I started out on my imaging career as an underwater cameraman. Long story short I had started work as a SCUBA Diving facility videographer initially in the Canary Islands off of Africa’s North West Coast and ended up living in the Islands of Micronesia from 2001 onward.
Fig 1.Pushing Glass in South Africa filming Tiger Sharks for National Geographic
I would dabble in still imaging but only on land at that time as for me underwater imaging needed to move, it had to have that fluidity of the Ocean. Underwater still photography, in my mind, couldn’t convey the magic as well as video could. Sublime movements of a Giant Manta Ray as it glides inches overhead, blocking out the sun. Or the reactionary movements one has when the air cavities within your body is invaded with the penetrating sonar of an inquisitive Sperm Whale. Still motion imaging for me couldn’t catch that, that and a myriad other scenarios.
If there has been one staple element in my life it has been the Ocean. I grew up along the South Coast of the UK as a child, many days spent at the beaches around my hometown of Bournemouth. I had long been captivated by it, its movements, its rage, its tranquility. There’s something about the qualities of movement of any body of water that can lend itself beautifully to landscape photography.
Eddies around the base of a rock in a fast flowing river, the actions of a wave receding along a high shoreline, the maelstrom of energy and ripples as waves crash over a rocky shoreline, but how to best capture them photographically?
I’ll have to admit, my first foray into filter use simply revolved around purchasing the ‘super stopper’ filters, those ND Filters so dense that they would allow for a reduction of 6, 10 and 15 stops of light. As a result I could then lengthen my shutter to emphasize the movement of the Ocean or a flowing river in the middle of a sunny day with the sun at its peak. I would chip away at both ends of the balance insofar as opening my aperture to such a level that would still allow me to lengthen my shutter speed so as to introduce motion blur into the feel of the shot.
Fig2. ND1000 in the early evening allowed for this 5min shutter to calm a truly rough Ocean. – Mermaid Grotto, Okinawa, Japan – ND1000 + Soft GND0.9
As with all forms of imaging the shooter is always looking for the best way to hone in on the ‘vibe’ or ‘look’ that they feel best signifies their work. For me I soon got out of the desire to simply place an ND1000 on everything as was the temptation at the start of my filtered journey.
I soon found that the same look, especially when dealing with a scene that relied heavily on a liquid or cloud element rapidly adopted a catalyst vibe, one that I was starting to grow less and less fond of.
Fig3.Different Coloration but the same technique, the silky water effect, for me, gets old, quick.
As with my Video days I always look for a way to get a sense of motion in my imagery. I’ve found with landscape imaging, given that I tend to favor compositions that feature some form of water subject, Ocean or River, that that is best accomplished with a shutter speed of around 1.6sec.
Thus my Filter selection these days tends to center around reverse engineering what is needed to accomplish a range of shutter speeds from between 0.8sec through to 1.6sec. I find any longer than that and the look of the water starts to loose texture, it tends to start smoothing out, the initial steps of silkiness perhaps?
Fig4. A 1.6sec shutter speed allows just the right amount of motion blur in the moving liquid so as to convey a fluid dynamic.
This approach often results in a simple juggling of filters given the cameras difficulty with metering in low light especially when masked by filters and when also looking to hit correct white level rendition. My standard set up around sunset tends to center around a four stop ND16 in conjunction with either a reverse, soft or hard grad depending on the composition elements in the distant ground.
Fig5. A simple unobstructed horizon at sunset allows me to use a reverse grad0.9 in conjunction with an ND16 to capture both the setting sun with motion blur in the foreground.
I still look to hit extreme shutter speeds but normally reserved for the middle of the day, especially on overcast days. Such a technique allows for reduced overall contrast. Again, depending on the subject it produces a very specific almost minimalist and look, something that has it’s own place within the creative and artistic worlds.
Fig6 – Stacked ND1000 and ND64 give ND64000 or 16 Stops of light. It makes for dramatic and unique aesthetic, certainly a look reserved for a limited number of compositions.
Fig6a – Stacked ND64 and ND32 give a massive ND2,048 or 11 stops of light. Adding this array in low light of an evening setting, with the strongest ND64 closest to the lens, allowed me to hit a shutter of 6minutes.
At this current time in my landscape imaging I now look to hone the balance of light and composition when using between 0.8 and 1.6sec shutter speeds. In scenarios where rivers come into play that can sometimes be accomplished without the use of a standard ND. This is very much the case when available light levels become greatly reduced given the environment of the shooting location.
Whether in the Northern Forests of Okinawa Island, known as the Yambaru, or indeed further afield in the dense network of rivers that proliferate on the island of Iriomote the potential to slow down the flow of the rivers is aided by Mother Nature herself.
Fig7 – Rivers and streams whether on Okinawa proper or further afield bring a dynamic sense of motion when the shutter slows enough to initiate a sense of texture in the liquid flow.
Graduated Filters can be categorized into three products. These are termed in relation to the extremity of the transition between the masking or denser area of the filter and that which is completely clear, unfiltered. A more gradual transition is often termed as a Soft Grad whereas conversely a filter with a very abrupt and defined edge is termed as a Hard Grad.
The selection of which graduated filter to employ is dictated by the horizon features of the scene one is looking to shoot. If your horizon is marked with movements of terrain or blocked with objects such as buildings etc then a Soft Grad will be more forgiving for the shadows in the elements that obstruct the horizon.
When shooting an uninterrupted horizon, one that is clearly defined then the Hard Grad should be the filter of choice.
Additionally a Reverse Grad filter is one that is more suited to shooting sunset scenes where you still wish to have the sun in the shot as it sits on the horizon. One simply paces the transition line of the Reverse Grad over the sun allowing the shooter to mask the sun and exposing for a more balanced foreground.
Fig8. A Reverse Grad1.2 masks both the setting sun and areas deemed too ‘hot’ for regular filter use. Also due to the masking of the clouds allows the rendition of darker storm clouds adding contrast to the composition.
Mr. Mark Thorpe
Location: Okinawa Island
Profession: Photographer / Cameraman