which means an Iso of 100.

4. F-stop I always have my camera in aperture priority mode and using F-stops in the 8 to 16 range will give you the best depth of field while reducing the effects of blur that can come from diffraction at the higher F-stops. F8 will be the sweet spot but I always shoot in the F11 to F16 range. You must test your own equipment but for me these work by letting me lengthen that exposure time and giving me great sharpness throughout the image.

Green moss and vegetation with a waterfall

5. Shutter speeds and Neutral density filters –  Shutter speeds from ¼ to 1 second will give you perfectly acceptable results. I prefer to work from the 1 second and up range but again it all depends on the light in the scene. I am currently using the Cokin filter system which lets me stack different filters in front of each other rather that the more expensive screw in type. A neutral density filter simple has a neutral grey color throughout and restricts the amount of light entering the lens without changing the image. They come in different strengths and are a crucial component in long exposure work.

6. Choose your time of year carefully This point is important as the time of year will affect how the water is running in a particular falls. While they can be shot successfully in all seasons here in Vermont I think the summer and fall     months are best. The spring months bring fast-moving water from melting snows however the landscape around the falls can be a bit boring. Not much is growing and their isn’t much color so I think close up views are best here. In     the summer and fall seasons you have your friend the forest canopy to help in providing a nice, even light as well as blocking a good portion of direct sunlight from hitting the composition. You also will have the green colors in the summer and all of the various foliage colors in the fall. Winter is a challenge as I think you can have too much white in an image from a long exposure but not impossible to get a decent waterfall shot in this season.

7. Use a stackable filter system Using a stackable filter system from Cokin or Lee instead of the screw in type will allow you to get the benefits of your three main filters for landscape and waterfall  work…The circular polarizer, the neutral density filter and the graduated neutral density filter. The other major advantage to these is cost. I use a Canon 17-40mm L series lens with a 77mm filter diameter and just a screw in circular polarizer alone is well over $100 dollars. The cost savings has allowed me to have a number of these filters in different strengths to cover most shooting situations that I would face.
8. Compose so the viewer is right in front of the falls – While this is not always possible I want the viewer to feel like they are standing right in front of the falls. I want them to feel the rush of the water and the mist from the water spray. I just like how dynamic that kind of composition can look versus one from above or from really far away.

9. Wide angle or close up?- The weather in Vermont can be a cruel mistress some times as it can change very rapidly. There are days when the clouds are low, flat and have now form or shape which can make exposures with waterfalls in them difficult and the resulting composition sometimes can be a little boring. I never let weather stop me from shooting and in these times I try to look for some really interesting close up views instead of the wide-angle ones. These detail shots are great as they slow you down and let you see what otherwise you may have missed. I save the wide angles for when I want to get the entire falls into the shot or when I want to include the sky in the frame.

10. Shoot at sunrise or sunset-  This is a time honored piece of advice but one that works equally as well when doing waterfall work. The low and even light at these times will give you nice long exposures and highlights that are not overexposed. The white from the water will really stand out against the darker background,  The glare on the water will be reduced and these times of day make getting the exposure right much easier. I love these shots when I am out in the woods early in the morning as it can be really quiet and lets you focus on your craft.