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Often when I’m out shooting landscapes, Mother Nature dictates that the conditions be less than ideal for landscape photography. Or at the very least, she decides the conditions should be different than what I envisioned when I decided to pack my bag and head out the door.
The image below is a perfect example. A friend and I had decided to head to Brooklyn to shoot the skyline of lower Manhattan at sunrise. I envisioned blue skies, with golden light from behind me, reflecting off the skyscrapers. If I had my druthers, there would have been some white puffy clouds with a hint of pink as well.
Mother Nature instead decided it would be grey and rainy, with not a hint of color in the sky. After waiting out a torrential downpour in a local diner, we headed back to our spot and set up to see what we could salvage of the morning. The sky was a bright white with some darker grey spots. The city had a flat light over it, and the East River was churning pretty heavily. I made my first decision- my images would be captured in black and white. There was certainly no color in the scene I was seeing, so I felt that black and white would accurately capture the emotions I felt on that grey day.
Second, I noticed that the clouds were really moving right over the city towards me. I felt I could use that movement to add drama. To do this, I would need to use a very very slow shutter speed of at least 30 seconds. This would accomplish two things. The slow shutter speed would allow the clouds to move during the exposure, creating a sense of movement in the scene, and the churning river would be rendered smooth and calm; a nice juxtaposition against the fast-moving sky. Since the lighting was bright overcast, I needed some help in achieving that slow shutter speed. I turned to a neutral density filter – in this case, a 10-stop ND filter that would give me a shutter speed 10 stops slower than the exposure I would have had without it.
I took a few shots with just the 10 stop ND filter to see how it would look. Unfortunately, the dynamic range of the image was too great for the camera to capture without any help. The sky was a little too bright, rendering it less dramatic than what I saw in reality. To correct this, I used a 4-stop graduated neutral density filter. A graduated neutral density filter (ND Grad) is a filter that’s half clear, and gradually becomes darker from the middle to the top edge. I position the ND Grad so that it darkens the sky without affecting the city skyline and the water. Both the ND Grad and the 10-stop ND filter in a holder that attaches to the lens.
After taking a few exposures with both filters stacked together, I was able to achieve the result I was looking for. I had dark dramatic sky, and nice smooth water, with acceptable detail in both the sky and the city buildings. The final exposure was 45 seconds, f/16, at ISO 400.
The equipment used for this shot was a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. The lens for the shot without the ND Grad was an EF 16-35mm f2.8L II. The final shot I used the EF 24mm f/1.4L II.
There are a number of 10-stop ND filters on the market- Lee markets the “Big Stopper”, and Formatt Hitech has their Pro Stop 10. Both are square filters which require a holder. Lightcraft Workshop has a variable ND filter – the Fader Ultra ND, which is a screw on version that can change densities from 9 to 12 stops.
The ND Grad used for this shot was the 4×5 Formatt Hitech 1.2 Soft Edge ND Grad, which has a density of 4 stops. Again, there are several companies out there marketing graduated ND filters, including Cokin, Lee, and Hitech. I’d advise staying away from screw-in ND Grads because you won’t have the ability to position the horizon where you want it. The square format filters allow you to position them in the holder so the horizon is where you need it.
Many times in nature the light dictates what we are able to capture with our cameras. By using filters, we are able to take some control over the situation and create images that not only capture what we see, but what we felt when we were at the location.