Saying Goodbye to Old Friends

I recently had to part ways with a few old friends. It’s never easy, you know, having to say goodbye to friends who’ve been with you through thick and thin, good and bad. A couple of my friends had been with me for nearly 20 years. I felt bad letting them go, especially since they didn’t do anything wrong. They’ve always been faithful to me, always there when I need them, seemingly always able to turn a bad situation into a good one. But I kicked them to the curb.

Digital made me do it!

My old friends were five Singh-Ray graduated neutral density filters. A few days before the Carolinas Nature Photographers Association’s www.cnpa.org annual meeting in early February, I was gathering up old gear to sell on the swap table at the event. I picked up the padded case that held my five grads and put it back in the pack. Then I picked it up again. When was the last time I had used one of those filters? Couldn’t remember. In what situation could I imagine that I would ever use one of them again? Couldn’t think of one. Yet there they were, taking up precious real estate in my photo pack.

Why did I stop using something that at one time was invaluable to me? Of course, the answer is that I started using a digital camera. After switching from film, I continued to use the filters for a couple years, but once I became somewhat proficient in post processing, I realized that I could achieve better results in Photoshop. Now, I hear all the time that you should get the photo “right” in the field and not rely on Photoshop to “fix” things. But I’m not fixing anything when I shoot multiple exposures at sunrise and sunset. I’m analyzing the situation and applying the most practical solution for achieving the best photograph possible. With the approach I use now, I don’t have to think about whether the filters match the light difference between foreground and background or uneven horizon lines or much of anything else. I just bracket a set of exposures, making sure I cover the tonal range, and I’m all set. I take these exposures and process them as an HDR image or, more likely, I simply blend two exposures in Photoshop, one for the foreground, one for the sky.

Someone is thinking, “But if you had used a grad filter in the field, you wouldn’t have to do all that post processing.” Even if all the field conditions were perfect for the filters, I could probably make a better photo using digital techniques. I had a one-, two-, and three-stop filter with the grad line across the middle. The two custom filters were two-stop, one with the line near the bottom and one with it near the top. These allowed me to shoot with a wide-angle lens tilted up or down. But I was limited by the full-stop increments. What if the needed light adjustment was one and a half stops? What if the horizon line was all crooked, like when shooting city skylines? What if there was one area of the scene that didn’t need any filter effect? And in nearly every situation, the graduation of tonal values in the scene doesn’t match the graduation of values in the filter. So you’re stuck with the filter altering the graduation of light values and oftentimes creating an unrealistic effect.  

Am I suggesting that all photographers get rid of their grads? Absolutely not! I think you should analyze the scene and apply the most practical solution for achieving the best results, just like I do, but that doesn’t mean that the most practical solution for you will match what I do. If you are not proficient in post processing, you’re probably going to achieve better results using filters. (I would recommend that you still bracket exposures so you’ll have them later on when you your Photoshop skills improve.) Also, there may be some situations where you simply don’t have the time for post processing. And you flatlanders with those straight horizons might be able to achieve equal results with the grads, provided you have a good range of filter values and maybe a couple of custom filters like those that I had.

Bottom line is do what works best for you. What worked best for me was stuffing some cash in my pocket and creating some extra space in my photo pack. Trouble is, now I want to fill that space with something that costs a lot more than the cash in my pocket!

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2 Responses to “Saying Goodbye to Old Friends”

  1. Sai C Says:

    Dang, how is it that I manage to miss out when you let your old friends go??? This is part deux…someone has said the 3rd time is a charm…let’s see if lady charm smiles at me next time around 🙂

    Great post and you’ve raised some good points Kevin, especially about stuffing the empty space which costs more than the $$$ in your pocket!

    Cheers!
    Sai

  2. TomDills Says:

    Hey, Kevin –

    I’ve got a set you can borrow if you ever want to reminisce. That’s assuming I can find them. Probably need to sell mine too!

    Tom

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