Photographing Dramatic Landscapes

And why I’m using filters again…

Over the past eight years as a landscape photographer, I have used many different cameras, lenses and filters. Developing your craft often means upgrading your equipment, trying different methods to capture dynamic landscape lighting, as well as learning different post-production techniques to bring out the details from your RAW exposures. Each technique or piece of equipment plays an integral part in the process of capturing striking landscape photographs.

Landscapes offer many different lighting situations, and landscape photographers need to adapt to these dynamics and react quickly to capture the perfect photograph. A landscape can be captured using a single exposure without the use of filters or exposure bracketing, in what is called a low-dynamic-range scene. But often, intense light creates massive areas of contrast and creates a situation where the camera cannot capture the full range of tones from the deepest shadows to the brightest highlight. This is called a high-dynamic-range scene.

A low-dynamic range scene captured using one exposure without any use of filters.

A low-dynamic range scene captured using one exposure without any use of filters.

A high-dynamic range scene captured using two exposures at different settings, exposing for the land and sky separately, and then finally blended together in Photoshop.

A high-dynamic range scene captured using two exposures at different settings, exposing for the land and sky separately, and then finally blended together in Photoshop.

A high-dynamic-range scene, captured using a graduated filter holding back the exposure on the sky.

A high-dynamic-range scene, captured using a graduated filter holding back the exposure on the sky.

I won’t talk about the techniques used to capture a low-dynamic-range scene, as this is easily done using one exposure without the need for filters or using bracketed exposures with extra exposure-blending steps in post-production.

So the first point of this article – photographing dramatic landscapes. There are two different ways to photograph a high-dynamic-range scene, the first is with the use of filters, and the second by using bracketed exposures at different exposure settings to then be blended together during post-production after the shoot.

Let’s talk about each of these two scenarios.

1. FILTER USE
Filters allow the photographer to capture areas of high contrast in one exposure. The main filter used to do this is a graduated filter, either a soft or hard graduation. These are available in 0.3 (1-stop), 0.6 (2-stop) and 0.9 (3-stop) variations. The darker half of the filter holds back the exposure relative to where it is placed. Positioning the dark half of the filter over the sky for example, will darken the sky by the stopping power of the filter – 1, 2 or 3 stops.

WWW.LANDSCAPEGEAR.CO.ZA has a good article on these filters. I cannot explain filters better so check out their article here.

Other filters that are available are a polariser (to cut out reflective light) and ND-filters (to allow for longer exposures). Together with the use of graduated filters, the polariser and ND-filters allow for professional creative control over exposures. Various colour filters are also available, but I have never used them and don’t find them useful.

Filter advantages – greater possibility to capture a high-dynamic-range scene with one exposure in camera, use of a polariser and creative use of ND filters to slow down exposures.

Filter disadvantages – expensive, can be damaged easily and a little extra time is needed to set up equipment and work out exposures.

Let me mention that I only use Lee Filters. I have tried many other brands and spoken to many photographers about their experiences with filters, and the name that always stands above the rest is Lee Filters. Their precision with their products is unbeatable, and I only recommend Lee Filters to anyone wishing to invest into a filter system. Other brands offer cheaper filter systems, but at the expense of image and build quality. In South Africa, an online store specialising in premium photographic accessories called WWW.LANDSCAPEGEAR.CO.ZA imports Lee Filters from the UK, and are readily available to purchase online.

2. BRACKETING AND BLENDING OF EXPOSURES
This entails the use of multiple exposures to capture the full luminosity range in a scene. These exposures happen in quick succession after one another. When photographing a scene, set your camera up to bracket a certain number of exposures either side of the exposure measured by your camera. Make sure you have your exposures setup to capture detail from the deepest shadow to the brightest highlight. Three to five exposures work well, depending on the dynamic range in a scene. Blending of these exposures captured afterwards should not be a daunting prospect.

I offer a video tutorial series for purchase called “Landscape Photograph Development” in which I go through the ins-and-outs of exposure blending, as well as a proper workflow you can use to process your images from start to finish – click here for more information on this video tutorial series. Added info is also included in the videos on theories behind how and why I used bracketed exposures for the various different scenarios I demonstrate.

Bracketing advantages – no investment into a filter system, don’t have to carry extra equipment, quicker to take a grab shot of fleeting light if equipment not set up.

Bracketing disadvantages – movement of elements between exposures, extra time behind computer blending exposures and fixing ghosting, cannot use polarisers or ND filters to slow down exposures and cut reflective light.

MY APPROACH TO PHOTOGRAPHING DRAMATIC LANDSCAPES, AND WHY I’M USING FILTERS AGAIN.
My landscape photography in-field workflow involves the use of filters primarily. I prefer to try get as much correctly captured in camera as possible. I like the ability to use a polariser and ND filters, as well as the graduated filters to expose a scene correctly. In an extreme case, some scenes do require the need for filters as well as bracketed exposures and therefore the need for extra steps in post production too to blend the exposures together. My advice to any landscape photographer would be to invest in a good filter setup, as well as to get to know how to use the filters without having to think too much.

My main landscape lens of choice on my current Nikon camera, the Nikon D810 is the amazing AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED. The sharpness and clarity this lens delivers is outstanding, but the problem with this lens was the ability to use filters. Although Lee Filters had the SW150 version 1 filter system, there were issues with light reflection and the inability to use a polariser and ND filters, so I avoided that system from the beginning. The version 2 was announced recently, and I was incredibly excited to hear about this revised system, which fixed the light reflection problem, and also added the ability to use a polariser and little/big stopper ND filters. I rejoiced at the news, and immediately knew what I wanted to get.

My choice for the SW150 version 2 system on the AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED,
-  Little Stopper (6 Stop ND Filter)
-  Circular Polariser
-  0.6 Soft Grad
-  Field Pouch
-  Adaptor ring and filter holder

Although I use the SW150 system, Lee Filters offer filters in different formats, of which you can read up about them on the following links,

SW150 System
Seven5 System
100mm System

So the question and second point to this article, why am I using filters again? Well, there are a few reasons, and ones I feel are very important to most landscape photographers. For many years I used the Lee Filters 100mm system on a Nikon 16-35 f/4 VR lens. They worked great, but I chose one day to sell up and simplify my equipment, and I wanted to rather bracket exposures and blend the exposures afterwards in Photoshop. The control I had by exposure blending was great, and it really worked well, and still to this day does. In some cases it may take too long to set up filters, and then to quickly set up your camera and bracket three or five images is the answer and the only way you can capture fleeting light before it disappears. Besides the disadvantages of bracketing exposures mentioned earlier in this article, I always found a way around them. But what I sorely missed was the ability to polarise scenes and to slow down exposures with the ND filters (little/big stopper). It took me a while to realise I needed filters to be prepared for any scenario nature would throw at me. The main reasons I’m using filters again include,

1 – Ability to polarise (on my Nikon 14-24 I won’t be polarising skies, as the extreme wide angle will show differing amounts of polarisation across the sky). The main use for a polariser will be for when I photograph forest scenes, waterfalls and rivers allowing rich colours and reflection-free water and foliage.
2 – I don’t need to worry about movement of natural elements between bracketed exposures anymore, because i’m photographing most scenes with one exposure.
3 – Ability to slow down exposures using the little stopper for creative long exposure photography.
4 – Less time blending exposures in Photoshop.

CONCLUSION

I am of the very strong opinion now that all landscape photographers should use filters, as well as learn the intricacies of exposure blending in post production. You will be able to capture every scene with precision and control, and never fail at capturing extreme light any landscape scene throws at you. Mastering the use of equipment will make your photography enjoyable, and allow you to enjoy the outdoors even more.

If you need advice on which filters you need, please email me at info@markdumbleton.com or contact me and we can chat and figure out which filters would best suit your needs.

To purchase your Lee Filters log onto WWW.LANDSCAPEGEAR.CO.ZA.