Today's image is the third and final (well, for a while at least) from my drive into the foothills after a storm a couple of weeks ago. The composition is nearly identical to the image in my November 29 post, but as you can see from my exposure settings, they were taken quite a bit apart. This one was just about the last image of the evening, taken as I returned to my car and saw the clouds holding the vestiges of sunset.
Though my three shots from that evening were taken at entirely different times, with entirely different exposure settings, one thing they do have in common is my use of a graduated neutral density (GND) filter to even the light. I fear that the GND is another of the "old school" techniques that's dying with the advent of digital photography. HDR and digital blending (heretofore labeled "blending") are great tools; when applied well they can greatly increase the dynamic range of your images; when applied poorly they have an unnatural look that says "processed."
But regardless of the result, the primary source of my aversion to blended images is simply personal: I love the challenge of capturing my images in-camera, as I did when I shot film. Does this make me old-fashioned? Absolutely. Does this make photographers who embrace the new digital techniques less skilled or qualified than me? Absolutely not.
Don Smith, my good friend and fellow landscape photographer, has been photographing professionally for over 30 years, yet he readily embraces the new techniques when they're appropriate, and taps his vast film photographer experience when it best serves his objective. Don's results, though sometimes different from mine, are no less successful, and in fact he's often able to capture things that I can't.
Which is better? Neither. But one thing Don and I have in common is our prime motivation to satisfy our creative instincts without concern for what others think. In other words, we don't shoot to please or impress others, we shoot to please ourselves and both of us feel very fortunate that the images that make us happy seem to make others happy too.
That was a very long prologue to my original objective, which is to discuss GNDs and how I use them. First, for those who are scratching their head, a GND (graduated neutral density) filter is a transparent glass, resin, or plastic rectangle, clear on the bottom and darker on top ("neutral" means it doesn't alter the color or any other aspect of the scene but the light), with a graduated transition from light to dark. A "hard" transition is abrupt; a "soft" transition is more gradual. The key to their effective use is hiding the transition in a part of the scene where it won't be too obvious.
In my bag I have three GNDs: a 3-stop soft, 3-stop reverse (darkest near the transition point and useful when the brightest part of the scene is near the horizon, as with a sunset), and 2-stop hard. In extreme dynamic range situations I sometimes stack more than one filter.
Some people use a holder that screws on to the end of their lens; I find these cumbersome (and they often cause vignetting at wide angles) and just hold my filter in place with my fingers (taking care not to get my fingers in the image). The filter(s) I use for any scene (2 or 3 stops, hard/soft/reverse, stacked) depends on the scene's dynamic range, and the place I think is best to hide the transition.
In today's scene I wanted just a splash of golden light on the hillside, but capturing color in the sky would have turned the hillside completely black. Because the transition from light sky to dark hillside was pretty abrupt, I pulled out my 2-stop hard GND. I placed the transition along the top of the hill, and dodged and burned in post-processing (a digital doff of the cap to an ancient darkroom technique) to further disguise the GND transition.
Since I've rambled on so long already, I'll stop now and in a (near) future post talk a bit more about how how I decide when to use each GND type.
* Website: Eloquent Images
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