The Shadow Light Project Mark II
In my previous posting, “The Shadow Light Project”, I talked about being inspired to create this project, why I wanted to create it, where the name came from and what the goals were. In this installment, I want to continue explaining how I worked with the new ND (neutral density) filters and share some of my thoughts.
Making long exposures at night is easy to do. Making great exposures, well that is always the real challenge. I had the basics of what was needed, tripod, and cable release or used the built in camera timer and a ball head. At one time I had the “long exposure noise reduction” set on my camera but no longer do for a few reasons. Since most likely I will be shooting with a low noise ISO such as 100 and having noise reduction software I felt it became unnecessary to use. It also felt like this feature was getting in the way of shooting because the internal processing time is just as long the exposure time. So if I took a 10 second shot of fireworks the camera would still be working on that file for another 10 seconds after the shutter closed. Yes, there is buffering so I could make another exposure, but by not using this setting, I can fill the buffer with more 10 second shots than with it set. For a bit more information and my thoughts on shooting fireworks, read my posting “Fireworks”.
Daytime long exposures are completely different with the key being able to restrict and control the flow of incoming light. In the past I used what was on hand to accomplish this. That meant using a small aperture, f22 mostly, and sometimes a polarizer filter in combination with a low ISO such as 100. Employing a Vari-ND filter, I was also able to extend the exposure times. For the shorter exposures, around 1 to 5 seconds it worked well. Turning it darker in order to get longer times, the image would get “dark” areas where there should have been none. I use the ND filters to overcome this unpleasant phenomenon.
The maiden Shadow Light photo shoot using these ND filters was during our yearly spring trip to Florida's warm, sunny and inviting shores. For this shoot I stacked them producing a 9 stop exposure lengthening. Using Tv mode I controlled exposure times while letting the camera choose the aperture. I have always liked shooting with a large aperture, f2.8 for example, so I would have a short depth of field thus giving a blurry background to better isolate the subject. With the use of a small aperture for this kind of shooting I get two benefits, first being it helps with lengthening the exposure time. Second, it keeps most everything sharp in the image with the longer depth of field. This meant I had to mindful of the changing depth of field as the aperture was adjusted in order to get different exposure times. There were times I adjusted my ISO to a faster value so the aperture would still be smaller at the shorter exposures lengths.
This year's first day of Florida weather was not what one wants when on vacation there, sunny, yes, but very cool with a strong on shore wind. But me being me, well, I was loving it! These were perfect shooting conditions for getting some Shadow Light images that would capture movement. Big waves, hard shadows and a few fast moving clouds! To protect the ND filters from the beach's sand blast I used a UV filter placed in front of them. I would “run a scene” by taking a few shoots. Starting maybe at 1” and going up as far as the camera let me before running out of apertures. In the middle of the day at a bright sunny beach I could go: 1”, 2”, 4”, 8” or longer.
Because of how dark these filters are, once attached to my lens, looking though the view finder was useless. Over coming this condition involved using the camera's “Live View” function. Another benefit of using Live View is the ability to zoom in on the scene to check the focus and make manual adjustments to ensure a sharp image. Yes, autofocus does work but sometimes I could get it a bit sharper. An additional feature of Live View is when zoomed in, you will have the ability to pan around the image, checking the sharpness in different areas of the scene. In Live View, the metering mode changes to evaluative regardless of what mode the camera is using before engaging Live View. Last, where you leave the magnifying frame is also where meter reading will be taken from.
So far, mostly water scenes were captured. Long exposures can smooth out water creating an unusual misty, steamy, magical foggy look. If the water is really rough, containing white caps or breaking waves, these become long, soft white patches. To add punch and show captured movement, stationary object(s) are needed in the composure. Tree trunks, rocks, buildings, etc will do nicely. These will enhance the misty, foggy effect if water is in the image. The longer the exposure, the more striking the effect. One more technique to try, if shooting small waves crashing onto a beach while at the waters edge, use your flash! This can freeze a breaking wave while others become soft and burry. A bit like showing wave movement around a rock on the beach.
Long exposures of the sky with almost any kind of clouds will work, even a mostly overcast sky. A long sky exposure can create smooth background. Take a blue sky, add in a few clouds and capture it in a long exposure and those clouds will become much softer. A very nice effect of showing cloud movement can happen if they are being blown at you. A wide angle will enhance this effect. Again, set objects that don't move or move little in front of the clouds to set them off.
Other thoughts on technique, do long exposures where nothing big is really moving. No water, clouds or people. These can have structures, trees and maybe flags. Even if there is only a light wind, tree branches will move and leaf motion will blur against a structure and/or the sky. A blowing flag will blur, thus conveying movement in a long exposure. Blurry cars and people are elements that show movement. In really long exposures they can even disappear or become “ghosts”.
In the digital age, none of this matters if your batteries are not charged. Make sure they are charged and ready for this kind of shooting. Remember your shutter will be held open for seconds at a time, none of that wimpy 1/2000 of a second. Live View will also eat though the batteries’ juice faster. If batteries fail during an exposure, the file may not be written to the card correctly thus possibly corrupting it and possibly the card. Not good. In the cold, they will die even faster, keep them warm, keep them safe when not in use. Another must is to keep your sensor clean. Dirt and spots that may not appear in a 1/2000 of a second shot most likely will during these exposures. Having the shutter held open so long gives dirt and spots more time to get “burned” into the image. They will be seen in sky, water, any place where there is basically a light mono tone, not broken up by leaves, trees, buildings, etc. Cropping and software will have to be employed to remove them.
I plan on doing all this kind of shooting in RAW with picture style set to Black and White. The final look will be some variance of a monochromatic style. Meaning they could be left black and white or sepia toning maybe added. After each shot, I will check it's histogram to see if I got what I wanted. Finally, one fun element of long exposures is you never know what you will get until the shutter slams shut. Enjoy!