Monday, October 24, 2011

The polarizer: the magic autumn filter

If you only own one filter, make it a polarizer.  Polarizers, in short, remove reflections and glare.  The effect varies depending on what is being photographed, how high the sun is, and what direction the camera is facing, but in general, skies become darker, allowing clouds to be more prominent, glare and reflections disappear from water (allowing a clear view into streambeds among other things), and makes colors more vibrant and increases contrast.  This is a wonderful filter to use to bring out autumn color. 

Note that there are two types of polarizer filters: linear and circular.  Modern cameras require a circular polarizer in order to focus and meter properly.  Circular polarizers consist of two filters fastened together, one of which fastens to the camera and the other rotates freely.  Rotate the outer filter to acquire the polarization effect.  Polarizers work best at an angle facing 90 degrees from the sun, but the effect is still strong for some distance around the 90 degree mark. The effect of reflections on water is also affected by the angle of the camera to the water surface.  Shooting down on a body of water from a height will yield a more dramatic effect than shooting horizontally across the surface.  Fortunately you can see the polarization through the camera, so you can try various adjustments and angles to get the desired effect.

Below is a shot of Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks of New York, in the late morning, using a polarizer.  Although this shot illustrates the use of a polarizer to enhance skies, it also illustrates a potential pitfall of using a polarizer, especially with a wide-angle lens.  Due to the wide angle and also the angle I was facing, the effect is not uniform, growing darker to the left side.  While this can be corrected in post-processing, naturally it's ideal if the polarizing effect is more uniform.  Due to the low-angle to the water, the reflections on the lake were darkened but preserved.

Most commonly, a polarizer is used in an open space when the sun is out, but just because you're in a deep forest or it's cloudy doesn't mean you should put it away.  Experiment!  Since they eliminate reflections on foliage, a polarizer can highlight forest scenes and autumn color, and although the effect is more subtle, they can have a beautiful enhancing effect even under lightly overcast skies.

Here's a shot taken at Fillmore Glen, in Moravia, NY, under overcast skies with a polarizer.  Note the lack of reflections in the water allowing the stream bottom to be visible, and the vibrant colors (which were not enhanced in post-processing):

Here's a pair of "before and after" shots from Fillmore, without post-processing other than sharpening.
First, without the polarizer:
And now with the polarizer:

Be aware that a polarizer also has another effect that may or may not be desirable... It adds about 1.5 stops to exposure time, necessitating either a wider aperature or a longer shutter speed!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Improving on Luck

How much of successful photography, especially nature photography can be attributed to luck?  You just happened to be at the right place at the right time to catch the right light.  Luck is certainly a factor, but you can influence how lucky you are with a little flexibility and preparation.  Keep a camera with you.  As you go to work and come home, especially in Spring and Fall, you may see the sun rising in the morning and setting late in the day as you commute (if you live in rainy Ithaca, NY, you probably see that maybe once a month...)  Be ready if opportunities present themselves.

This was taken one morning on my way to a woodcarving show with my wife.  A crystal clear morning at our house yielded to misty, dew-laden fields in the hills on the way to the show.
Don't wait for luck to happen - try to actively put yourself into situations when something fortunate might occur.  And even if the primary objective isn't working out, be alert for other situations.

This was taken early one morning along Lake Eaton in the Adirondack Mountains of New York.  Fog is one of the few things that will generally guarantee my ability to get out of bed at an early hour, and I had gone out early looking for misty woods shots.  While that didn't work out particularly well, I ran onto a lone loon floating on the lake along with a whole flock of mergansers having a morning spash.

Luck, for me, often seems to come in the form of things not going quite as planned.  While taking a photo of a small out-building at Great Camp Santanoni in the Adirondacks, I accidentally fired off a shot while still adjusting the camera.
Seems almost painterly.  The moral here is, keep an open mind!  What you get may not be what you intended, but it might be interesting in a different way.  Now here's the intended shot.  I don't think it's nearly as intriguing:
Be ready to improvise, change plans, quickly switch your gear and/or settings around, and nab the shot that appears, not the one you may have set up for.  In the shot below, along Lake Durant in the Adirondacks, I was all set with a telephoto zoomed in to capture the tall trees left of center against the sunset sky.  Then behind me I heard someone launching a canoe.  A mildly frantic lens change and reconfigure of the camera, followed by one quick test shot for exposure in this rather complex lighting situation, and I was ready just a moment before the canoe came into view:
Also don't get so caught up in your primary subject that you forget to look all around you.  Many years ago I was taking some shots on a bridge in Annapolis harbor with a friend, snapping away (with slide film at that time!) at an absolutely amazing sunset.  The light faded and we packed up and turned around to leave, and saw this:
We nearly missed what turned out to be one of the best shots of the evening.

So don't leave luck to chance!  Put yourself in positions where luck is more likely to strike, don't limit yourself to only your primary objective, be open to possibilities, don't dismiss your mistakes immediately, and be prepared for a sudden change of plan!  Oh and, don't forget to look behind you or you may miss the best shot!