Behind the Camera: My Bag of Tricks

Welcome back to Behind the Camera, which is becoming a regular feature here in the blog.  Each month I will address a question with the hopes of letting you know a little more about both myself and my photography.  The topic this month is from Nicholas Harvey who posed the question on my original Facebook post when I was starting this feature.  Now, I want to get a couple of things out of the way before I get started.  First of all, Nicholas is with Singh-Ray Filters, which is already a very cool part of this story.  It is always special when a company that produces some of your equipment starts to take notice of your work.  Thanks to Nicholas, I have crossed paths with Singh-Ray a number of times, and have really been impressed with the company as a whole.  That being said, I have received nothing from them for doing this article.  Nicholas just asked a very good question that I have been asked several times over the years and I figured that I would go ahead and write about it in detail this month.

Nicholas asked a several part question, and these are the bits that I will be discussing today:  

1. What's in your bag?
2. Post processing tips and tricks
3. Singh-Ray filters.  "But I'm biased"  (No seriously, that is what he said!)

Answering the first part is pretty simple to do.  I have recently added a page here in the gallery that details my gear.  This will tell you everything that I carry right up to the ponchos in case I get rained on.  It doesn't really tell you the why behind what I carry though.  I'll attempt to get into that just a bit here.  Let's start with the camera.  Unlike many other photographers, I only carry one body.  In this case, it is a Canon 5D Mark III.  This is to save weight and room in my bag.  It is also because I don't have the money to afford a backup body just yet.  In all seriousness though, it has not hampered my abilities, so I'm not worried about it in the least.  I have a range of four lenses that now cover from 14mm up to 400mm with the 2x teleconverter.  This gives me the range to cover just about everything that a landscape photographer might come across.

Carolina Blue
Shot with the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens which gave a very dramatic perspective
Holding the Line
Shot with the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L lens to emphasize the post while including a great deal of background
Into the Gorge
Shot with the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L lens which is considered a "normal" lens for the perspective it offers
What a Rush
Shot with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L lens which allows tight crops and compressed scenes
Dragon's Breath
Shot with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L with 2x teleconverter at 400mm.  Very compressed image
As you can see from these selected pictures, I can cover just about any eventuality out in the field with just four lenses and a converter.  I'm glad that I don't need anything else since all of this glass is quite heavy on my back.  In this day and age, image stabilization is all the rage, but only one of my lenses comes equipped with that feature.  Honestly, I don't use that feature much at all since I rarely hand hold my camera.  In order to bring the sharpest images possible to my viewers and clients, I choose to shoot primarily on a tripod.

While the camera and lenses do most of the work that you enjoy here in the gallery, they would be totally worthless without a sturdy base.  I am regularly shooting at exposures in excess of a second, and even my "fast" exposures are much slower than the lens will allow to be hand held.  In addition to stability for sharp exposures, it forces me to slow my process down and fine tune the composition while looking at the boundaries of the image, and getting the hyperfocal point set just right.  In short, it makes this digital age photographer shoot like Ansel Adams with a large format camera.  I honestly think that using a tripod will make your compositions much better, and there is no denying the sharpness factor when the camera is still.

My tripod of choice is a Manfrotto 055CXPro with three sections.  This is a carbon fiber (weight savings) tripod that is quite sturdy.  I went with three sections rather than the four section option because it has been proven that the fewer sections are more stable.  The downside is, it collapses a bit longer than the four section model.  I think that the trade off is worth it though.  I like this tripod since it has lever locks and not twist locks.  They are more durable, and will last through use in dirty conditions better than a twist lock.  It is a personal preference, but I've had great luck with these tripods, and this one has served faithfully for five years.  I've got LensCoat cushions on the legs as well so that I can comfortably carry it on my shoulders with the camera attached.  They also cut down on the potential glare from the sun hitting the legs, and keep the legs a touchable temperature in the winter and summer.

The tripod head is another essential part to the equation.  I've used several different styles of heads over the years, but I love my Acratech GP Ballhead for its simplicity of design.  It is infinitely adjustable and can be used vertically or horizontally if I were to set the tripod up to shoot at ground level with the neck clamped horizontally on the legs.  With the majority of the moving parts being exposed, it is easy to keep clean from grit.  There is a tension adjusting knob that will dictate how much friction is applied while moving the camera around, and there is even a collar knob that allows me to pan while keeping the main ball locked in.  This is great for panoramas.  Speaking of panoramas, there are degree marks on the collar of the head that allows me to uniformly shoot the series of a panorama if I'm needing exact intervals.  The lifetime warranty, and the proven claim that the company can repair any of their ballheads without the need to replace is pretty comforting.  In five years, I have not had to have any repairs done though.

While on the topic of shooting on a tripod, I always get asked what the little green object is on the top of the camera.  It is a double axis spirit level which I learned to use well over 10 years ago.  Since I have a pretty bad astigmatism in both eyes, my concept of level is sometimes skewed.  If I don't have the right clues in the image, I need a little help.  Now, the tripod as well as the ball head have a total of three different levels.  I find that those are best for leveling the tripod in preparation for a panorama.  When it comes to leveling the camera, unless it is totally square on both axis, it is a guessing game with the one on the camera foot.  By adding the level to the hotshoe, I can check level on the two axis independently which is essential for landscape photography.  I have this attached 95% of the time, and only occasionally will vary from its assessment of level.  I could level an image through post processing, but that just throws away pixels if you do any rotating since you have to crop in closer, but more on that shortly.

Royal Veil
Shot with a Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to reduce the glare and slow the shutter speed.
So, let's talk filters for a moment.  In the day of Photoshop, and I dare say social media...filters have taken on new meanings.  When I talk about filters, I am not talking about digital overlays where I put bunny ears on a selfie.  I'm not talking about digital trickery either.  When I talk about filters, I am referring to the physical filters that go on the end of your lens to enhance the scene being captured.  While many of the filters can be reproduced in post processing, there are two that absolutely can't be duplicated.  These are the polarizer and a neutral density filter.

I carry two polarizers in my bag, the first one is a B+W polarizer which is a thin mount and reduces the chance of vignetting (darkening of the corners) on my wide angle lens.  It is a great piece of kit and was my first choice when filling my bag.  Since that time, I have expanded to include a Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer which does the same thing, but adds a bit of boost to the green and blue colors in the image.  I've grown to really like this filter and find that I include it on most every shot where I need the polarizing effect.  I just have to be careful when using it with my 16-35mm until about the 20mm mark when the corners are clear.  

Simply put, what a polarizer does is removes the glare from reflective surfaces such as wet rocks or the surface of the water (as above).  It will also remove the glare from the water molecules in the sky which will help render the sky a deeper blue.  It also has a certain amount of light reduction capability depending on the type of filter used.  This is also very helpful with waterfall photography.

On Your Way
Shot using a Singh-Ray 10-Stop Mor Slo ND filter with an exposure of 30 seconds
The neutral density filter that I mentioned does one thing, and one thing only.  It reduces the amount of light that enters the lens.  They come in different strengths, and I have two different ones in my bag. The first is a screw on B+W Vario ND filter that will reduce light between one and five stops.  The second is a square Singh-Ray Mor Slo 10-Stop ND filter that fits in my Lee Filter System Holder.  You can see a dramatic effect of the 10-Stop filter above with the clouds moving over the sky for a total exposure time of 30 seconds.  ND filters are also very handy for waterfall photography when the lighting is too bright to achieve the shutter speed that you want.

Speaking of ND filters, I also carry a collection of six different Singh-Ray graduated ND filters.  No, those are not the ones that have a degree.  They are actually 4x6 flat filters that are dark on the top half and clear on the bottom half.  They fit in my Lee Filter Systems Holder.  They are wonderful for controlling the exposure when you have a dimly lit ground and the sky is bright.  You can see here that my camera was set up for a sunrise photograph and according to my phone's camera (using the HDR option), there was no way to get an even exposure.  However, by adding a 3-Stop ND Grad filter, I was able to bring the exposure of the sky and ground to a much closer relationship.

Spring at Rough Ridge
Shot with a Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 3-Stop soft edge ND Grad
As you can see the renderings of the scene are completely different.  The cell phone shot was just not what I was seeing since my eyes were able to handle a lot more exposure latitude than my camera can.  However, by reducing the sky's light entering the lens, I was able to capture an image that much more closely matched what I was seeing at the predawn hour.  The nice thing about the Lee Holder that I use is I can actually fit two of the flat filters on at the same time, and can expand the mount to hold a third as well as a polarizer if needed.

How do I get all of this in the woods?  I have used a few different bags over the years from shoulder bags to rucksacks.  I have always been very impressed with the Tamrac Expedition series which I have used three different sizes of over the years.  It is now a discontinued item which is a shame.  But progress has made for some other very nice options.  My current bag is one of those options, and it is made by Lowepro.  The model is the Whistler BP 350 AW.  It was developed for the landscape photographer that spent time in the elements to get to their destination.  It is also designed for outdoor adventure photographers.  Toni got this bag for me for Christmas last year and I've completely switched over to it.  It has a bit more interior room than my last Tamrac had, and the storage is more usable for me.

What I love about this bag is that I can put all of my filters in the top zipper pocket so that they are available without me having to open the main compartment.  All of my main camera gear fits in the main compartment as you can see from one of the opening pictures.  The best part about this is, the main compartment opens on the back of the bag, so I get to lay the bag down on its face.  I no longer have to worry about mud and muck getting on the part of the bag that will be resting on my back.  I love these rear entry bags!!  I can also secure my tripod (again, not a compact unit) on the side of the bag for easy hiking.  There is a large compartment on the front that I can put things like gloves, towels, and assorted bulky items in.  There is even a side pocket that will easily fit a coupe of ponchos and some business cards.  On the waist belt, there is a nice storage compartment which fits four three battery packs and a couple of lens cloths.  I can't recommend this bag enough, and it does come in a larger size as well, but it fits all of my gear easy enough.

This pretty much concludes the equipment used to capture the scene in the field, but that is not the end of the photographic experience for me.  There are some other tricks that I use after the fact.  Tricks might be a strong word to use though, but lets talk about post processing for a bit.  Well actually, lets backtrack for a moment.  The idea is to capture the best image that you can when you shoot it.  For me that means being very careful with my composition.  I will frame the image as I intend for it to be viewed in the final rendering.  I don't like to crop my images, in fact I will do everything that I can to avoid it.  Why is that you ask?  Well, a digital image is made up of pixels and it is those pixels that will ultimately dictate the quality of a print when blown up.  The more pixels you have, the better the image will look at a larger size (why cell phone pictures start to really deteriorate at large sizes).  If I crop an image significantly, I will be hampering my ability to make a print at the quality that I want.

Additionally, there are things that I do in the camera that set me up for a better post processing experience.  I shoot in RAW so that I collect all of the image information, not just what the camera thinks I want to keep.  This gives me a lot of exposure latitude in high contrast scenes and the ability to really fine tune the colors.  To further aid with the information that is captured, I reduce the contrast in the camera to the minimum as well as the saturation.  This takes the load off of the camera to capture the subtle nuances of a scene.  I will also shoot in "Camera Neutral".  All of this works to make the image that I see on the LCD screen very bland and flat.  With sunrises, I never know what I'm going to get as far as color because of this.  I have to rely on the histogram to tell me that I have captured detail in the dark areas as well as the bright areas.  This is how I judge my exposure in the field.

RAW capture straight from the camera except for resizing
Canon 5D Mk II, 24-70mm f/2.8L II and a B+W Polarizer on the Manfrotto tripod
Now that I have the RAW capture on a memory card, I have the digital negative to work with. I am using this example because I don't like sharing the negatives all that much, but this was the first time I used Lightroom and it does a lot to show what I am talking about.  For years I had used Photoshop, but I never felt that I was all that good with it, and I didn't get that in depth with it because I didn't feel it was user friendly.  Lightroom changed that for me and presented a tool that made sense to me, and seemed to be directly developed for the photographer.  There are a lot of tutorials online about how to use Lightroom, so I am not going to be getting into the nuts and bolts of it here.

I will say that I am still a purist at heart and while I like a saturated image (similar to the old Fuji Velvia film), I try not to go overboard unless the subject dictates a very artistic representation.  What I love about Lightroom is that local adjustments are very easy to make with the radial filter, grad filter, and brush tool.  I use these in the same way that dodging and burning was used in film processing.  Exposure recovery is also very easy with the shadows and highlights tools.  As I said, I do everything that I can to include all of the information in an image into the digital file.  Here, I can eek out the details on both ends of the spectrum and even out the exposure.  The goal is to make a photograph look more like what our eyes are used to seeing.

Down to Earth
Processed with Lightroom in about 15 minutes
Here we see what resulted from my first full use of Lightroom.  I had watched a few videos on the subject and this is what I learned to do.  It took about 15 minutes to go from the RAW image to a print.  I can now do the same thing in 5-10 minutes.  This first time attempt went on to win a First Place ribbon at a regional competition in the fall of 2016.

If you look closely, you can see that I don't do any manipulations like adding or subtracting elements.  I don't crop the image (if I can help it).  What I do try to do is get all the details in the shadows (like under the roof) and highlights (like the grill and bumper.  I try to bring back the color impact that I dial down in the capture, and make the image pop.  The success or failure of the image is dictated in the actual capture though.  I don't "fix it in post" as a crutch.  I've always shot with the final image in mind with the camera and use post processing as an enhancement tool.

Off Sides
Processed through Lightroom to add contrast and a vignette
There are a couple of exceptions where I really let loose with post processing to take an image to the next level.  In these situations, I actually shoot the image with the alterations in mind to achieve a certain look that I'm after.  In the example above, I actually saw this tree and immediately thought of this style of photograph with it.  I captured a very flat image knowing that I was going to blow the background out and intensify the shadows to create a very minimalistic look.  I knew that by adding a vignette to the image, the blank sky would not be a problem at all.  It is not a true photographic representation of the scene, but it is exactly how I saw it at the time, and it is true to my vision.

I hope that this answered the questions Nicholas, and thank you for asking.  If there is something about my photography that any of you would like to know, drop me a comment or email and I'll do my best to answer.  Until next time, keep enjoying the beauty that surrounds us!

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