Sunday, June 30, 2013

fine art photography :: seascapes :: the power of the nd filter :: ocnj

A fine art photographer I'm not. Well, actually, some of the portrait work I create is sometimes classified as fine art so let me clarify that statement by saying that it's landscape photography that is not really my niche. So why then, are you staring at exactly that? A landscape photograph?

Read on my friends. Read on.

The Plan

The week had been spent enduring some extreme weather patterns. Scorching heat followed by torrential thunderstorms. This pattern cycled pretty regularly throughout Philadelphia and its surrounding regions. That Friday evening, the wife made it clear that she wanted to spend the weekend at the beach. Basically, she was going with or without me. I pondered the offer for a moment; fall back and chill with Bruno all weekend or hit the road, with the possibility of exercising my creativity. I chose the latter.

My thought process and the forecast predicted foul weather straight through until Tuesday. With that in mind, I had hoped for, not torrential downpours, rather a ominous, cloudy sky. That type of atmosphere would create a number of outcomes. First, dramatic clouds always add awesomeness to landscapes (in my opinion). Next, the threat of rain would keep beaches less crowded making it easier to work. Finally, the lack of sunshine would make for better, more versatile exposures.

The wife and I hit the road early Saturday morning, well, somewhat early. We packed the Xterra with all appropriate gear. The wife packed beach necessities: towels, chairs, lotions, snacks, etc. I, on the other hand, packed a variety of camera equipment. I went my main pack, the large Tenba Shootout bag. The Tenba is my workhorse bag. Daily, that bag is packed with the Nikon D4, a lineup of professional Nikkor glass, Pocketwizards, four speedlights, some clamps and other accessory items.

I also brought along my Feisol bag, packed with the super awesome Feisol carbon fiber tripod system. Before I go any further, Let me just tell you how pleased I have been with my Feisol system. The folks over at Feisol are great and have been nothing but super helpful.

Knowing that I'd be hiking through the sandy beaches. Sandy beaches, ha, sounds like a porn star's name. Based on the first pet and first street to devise a porn star name, mine would be Frisky Newkirk. Kinda great.

I digress...

Anyway, knowing the terrain that would lie ahead, I also threw in the SUV, a vintage Incorruptible dark gray messenger shoulder bag. The wife says I look like a chick, the way I carry this bag but hey, I'm not out there for looks. Apparently, the more masculine way to carry this type of bag is over the shoulder and across the chest. I simply put it over one shoulder and let it hang on that side, resembling a female and her purse. Oh well. I'm comfortable with myself enough to wear things the "wrong" way. Damn it. There I go again. Digressions galore. Back to business.

The Road

After packing and checking the load, we hit the road. First things first, caffeine. About fifty feet from my digs is a Starbucks. About to hit that spot for a fix, we noticed the long line at this 18th and Spruce location. I was not in the mood for a line so I decided to navigate on over to the Dunkin' Donuts on Gray's Ferry Avenue. Not the prettiest spot to get the breakfast jolt but there was no wait time and the one woman at the drive through is effing amazing. Never have I met such a friendly attendant.

Fueled up and finally on the A.C. expressway, I notice the clouds rolling in. Bad for wife's tan, good for me. Water slowly began to pelt the windshield. The road ahead looked dark. My mind was piqued with creative thoughts. I couldn't wait to hit the shores and begin working.


There is one priceless trait, one invaluable skill that a photographer must posses. One thing that if you can't muster up, you better hang up that camera and call it quits.


If you show up to a shoot, every single time, and what you planned comes to life as easy as pie, well, for example, your light ends up just how you imagined, exposure nailed from the night before, composition is as exactly as you mind's eye sees, then, my friend, you need to go play the friggin' Powerball.

You know why? Photography takes work and it isn't EVER as Zack Arias states, "farting rainbows." You better learn how to improv, think fast. You know that ever complicated Inverse Square Law? You better know that shit better than you know your anniversary date. That shit is important, make or break a shoot important. Never do you want to sit and fumble over calculating f-stops while a client grows impatient. Know that shit. Period.

Why did I just rant? Well, you know what happened when I pulled up to the 59th street beach in Ocean City, New Jersey? Every goddamn cloud vanished. See what I mean? My vision of easy exposures and soft light had vanished. Time to improvise.

Let's Get It On!

Time, on this day, was actually my friend. The wife enjoys a full day on the beach, bathing in the sun. I, on the other hand, get a bit antsy, always in need of some activities. Normally, on a day like this, I'd be out fishing, wether it be on the water or on the surf. On this particular day, It was nature vs. Nikon. I had a plan and I wanted to make it happen, one way or another.

I decided to chill out a while, see if any clouds develop on the horizon. I was in a good place, lying on the sand, taking in the scenery, the ambience and beauty of mother nature's power, the sea. I've been a shore goer since birth. The islands, waterways, inlets, bays and open seas of the Jersey shore are second nature to me. I could navigate the bogs of OCNJ with my eyes closed. The point I'm making is that it never gets old. As I sit and stare into the endless ocean, it never ceases to amaze me. This, in and of itself, boosted my inspiration tenfold more than what it was while mundanely tracking down the Atlantic City Expressway.

Getting a bit impatient and a bit baked by the sun, I decided to check the local weather. Turned out a storm was due but not for another six hours. This would be way too long. Had I been on my own, sure. But I wasn't.

Faith was still pumping through my veins. I decided to hit the sands and do a solo photowalk. I traversed the shoreline from 59th Street up to about 45th. Along the way I made some interesting photographs as I was observing people and how they act on a hot summer day. I worked my way back to 59th and took note of where the sun was positioned.

Take a look here. This was my exact location at the time of the shoot. Centered on the map is the angled Jetty, the dark, east northeast, smudge, right in the middle. I wanted to shoot basically, west northwest, against the Jetty side facing and taking the brunt forced hits of the ocean.

The clock was just passed 3:00 and the sun was now just barely behind the eastern side of the rock face, leaving that side in the shadow, which in turn would help me get closer to the exposure I was looking for. Huh? Lemme explain my thought process.

I wanted to capture, as you can see, the waves crashing against the rocks, with a slow slow shutter, turning the water into a misty fog-like component of the frame. With a super bright sun, that would prove to be difficult, even when I was knocked the ISO back to 50 and the iris down to f/22. Just not enough. I needed to be at least around 1/2 second to get the right effect.

Like Superman, the ND or neutral density filter came to save the day. Very moderately priced, I was working with Hoya Pro1 Digital 77mm MC NDX16 (4-stop) neutral density filter. Without going into much technical, ND filters are basically sunglasses for your lens. The drop the ambient dependent on the strength of filter you use. The 4-stop ND I had would help get me to where I needed to be. Oh, that sun position was a major help as well.

I was ready to work. I grabbed the camera, strapped the filter to the front of the 24-70 and pulled a quarter from my pocket (I never leave home without one). A quarter (yes 25 cents) is how I tighten the QR, or quick release, plate to the bottom of my camera. I then unbagged the Feisol and married the two beauties as one.

The ocean, as anyone knows, is relentless. I worked my way to the Jetty as I watched the waves pound the gigantic rocks. Funny thing, I wasn't the least bit worried that I was putting myself in harm's way. Nope, in fact, I was terrified, not for myself but for my beautiful equipment. I had visions of the gear being crushed against the jagged rocks and finally being drawn out to sea where Betsy would lie for eternity. Sad, it would be utterly sad.

No risk, no reward, right?

I tested the waters, literally and figuratively. I was shooting, at first from a distance but the shots weren't, well, let's just say, I wasn't feeling it. I had to move in, super close, on the rocks even, to capture what my mind's eye was seeing.

I first mounted the tripod to the wet sand, inches from the rocks. Turned out this wasn't the best idea. As wave after wave pounded the tripod's and my legs, the carbon fiber began to sink in the sand. The problem here is that I wanted a long exposure, with long exposures, tripod and tripod stability are a must. The answer, move into an even more dangerous, more precarious position. I placed the tripod on two large rocks. One leg on one and two other legs on another. The water was still crashing onto the tripod so with my left hand I held the shaft to stabilize the rig even more.

I began to shoot.

The final exposure?

ISO :: 50
Shutter :: 0.5
Aperture :: f/22

It Ain't Over Yet

Would I have liked to get a 5 or 10 or even longer shutter? Sure. But again, I had to improv a bit, make a given situation work in my favor. Now, is the image you are looking at straight out of camera? No. But let me tell you, it's pretty damn close.

The image is totally natural, meaning, no special effects added, only some color and curves adjusts, along with some adjustment layers. Basically, this image would get the clearance to be called an Editorial shot as editorials are not allowed to have any image modifications. I just want to emphasize that you are, in fact, seeing the real deal, no CGI.

How did I process it?

Well, first and as usual, I open the RAW file in the Adobe Camera RAW editor (Jeez, I'm not sure how to react to the whole Creative Cloud thing). In there I make a few minor adjusts. First I worked the White Balance to a Kelvin of 5500, or, more simplified, Daylight White Balance. I then worked the exposure a bit, taking down the Brightness, cutting it by about 30%. I then moved over to Sharpening and pumped that slider up to 60, giving the rocks a nice crisp feel, which contrasts with the soft water very nicely. I then do some lens correction, then scale and crop to get the dramatic composition I was looking for.

Next on to Photoshop.

This is where the I punch drama right in the face, giving this the added life I felt was necessary.

First, I added a tonal contrast adjustment layer via the Nik Color Efex Pro plugin suite. Once applied I added a layer mask, painted the adjustment only on the rocks and dropped the Opacity to a low 10%.

Next, was the super drama punch. I added a manual Black and White Adjustment layer and chose the Infrared option. Once applied, I changed to Layer Style to Overlay, which converted the infrared b&w to a nice, dark, rich, evening-like layer. Being a bit too dark, I pulled back the opacity to 80%.

Following those edits, I pumped the Vibrance and Contrast, ever so slightly and then, and finally, did some Curves adjusts.

WWWHHHHEEWWW, today sure was a mouthful.

To Summarize

The ND filter is one of your best friends. I never leave home without mine. What else? Oh, yeah, the disclaimer not to try this at home. Friends, don't try this at home. There are clearly marked signs that state, KEEP OFF THE JETTY. The rocks are jagged, slimy, wet and slippery. They are constantly being pounded by waves. Get yourself in the wrong position and you WILL lose the battle, you life or more importantly, your gear. ;-)

[NOTE :: Take a close look at the seascape photograph and the Google Map screenshot. Notice on the screenshot, the wooden pier that juts out to sea. This dilapidated old pier was known to most that frequent or dwell in OCNJ. I've wanted to shoot the old pier for some time. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, leaving only behind a few pilings which you can see in the final photograph. I composed specifically to include those in the image. Subtle but powerful to those who are aware of that old landmark.]

Until next time...

P.S. Me, landscape photography? Hey, I shoot whenever wherever I can. My niche work my be portraiture but if I can create, well goddamn, I'm gonna create!!!