I’d like you to meet my photography studio assistants: the rubber duck family (click for larger view)…
These little guys became permanent travelling companions in my camera bag some time ago, when I went through a phase of capturing uninspiring landscapes. I read about this technique for overcoming the issue of boring compositions: carry an arbitrary object around in your camera bag, and find a creative way to include it in the scenery whenever you lack inspiration. The rubber duck family did a great job of inspiring creativity in my landscape work when I felt uninspired!
Having moved on from that phase, the rubber ducks maintained their place in my camera bag and were promoted to the role of ‘studio assistants’ for much of the commercial work that I do…
I often find myself out on location with clients, having to make use of whatever space and lighting that they have available. Rather than toy around with my equipment to get the settings correct while one of the client’s models stands around idly twiddling their thumbs, I get there early and pose my rubber ducks to get everything just right.
Although one could use any arbitrary object for this purpose, the rubber duck family is particularly well suited to this kind of work! The soft, yellow, rubbery surface of each duck’s body appears much like the made-up skin of a human model when photographed, while the reflective, red beaks do a great job of mimicking the reflections of a human model’s lip gloss when using flash units. Furthermore, the irregular form of each duck (particularly mother duck) helps to assess how highlights and shadows will appear on the equally irregular form of the human face.
As for my choice to use a family of rubber ducks rather than a single rubber duck: having three objects that I can place at varying distances from the camera can be really helpful in assessing the depth of field that any given combination of lens focal length, focal distance and aperture will give me. This is particularly useful when shooting multiple models together, or when the surroundings of a single model are important in the final image.
Apart from the technical uses described above, the rubber duck family can provide a great conversation starter for when we want to ‘connect’ with our models in a bid to get the best possible images. I often leave the rubber ducks out on the floor where the model(s) will be standing when it comes time to start the shoot… and they have never failed to start a jovial conversation that forms a connection between myself and my models!
So, rather than spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on cameras, lenses or filters next time you feel it’s time to upgrade your equipment, save your money and spend just a couple of dollars on a family of rubber ducks. As far as I’m concerned, they are a ‘must have’ piece of equipment in the commercial photographer’s camera bag, due to their versatility and applications when working under a wide range of conditions that the photographer cannot readily control.
Photography filters (the glass ones that you put on the end of the lens while you’re shooting; not the ones you add in Photoshop) have made a huge difference to the quality of my photos. That said, there is something of a steep learning curve associated with them, in terms of knowing which filters to use in which situations, and also in knowing how each filter will change the image captured. I have been wanting to post an article that visually illustrates the filters that I consider to be essential for a landscape photographer, but didn’t find a scene that really illustrated them well until just recently…
Shooting Without Filters
Let’s start with a couple of images taken WITHOUT any filters at all. The light a little while after sunrise is quite contrasty, and so without using any filters, I have to choose between exposing correctly for the lighthouse and the sky behind it (in which case the foreground is dark and under exposed), or for the rocks and water in the foreground (in which case the sky and lighthouse are bright and overexposed):
There are filters to overcome this dilemma!
Neutral Density Gradient (ND Grad) Filters
ND Grad filters are sheets of glass/plastic that slide into an adapter that you screw onto the front of your lens. One half of the filter is coated with a grey, neutral density coating that gradually fades into no coating at all. The light that passes through the grey area is darkened, allowing us to control the bright/highlight areas in the composition to make them more consistent with the dark/shadow areas. ND Grad filters come in a range of strengths… I have a set of three that achieve 1-stop, 2-stops and 3-stops of darkening, and the adapter is such that I can stack them on top of each other to achieve up to 6-stops of darkening in one half of the image.
Although I have achieved correct exposure throughout the image with thanks to the ND Grad filters, the reflection of the lighthouse is “shimmering” a little too much for my liking…
Black Glass Filter
I have a Hoya NDX400 filter (often referred to by photographers as “black glass”) that screws on to the front of the lens to darken down the whole image by a whopping 9 stops! In mathematical terms, the NDX400 filter allows only 1/500th of the available light to enter the lens. Or put simply, I have to double the normal exposure time 9 times to get a correct exposure when the NDX400 filter is on. As such, a common use for the NDX400 filter is to achieve long exposures in daylight conditions. I typically use the NDX400 to smooth the surface of water, as is my style, and the effect that I need to reduce the shimmer in the reflection of the lighthouse here.
You may also notice that application of the NDX400 filter has resulted in richer, deeper colours here… a nice side-effect of the long exposure achieved through this filter.
While I do think this is a pretty decent image so far, there is one more thing that could make it just that little bit better. We can see that there is some interesting textures below the surface of the water in the bottom right corner of the image… imagine how much better the image could look if we could see some more of that underwater detail!
Circular Polarizing Filter
A Circular Polarizing filter (or CPL) allows us to control the reflections of light that are allowed to enter into the lens when we shoot. Without getting too scientific about it, light emitted from a light source (except for a laser) is omni-directional… it goes every which way; whereas the light we see reflected off a surface only travels along a single plane. The CPL filter allows us to block out the light reflected along any given plane, thereby minimizing the reflections that we see in that plane. The ability to do this has many applications, such as returning contrast and saturation to an overly reflective scene… or in the case of this example, cutting down the reflections on the surface of the water so that we can see what lies beneath:
The Finished Image
With a little post-production work in Lightroom and Photoshop, the finished image can be seen below (click to view larger)…
Once an artist starts exhibiting their work and receiving a wealth of positive feedback, it can be very easy to fall into the trap of thinking we know it all and to stop researching our chosen medium. We go on reusing the same techniques over and over again, until the positive feedback starts drying up and we end up feeling uninspired, seeing the same results day in and day out. Those techniques that we knew so well just don’t do it for us, or for anybody else, anymore… our artwork becomes stale!
Maybe I’m speaking for myself in the above paragraph, or maybe it is a common occurence for other artists, too… I’m not sure. Either way, I’ve found a great way to combat this phenomenon: continuous education. I’ve found that the best way to overcome outputting stale artwork is to go back to basics by finding some new guides or tutorials around the net, often ones that tell you what you think you already know.
When I do this, I find that I am reminded of certain factors that made older artworks successful, but that I have been glossing over while shooting within my “I know it all” bubble. For example, I recently became lazy as far as getting high or low was concerned while on location: a quick read of an article today reinforced this fact for me, and I have realised one area where my more recent artwork has been falling short. Likewise, that same article spoke of shooting at dawn and dusk, which led me to reflect on the fact that my most successful photographs have all been shot during one of those times, and yet lately I have been busy in the evenings and sleeping in in the mornings, leading me to shoot during the daylight hours… another area where recent artwork has been falling short!
Not only did this article highlight the areas in which I have been falling short recently… it also gave me some new ideas! I have also aimed to get as much of a landscape into the frame by using only a wide-angle lens… I would never have thought of cropping a landscape tightly using a telephoto/zoom lens had I not read this article today! Who would’ve thought Mr Know-It-All could pick up a new idea from an article that takes us back to basics?!?
Another great reason for constantly reviewing the breadth of new (and old) information available to visual artists on the net is the inspiration that can be gained from the illustrations that go along with them. As visual artists, we are all more than familiar with the cliche that a picture speaks a thousand words, and this rings true for the countless tutorials and instructional texts that have been published for artists, by artists, around the net! While the text content of such articles does serve to make us think about and extend our techniques, it is the pictures that give us inspiration to get out and get the next perfect picture ourselves. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have read an instructional article and thought, “I want to do that,” in response to the accompanying illustrations!
Coincidentally, the article that I read today and have referred to throughout this post can be accessed here: 5 Opposite Steps to Better Photographs.
Have you ever gone through your post-processing workflow (particularly when it includes HDR generation), looked at the final image, and found that it was still lacking the vibrance and clarity that you remembered seeing whilst capturing the original photograph? I had this problem after working with the following image from my shoot at the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens yesterday, during which the capturing the vibrant autumn colours was one of my main goals… and found the solution by adapting what I consider to be a derivative of the Orton effect!
When we apply the Orton effect (blending an over-exposed copy of the image with the original), the resultant image takes on a ‘dreamy’ feel… the colours tend to wash out a bit (that is, vibrance and saturation are reduced), while the highlights creep into the shadows to brighten up the overall image at the expense of clarity. For the sake of comparison, the image below shows Alfred Nicholas’ Boathouse with the Orton effect applied:
I figured that, if the Orton effect actually emphasizes the traits that I didn’t like in the original image, applying the opposite of the Orton effect would fix them…
In the image below, I blended the original HDR image with an under-exposed copy of itself:
As you can see here, the colours are a lot richer, while emphasizing the shadows rather than the highlights yields greater clarity and gives the image a more ‘moody’ feel rather than a ‘dreamy’ one. This is much more like the scene that I remember capturing whilst on location!
A Word About Levels
Just as the image’s levels must be carefully adjusted after applying the Orton effect to avoid losing too much detail in the highlights; so too must the image’s levels be adjusted after applying the notrO effect to avoid losing detail in the shadows!
I found that I needed to use this technique on a couple of the images that I brought home from my shoot yesterday. Click any image below for a larger view…