Landscapes Posts

Milky Way at Alta

Milky Way at Alta

The Milky Way as seen from Alta at 4:00 this morning. D800 with 14-24.

Ditching the Polarizer

Ditching the Polarizer

Update: Several people have mentioned the use of polarizers to reduce glare on water – this is still a reasonable use of a polarizer, however, that is not the focus of my article.  Most photographers use polarizers for subject matter other than water, which does not result in a benefit that cannot be gained through post-processing.  If you shoot water extensively you may still find one useful, but otherwise, read below to see why I think there are better filters to keep on hand.

 

You have probably heard many landscape photographers strongly expressing their unconditional need for using circular polarizing filters, but why?  Traditionally, polarizing filters are popular because they offer enhanced colors and reduced glare, but with powerful post-processing techniques this isn’t as necessary.  Colors in the sky can easily be enhanced, and the effect of glare typically does not negatively effect the image quality.  Before I discuss my preferred filter, let me explain a few more reasons to ditch the polarizer.

 

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Post-processing accomplishes the same thing

Software such as Adobe Lightroom or Aperture are powerful tools for enhancing RAW files to reach similar results that a polarizing filter would.  For enhancing colors in the sky or on foliage, utilizing the luminosity adjustment sliders handles this nicely.  You can see the effects of this on the grass and sky in the example below.

 

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Before Processing

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After Processing

They don’t work on wide-angle lenses

Most landscape photographers use ultra wide-angle lenses, such as a 14-24 or even a 17-35, but unfortunately, polarizing filters do not work on these lenses.  The result will be strange dark and light patterns in the sky due to the physics of the filter.  The minimum safe distance to use is about 24mm, maybe slightly less depending on the subject matter.  While landscape photography can still be appealing with more telephoto lenses, it doesn’t capture the essence in the same way an ultra wide-angle lens does.

 

Effectiveness varies based on angle from the sun

The polarizer has its maximum effect when the direction you are shooting is 90º from the sun.  When this changes, it loses its effectiveness.  The direction of a good landscape picture can not always be changed to meet this demand.

 

Difficult to work with

During harsh lighting conditions it can be a challenge to rotate the filter to find the desired effect.  It helps if your camera has live view, but it’s still not easy.

 

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Mt. Whitney, with 10 stop ND filter.

The Neutral Density Filter

What is the solution then?  Ditch the circular polarizer for the 10 stop neutral density filter.  This filter will improve your landscape photography dramatically in comparison to the polarizer.  Keep watching for the follow up article on neutral density filters!

Milky Way From Mt. Shasta

Milky Way From Mt. Shasta

During my recent ascent up Mt. Shasta, I camped at Lake Helen at an elevation of 10,000 ft. I was able to capture a stunning view of the Milky Way. Due to forest fires there was a lot of smoke in the air, enhancing the colors from the city lights.
Taken with a D800 and 17-35 2.8.

The Unconventional Landscape Lens

24 2.8 AIS LensAs digital photography has become the norm throughout the last decade, the choice lens by most amateur and professional landscape photographers has been some form of an ultra-wide zoom.  Typically something along the lines of a 17-35mm or 17-40mm is most often used.  While these lenses are highly convenient and frequently yield spectacular results, there are several major drawbacks; one being the price.  As an alternative, however, I recently discovered a new gem; the Nikon 24mm 2.8 AIS lens.

I have compiled a list of the major advantages that I’ve discovered from using this lens, listed in order of decreasing importance.

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Advantages

Does not focus past infiniti!
It’s a novel idea right?  As novel as the idea may be, however, most modern AF lenses focus way past infinity.  this is a complete headache when shooting night scenes.  Unsurprisingly, it’s very difficult to find anything bright enough to focus on with a moonless sky.  With this little guy, you simply rotate the focus ring all the way to the right, and you can be sure the stars are in focus.  Much easier than fiddling around with a flashlight attempting to estimate where infinity is.

Price
How many people do you know shooting with an 18-55 kit lens?  Quite a few I imagine.  The great thing about this lens is you can pick it up used for about $100.  That’s about the same price as the kit lens, and around $900 less than a 17-35 2.8.  That means you can take the lens many more places without worrying about selling your car to replace the lens in case of damage.  Not only that, it’s f2.8!

Small and tough
Nowadays, dropping $1000 on a nice wideangle lens will give you a nice results, but the lens itself is still made of plastic.  On the contrary, most manual focus AIS lenses are small, lightweight, and indestructible!  Perfect for the next rock climbing adventure.  The image shown below would definitely have been more difficult had I been lugging a heavy, expensive zoom up the mountain.

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Sharp
For those that are highly concerned about each pixel, the lens is also extremely sharp, even at 2.8.  This makes it doubly perfect for shooting the night sky!

52mm filter thread
Remember back in the day when buying a polarizer for your kit lens was not much worse than buying a box of Cheerios?  Well with the 24 AIS lens, you can spend less money on filters and more money on cereal!

Drawbacks

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Every lens seems to have it’s drawbacks of which the 24 AIS is no exception, but there’s not many.

Corner sharpness
Sharpness appears to drop off in the corners slightly on full frame when shooting wide open at 2.8.  This could affect some landscape images.

Limited focal length
While 24mm on full frame is about the widest you want to go with a polarizer, there’s many times when shooting at around 20mm or even less offers a great effect.  This obviously is not achievable with a fixed 24mm lens.

 

 

 

That’s it.  Although I’m interested in hearing what your thoughts are on the best landscape lenses.  What do you shoot with?

Castle Peak Long Exposure

Castle Peak Long Exposure

After a two and a half hour hike up to the top, I ate dinner with my group and setup camp on the very top of the summit. Once it got dark I took several long exposures, and then decided to try a longer one, maybe around 30 minutes. I setup the camera, started the exposure and promptly fell asleep. I awoke two hours later and realized it had run out of battery and shut off. After warming up the battery in my pocket, I popped it into the camera to take a quick look at what it had captured. To my delight, I saw this spectacular view of the stars! Apparently it had run for 1.5 hours before shutting off.