As a landscape photographer, I am used to relying on the soft, golden light of the sinking and raising sun to create my best images; that magic window of time when photography is made incredibly easy. But great light can last an hour or just a few minutes, making the rest of the day a dull waiting game.
Words and Photography by Chiara Zonca
How to make the most of harsh lighting is something I always wanted to learn, as it would allow me to utilise the potential of those boring long hours between sunrise and sunset, shaping up my eye and style in the process.
I HAVE ALWAYS DREADED SHOOTING IN HARSH LIGHT
Shadows are everywhere, popping up in the wrong corners of the frame as odd looking blob shapes. Colours appear very different on camera compared to what the human eye sees in harsh light. Exposure is also a problem, forcing you to pick whichever detail of the scene you wish to expose correctly and then leaving the rest completely washed out or in pitch black darkness. But what I also don’t like is limits, of any kind, when it comes to my creative process. Tired of waiting around in the desert heat for yet another sunset, I decided it was time to take the bull by the horns and learn how to make the best of shooting in direct sunlight in one of the brightest and hottest countries on the planet: Namibia.
“This is one of the strongest ND filters you can buy.”
MY WEAPON OF CHOICE? URTH’S 2 PEAK ND1000 FILTER
This is one of the strongest ND filters you can buy, essential for reducing the sun’s harshest rays. At first glance, the filter not only delivered on drastically reducing light coming through my camera’s sensor, allowing me to play with depth of field and slower shutter speeds than normal, but it also made my images softer, toning down the harsh contrast and effectively giving a warm, sun-kissed tone to my highlights, as if it was golden hour.
“This filter made my images softer, toning down the harsh contrast and giving a warm, sun-kissed tone to my highlights.”
DEPTH DEPTH DEPTH
I am a big fan of dramatic depth of field, therefore it’s no surprise that my favourite part of using the filter was the extreme aperture I was able to use while working in harsh light conditions. It allowed me to get creative and explore different details within a scene. At the same time, those images didn’t look at all like they had been taken in the middle of the day, which was a huge plus.
The ND1000 also gave a very dreamy and painterly effect to the blurred backgrounds behind my scene, which was a somewhat unexpected and enjoyable result, particularly when photographing trees.
“My favourite part of using the filter was the extreme aperture I was able to use while working in harsh light.”
NEED FOR SPEED
Remember those dreamy, slow shutter images of waterfalls and lakes? They are often used in low light as that allows the camera sensor to slow down the shutter naturally to increase the quantity of light coming through the lens. But who says you can’t have fun with the shutter speed in the middle of the day? By applying the ND filter, you’ll drastically reduce the amount of light coming through your sensor, allowing the camera to use a slower shutter even in the harshest of lights. That creates a very fresh and unusual look which I really enjoyed for a change. Win win.
“The filter made my shadows deeper and smokier.”
IF YOU DON’T LIKE THE LIGHT, HEAD TO THE DARK SIDE
Another aspect of harsh light I decided to focus on were shadows. Trees, plants and rocks were all fair game when it comes to finding interesting shapes. The filter made my shadows deeper and smokier, adding some mystery to the composition.
ND LIKE A PRO
As can be expected when using a new piece of gear for the first time, not everything was all fun and games. The trickiest part of using this filter was focus. By adding an extremely dark filter in front of my lens in a very bright scenario my eyes were struggling to focus, my camera was equally failing to grasp the correct focus in auto mode, leaving some of my images blurry in the beginning.
Especially when using big apertures, focus needs to be really sharp and I found that was my biggest issue. The fix is to be more methodical in your workflow and, with the camera set on a tripod, set up composition and focus without the filter on and then add it just before shooting. I imagine that this issue is only for the strong fixed ND filter, as with the variable ND it should be way easier to tweak the effect on the run.
Another thing to watch out for is vignetting. A trick is to make sure to not under-expose the scene as that enhances vignetting. If the issue persists, the best way to get rid of it is through trying a bigger sized filter with an adapter.
If, like me, you feel itching to shoot no matter the light, adding an ND filter to your gear bag is a great idea to boost your versatility. It takes a little bit of time to understand and master such a strong filter but it can really help you get the shot no matter the light.