The Naked Eye

Posted: July 18, 2015 in General Photography

For me there are two main difficulties when gathering images of the Northern Lights. One of them is being outside when they are active and the other is the post processing of the images once they are acquired. Getting the image is not such a struggle these days if the lights are flying, but, once gathered…what do you do with them? What colors should they be? How much color is too much?

Much of what comes into play after the image is acquired depends on each photographer’s personal tastes. Some prefer strong saturated colors while others prefer a more subtle approach but the question remains, what color are they??

In my life I have only seen definitive color during an aurora show once. I think it was 1994 or 1995 and the display of light was intense and the patterns were mind boggling. I distinctly remember seeing green and red colors in those patterns, there was no mistake about it. I don’t know how many times that I have seen the Northern Lights but I do remember how many times I’ve been able to see a definite color to them–exactly once.

The most recent show that started on the 22nd of June and ended in the AM hours of the 23rd was amazing. Patterns, pillars, curtain effects, even motion directly overhead, all a testament to the strength of the show but, to my unaided eye, well, they looked like a dull bluish\greenish\grayish white…if that is even a color! The point is, given how the eye works with it’s cones and rods and how the camera works with it’s incredible light gathering properties during a long exposure, it should come as no surprise that to the naked eye, in many cases, there are simply no colors to be seen and those that are seen are often barely noted, mere hints of their true nature.

A recent discussion with a publication entity who shall remain nameless left me a bit confused as they refused to publish an image without an accompanying unedited file to ensure that “…the image submitted is what the human eye would see…”. I found this a bit odd as, without question, there is no way that the human eye will see anything even remotely like what the camera captured, a fact well documented in the literature regarding the capture of aurora. The patterns of light, sure, they would be similar, but it is unlikely that a 75 MB RAW image file, exposed for a time of twenty seconds, would in any way, shape, or form give us ‘what the human eye saw’.

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The Naked Eye–Bringing what the camera captured closer to what the human eye might see.

Another concern expressed was that the images might be manipulated by an image editing program and as a result have over saturated and non realistic colors that, again, are not what the eye would see. I think we have all seen some of those over saturated color drenched images that may be a bit over the top and while I don’t prefer that style I have certainly done my share of them and no, you don’t get to see those! We are all different and that’s what makes this all work. The world would be a boring place if we all did the same thing.

The irony here? You would have to use an image editing program in order to edit the image to make it appear closer to what the naked eye would see. While I see their point and can appreciate and respect journalistic integrity as far as journalistic photography is concerned, I cannot agree to the extent that the naked eye and a camera sensor or film will capture the same thing when it comes to a five, ten, twenty, or even thirty second long exposure time–it simply doesn’t happen like that.

I freely admit that I use image editing programs to put the final touches on images that I gather. In the case of the aurora I try to express not only what I saw, but what I felt–they are a truly remarkable phenomena to experience and I still find it hard to believe that the human body can endure that much adrenaline for that length of time!

With all of this in mind, I have used this particular image as an attempt to get closer to what the unaided eye might see out there. I’ve toned the colors down quite a bit, trying to match-and probably failing–the exact color (or lack of it) that I witnessed for those four hours on the beach.

Across the street from Bronson Lake

I’ve known Jon Denton for over ten years now and though our relationship has been strictly online and on-track, in all of that time he has proven to be one of the most thoughtful and intelligent humans I have met. From our early days perusing the West Brothers Racing Legend forums and driving Sauber C9’s on virtual race tracks to more recent times where we worked together on various writing assignments, he has shown an insight on all matters that more often than not paved the way for a deeper understanding of the topic at hand.

Recently he presented a topic of discussion that I found to be of great interest, that being the question of what sim vehicle (racing sim, flight sim, sub sim, trucker sim, goat sim, etc.) has the most soul. An abstract comparison to be sure and not one with an obvious answer. In fact, the more I thought of it the more complex it became for me and before I could begin to tackle the task at hand I needed a real world example.
Fortunately, I had one ready at hand.

In the summer of 1985, I purchased my first road going motorcycle, the venerable Honda VF500F Interceptor. World famous and often regarded as one of the best motorcycles to ever leave the Honda assembly line, my relationship with that motorcycle was one of extreme satisfaction and the enjoyment it gave me for the twenty-eight years it was in my possession was difficult to put into words. Complete, let’s say. An inanimate object of metal and plastic with a blatant disregard for my life or death, I shall forever remember it fondly.

Around 2005 or so, I didn’t ride that much and by 2007 I had pretty much retired the bike to the shed and the various rodents that would eventually cause large amounts of damage to the bike, rendering it, for all intents and purposes, unrideable. Well, unstartable is perhaps a better word. By 2011 I had the urge to ride again but a few days into my expression of Herculean efforts to get it back on the road proved to be in vain, I made up my mind that my motorcycle days were behind me. Back into the shed it went and off I went to do whatever it was I was doing at that time.

With time flying the way it does, it seemed mere moments had gone by, the year was 2013, and I was standing in the parking lot of my employer smoking a cigarette when one of those fancy new sport bikes went blasting by. Twenty plus years of memories came flooding back all at once and I knew it was time to get back on the road again.
Of course Honda was about as far as I looked when it came to motorcycles having had nothing but good experience with them and before the day was over I had my sights set on the newest CBR 600RR. Not the fastest, not the most powerful, and completely devoid of the electronic gadgets and trickery adorning many of the new bikes these days it was exactly what I wanted. Or so I thought.

Within a week I was making arrangements to pick up the new motorcycle and while I was sitting on it before taking official delivery at the dealer a few things jumped out at me. For instance, it was nearly forty pounds lighter than my Interceptor and pumped about twice the horsepower to the rear wheel, so, I imagined, it might be a smidge quicker than what I had grown accustomed to. The riding position was more aggressive which translates to not as comfortable. The seat was made of Italian granite, I was sure of it. Easier for sliding off into Marco Marquez-like knee and elbow sliding corner maneuvers.

When I asked the dealer prep guys where the reserve fuel tank valve was they looked at me as if my medication may have run out a few weeks earlier. “It’s fuel injected, you don’t need to worry about turning any fuel tank valves”. Of course. Fuel injected. That will come in handy. They left me to it. My friend got into my car and I got onto the bike for the hour long ride home.

 

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And so it went. I have nothing but praises for that motorcycle. It had all the speed, acceleration, and handling prowess you could ask for, basically a race bike with turn blinkers, headlights and a place to hang a license plate. Sort of like a high performance car but with two wheels instead of four. Lightweight, forty plus miles per gallon, a more worthy successor to the venerable Interceptor I could not have dreamed of but after a year of ownership I cold no longer deny the nagging feeling within me—something wasn’t right.

I couldn’t put my finger directly upon it but I could use it to point in the right direction, I was simply not connected to the bike. Vague and abstract, perhaps, but with the Interceptor the connection had been immediate and nearly unbreakable, as if I couldn’t imagine life without that motorcycle, that sort of thing. With the new Honda I was consciously choosing not to ride on perfect days in an area that has a riding season of about three hours per year. If it’s nice out, you ride.

Finally, that nagging feeling crystallized into an obvious realization and it didn’t take much longer after that before I once again picked up the phone and checked stock on the Honda I had considered a year earlier but had passed over.

Within an hour of trading in the CBR 600RR and taking ownership of the CBR 1000RR I knew that the Interceptor had been completely and permanently replaced. A new connection had been made. Does it make any sense? Honestly, I can’t say that it does, but I know how it feels and while the two bikes are strikingly similar in terms of size, weight, and feel, the 1000RR is the one I’ll be keeping for the next twenty years. Soul. Does it have it or does it move it? For me, in the case of the motorcycles, it was both.

Now that I had some context in the real world it was easier to tackle Jon’s question as it pertained to the virtual world.

 

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Simulated Racing Car

This one was easier than I thought. So easy in fact that Jon knew the answer probably before I did—the Lister Storm that, for me anyway, made its first appearance in SimBin Development Team’s (SBDT) GTR1 racing simulator. Accompanied by gobs of hype and promises of awesomeness, SBDT’s first foray into the bright lights of the commercial marketplace held the prospect of what many of us believed to be a sim racing nirvana the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the release of Grand Prix Legends or NASCAR Racing 2003.

Sometime before the official release, the world was treated to a demo of the game featuring a Lister Storm, Morgan Aero (8), and an excellent realization of Spa Francorchamps, a demo which created quite a buzz in the sim racing community—“…the next GPL…the next NASCAR 2003…” were a small example of the murmurings from the punters as they eagerly awaited the final product.

Unfortunately, the US release of this new simulator was to occur after the European release and as a result of this I contacted my friend and Grand Prix Legends legend Frank Steinbach and before long I had in my possession a copy of the German language GTR 1. It wasn’t long and a way to convert that version to turn the German words into English words was discovered and my time with the simulator became much easier. Thanks Frank, I owe you big time.

 

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Oh dear, what a time it was.

Back to those promises and hype; GTR1 was to feature full licensing of the GTR season, all the cars, drivers, tracks, and liveries, all of it. Dynamically changing weather, the new Live Track Technology invented by SBDT to simulate the buildup of a groove on the track as time passed, and an integration with MoTeC data acquisition software so that the user could really get a handle on what the car was doing and true to life sounds for each car that raced in the FIA GT 2003 series. An impressive feature list, to say the least, but all too often screenshots and pre-release hype are the best a new game or simulator has to offer. How would the final product be received?

In my opinion, they pulled it off. Of course, the pundits were quick to arrive and proceeded to tear apart the physics and tire modeling but this was not unexpected and, to be perfectly blunt about it, it is something that happens with every sim well before something newer and more amazing comes out, a never ending loop, the raging snake that eats its tail, a snake oblivious to the fact that any sim to date has yet to model individual air molecules inside of each tire in real time not on a global scale but on an individual scale. All sixty trillion trillion trillion of them. Or however many there are. Or the individual titanium atoms in the white livery paint, or maybe it’s best to move on right about now…

Ferraris, Porsches, Vipers, Corvettes, Lotus…and that Lister Storm. I’ll give it a go in the release version and see what happens. Of course, I loved it in the release as much as I had in the demo and what began as a racing game purchase soon turned into a full blown obsession that would see the world’s worst website come in to existence as I required a place to proudly display my written exploits of my adventures in the Lister Storm.

Madness.

 

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It wasn’t long and I was preparing to tackle the 24 Hours at Spa endurance race in the Lister Storm, confident in my ability to bring victory home. I did pretty good until an errant radiator setting before the race brought it all crashing down a few real-time hours into the event but what was important was the fun I was having, GTR1 and that Lister filled sim racing gaps I didn’t realize existed for me.

A very interesting car in reality, the Lister Storm has its roots in a company founded in 1954 by Brian Lister. From those glory days of hand built cars and questionable safety, the Lister idea and design was cultivated, nurtured, refined, and, eventually, found its way to the modern day street going consumer. Granted, not a lot of Lister Storms were built for the mass market but the number was high enough to allow them to field cars in several racing series. Early efforts suffered mechanical breakdowns and learning curves more like vertical lines than actual curves but by the time the 2004 FIA GTR Championship series rolled around, the Lister Storm was a proven winner.

Much like the case with the motorcycles I spoke of earlier, there was nothing I could put my finger on. Was it the livery? The fact it had the heart of a Jaguar? The wheel being on the wrong side? The sounds of the engine and gearbox that were so accurately recreated by SBDT? Beats me, but the total package of that car in that sim, warts and all, provided for me a complete and satisfying experience and to this day when I fire up the follow up to GTR1, GTR2, I reach for the Lister Storm as my weapon of choice. I doubt I’ll get within a thousand miles of a real one in my lifetime, but the virtual model will fill in nicely.

 

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Simulated Fighter Jet

When it comes to obsession, my obsession with the Lister Storm and the GTR\GTR2 simulations was in every way a thorough one but truth be told it pales in comparison to another favorite simulated vehicle—the Lockheed Martin (formerly General Dynamics) F-16 Fighting Falcon found in what many consider to be the best military combat simulator ever created, Falcon 4.0. The culmination of over a decade of flight simulator creation experience, it was the brainchild of Gilman Louie who produced and designed the original title, F16 Fighting Falcon, with programming handled by Les Watts. Initially released in 1984 for the venerable MSX computer system and then in 1987 for the Macintosh under the title Falcon, further releases on various computing systems followed as the game gained in popularity and a loyal and dedicated fan base began to blossom.

Highly regarded by the gaming community, it also caught the attention of real pilots who flew the real jet and one such pilot, Pete Bonanni, lent his vast expertise of the multi-role military combat jet to the Falcon development team, providing crucial input on Falcon 3.0 and its successor, Falcon 4.0.

I believe it was the summer of 1992 and I was stalking around the local computer shop looking for the next computer game that I couldn’t live without when I decided to ask the owner of the shop for a recommendation. At that time I enjoyed playing space games and flight simulators but had yet to experience the Falcon series. “Give that Falcon 3.0 a try, you’ll love it.” And so I did.  He was right, I loved it.

 

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Or, rather, I loved and hated it. Back in those days, you had to perform small miracles and say the right amount of curse words in just the right order before you could free up the 604 kilobytes of (IBM PC Clone) memory that would allow the game to actually start. It was infuriating but at the time I was fairly computer savvy and if I couldn’t figure something out I knew the phone number of someone who could. I made a lot of phone calls. And I must have had fifty copies of that boot disk, just in case something happened to one. I was nearing the end of my college education at the time and it wasn’t uncommon for various drinks and assorted intoxicants to be liberally applied in the general direction of my shoe box size apartment. In fact, if memory serves, I had a copy of that disk in every room of the house and a couple buried in the yard. You can never be too careful with an MS-DOS boot disk, especially where Falcon 3.0 was concerned.

Glorious. That’s the word that comes immediately to mind. You needed a CPU with a math co-processor to unlock the ultra-super awesome flight model, how cool is that? My best friends and I played that game until the ones and zeros no longer functioned properly. Buggy, far from optimized and a real pain in the ass to get running on a good day, once running it took you into another world and in that other world you were the pilot of an F-16 Fighting Falcon, one of the most capable multi-role multi-weather military combat fighters ever conceived of and built.

 

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We would, literally, play for days on end. Some of us preferred the Instant Action portion of the game where you got into the jet and blasted enemy aircraft until you were blown out of the sky and given a score and others preferred the near-magic that was the campaign. A dynamic campaign where you, the virtual sim pilot, could actually make a difference to the outcome of the virtual war. And if you were shot down on your mission you weren’t tasked with flying it over and over, no, the campaign engine kept chugging away with or without you. It was incredible and led to a dedication and enjoyment that has lasted to this very day.

Around the end of 1998, Falcon 4.0 made its way to the masses. I recount approximately six panic attacks on the way to the software store to pick it up even though I had called them in advance to verify the existence of this Holy Grail of flight simulations, I wasn’t taking any chances. I sped, I drove like a maniac, my glory awaits! Ok, that’s a bit dramatic, even for me, medicated or not, but you know the feeling—you’ve waited for what seems like an eternity and then, before you know it, the thing is in your hands. Sort of like the last of the snow after a Michigan winter I suppose.

True to the Falcon heritage, my computer was about six generations too slow to handle the simulator at the highest graphics settings and the game was just a smidge buggy. The Bugs!! It isn’t Falcon without the bugs! I don’t know how true the rumors were, but, allegedly, Falcon 4.0 left the door with hundreds of known issues but back in those days we didn’t have the perpetual beta game model we have today. When it was time, the game was released and patched later. Provided, that is, the buggy mess didn’t alienate the clients to a large extent. Money had changed hands and it didn’t change back. If you could handle bad press, you could be a game publisher.

Of course, I kid.

 

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But this was Falcon and we would not be daunted. Pissed off, enraged, furious, sure, we would be all that, but at the end of the day that game stayed on the drive and, slowly but surely, the bugs were squashed. Not all of them, not by a stretch, but the real game killers soon became a thing of the past and we had a worthy successor to Falcon 3.0 in all ways imaginable. My life became three things at that point—work, Falcon 4.0 until my eyes shut, a pittance of sleep, work, Falcon 4.0, you get the picture. For months. It was a game experience of such depth and magnitude that I can easily state has never been repeated with any other game or simulator. I simply couldn’t stop.

And then, the unthinkable happened. Microprose, the publisher of the game, closed down the Falcon 4.0 offices and that was it, there would be no further development, and, even harder to take, no Falcon 5.0.

I know it’s just a game but devastated doesn’t do the feelings we felt any justice. How could a simulator of this magnitude and heritage no longer have a development path? No matter, though incomplete in many ways it was still the best thing going by miles and though dreams of the future were dampened the enjoyment of the present continued.

 

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I don’t remember the exact year, maybe 1999 or 2000, but I was on some obscure Falcon forum based in a country that shall remain nameless and saw something that to this day I find hard to believe. A single post with a file attached. A forum poster asking the question “Is this for real?” It was late, I had been up for days, my eyes and brain must be playing tricks on me, surely the actual source code to Falcon 4.0 had not just been let loose on an obscure forum in the strange hours after midnight, had it? As it turned out, yes, it had.

It wasn’t long after that and the development of Falcon 4.0 resumed, taken in hand by members of the community who had the talent and knowledge to dig deep into that code and fix the unfixable and, as the years went by, give us things we couldn’t have imagined in our wildest dreams including the amazing ability to control and program various avionics systems on the jet. The work done after that anonymous source code leak is the stuff of legend and to fully do it justice would take a multi-volume treatment.

It wasn’t long and multiple complete versions of Falcon 4.0 began to become available and there was even a commercial release, Falcon 4.0 Allied Force published by Graphsim Entertainment, that found its way to store shelves. As you might imagine there was a bit of drama here and there as Falcon teams formed and disbanded and before long it turned into something resembling cat herding in a dog house. Eventually the dust settled and, in my opinion, the offerings of Benchmark Sims (BMS) provided the most complete and stable Falcon experience. Keeping things in line, the installation of BMS 4.32 requires a legitimate copy of Falcon 4.0 to either be installed or available for interrogation during the BMS installation procedure.

Much like the Honda CBR 1000RR and the Lister Storm, the exact reason why I find the F-16 my deserted island choice of simulated aircraft eludes me, similar to the feelings one has shortly after waking and the dream they were having slips away from them, it’s not something I can put my finger on. Perhaps it is not realistic to proffer upon the inanimate the task of a soul, but given how we can be moved by such things as these, the soulless creations from the mind of humankind, maybe the creation is, in fact, more than the sum of its parts.

 

Bob Siimmerman

February 2015

“The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.”

Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch

Passion.  While not a necessity of life, passion is, and perhaps will always be, a necessity for living.  Through the ages the passion of those who have gone before us has vaulted us from the mundane to the remarkable.  Blind to the limitations of what is possible, our passion fuels our imaginations to such an extent that anything seems within reach. And the most beautiful and wondrous thing about passion?  It is something that anyone can possess by simply wishing it to be so.

One of my passions is photography.  And I don’t mean that I enjoy taking pictures, I mean that I enjoy everything associated with the art of photography.  From the old school Diana camera sitting on my desk to the brilliant works of Julian Calverley, the mechanics and art of photography are not something that I feel I will ever get enough of, and that suits me just fine.  While I hold no illusions that my skill will ever approach that of Calverley, there is not one doubt in my mind that my passion for the art is equal to his.

A few days ago, I was looking through some older photographs and when comparing those to more recent works, it is clear that I have, at least to some degree, achieved a higher level of skill—better composition, better control of exposure, better control of not pressing the shutter button four million times when just one time will do.  This should come as no surprise as we all know that if we keep at something, eventually, we will get better at that something, whatever it may be.  As long as we have a passion, there is no other way it can be—better we will become.

As my skill increased, so did my comfort level. I found the courage to leave my comfort zone and enter into another, less familiar area of my craft. Where once I had been spraying and praying, I was now carefully calculating the exact amount of time, to the second, for the proper amount of light to ease through a ten stop filter and fill the sensor with my latest composition.  My latest hope.

And every once in a while I got it just right.  In the process, I took pride in the fact that not too far in the past what I was doing seemed inconceivable to me.  Filters?  Exposure times of minutes, not fractions of seconds? An image from this? Impossible.  And yet, there I was, doing the same thing countless others had done before me.  Granted, my work has yet to hang next to anything really famous but my passion for what I am doing covers any gap a lack of fame might create.  I simply love doing this and that, dear friends, is far beyond enough.

Filters were a departure from the norm for me but I had certainly heard of them and seen the results of using them.  Whether it be to control a difficult exposure situation or achieve an artistic effect, filters are an important part of any photographer’s kit.  Rip Tide, an ethereal vision of a nearby creek that empties into Good Harbor Bay in Lake Michigan, was acquired with a 10 stop neutral density filter, a good tripod, and a lot of patience.

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Rip Tide

14 mm, f\10, 269 seconds, ISO-100, Formatt Hitech 10 Stop Pro IRND, Lucroit wide angle lens filter system.

I have used several filter types and systems and my favorite are the systems available from Lucroit.  About a year ago I took a detailed look at a Lucroit filter system that catered to the wide and ultra-wide angle lens family.  These lenses have radical front lens elements with integrated hoods and are difficult to use with filters, to say the least.  Unlike their less radical counterparts, it is not a simple matter of screwing on a circular filter or filter mount. One solution was to simply hold a filter in front of the lens by hand while the exposure was taking place, but when the exposure times increase to minutes instead of seconds or fractions of seconds, the handheld method quickly becomes tiresome and prone to error.

Lucroit’s solution for placing filters on the wide and ultra-wide angle lenses was elegant and the design allowed for quick and easy use in the field.  Spanish industrial engineer and founder of Lucroit, Javier Olmedo, describes the event that led him to the invention of this unique system; “It happened in an instant.  I was with some friends on a cafeteria terrace and we were taking pictures of the sunset.  I had with me the Nikon Nikkor 14-24 mm wide angle lens and my friends were quick to say that my lens doesn’t work for landscapes because I could not use filters on it.  It was then that the idea for a filter system came to me and I told them that the next time they saw me my lens will have a filter system.”

His friends quickly displayed their good natured skepticism toward the idea, but Javier, true to his word and industrious spirit, sent them a draft of his idea and the good natured humor changed to belief as they recommended to him that he have the idea patented.

“With confidence in my idea growing, I showed a working prototype to the CEO of a famous photography shop in Madrid, Fotoccasion. Impressed by the idea and invention, the CEO was willing to help.  I began further work on the system with help from other photographers who were joining the effort to refine the system.”

It wasn’t long before Javier began to receive requests for filter systems for other lenses.  “Lucroit was born with the Nikkor 14-24 mm in mind, but I was soon asked about the Canon 14 mm and the Sigma 12-24 mm lenses.  Initially, the design was a single unit but subsequent designs split apart the lens adapter and filter holder.  This allowed a user with many different lens types to purchase one filter holder and adapter rings as they saw fit.”  Soon, Javier and his team were producing threaded adapter rings which extended the system to lenses with threaded front ends.

“After twenty three prototypes, we arrived at the final system.”  Now that, my friends, is passion!

And the name?  Lucroit?  I asked his son, Lucas Olmedo, about the very interesting name; “Luc is for me (Lucas), roi is for my brother, (Mario Roi), and ‘t’ is for my grandmother, as her surname is Tejedor (Pepita Tejedor).  Combining them all together, you have Lucroit.”

As an industrial engineer, Javier has a great deal of experience solving problems of the exact nature that faced him when he solved the problem of placing a filter on a lens many felt was simply too bulky and unyielding for a decent filter solution.  His system is simple, elegant, and brilliant, a testament to his passion for the craft and unwillingness to concede that there was not a viable answer.  I have used the system for about a year now and it has taken me in creative directions I never would have thought possible.

The New System—100 mm Threaded Filter Holder System

Much has changed for Lucroit since Javier created the company in 2012 and, as photographers, this is good news for us.  The newest system from Lucroit is in many ways similar to his design for the wide angle systems—easy to use, lightweight, and feature filled.  Unlike the initial system, this one is designed exclusively for lenses that have threaded filter rings at the front element.

Fitting lens thread sizes of 49 -82 mm, this new system covers a wide range of lenses.  Whereas the filter adapter for the wide angle lenses was a friction fit, the new system screws onto the front of the lens, the adapter is snapped on, and square filters are then inserted into the filter holder slots. The filter slots come in several configurations, two and three slots for resin filters, and two slots for glass filters.

Further enhancing the utility of the system, the adapter ring is manufactured with two thread sizes—one size to fit the lens and another in the front of the ring for a screw on filter.  The second thread can be the same, or slightly larger, than the thread lens size.  In other words, you may have a 50 mm lens thread and want to use a 52 mm screw on filter, perhaps a polarizer, and then you can place square filters in the slots in front of that.  It sounds complicated, but once you see the system it makes perfect sense and opens the door wide for creative opportunities.

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The Lucroit 100 mm filter system in place on a Nikkor 70-200 mm lens.

The square filters can be 100×100 mm, 100×125 mm, or 100×150 mm, depending on the situation.  For example, the 100×100 mm filter may be a pure neutral density filter whereas the non-symmetrical sizes may be graduated neutral density filters.

Further, the system accommodates a larger, front mounted (snap on) circular polarizer option and an innovative light shield\matte box\splash guard that fits on mounts located on the sides of the main holder.  Those of you who have ever had stray light or splashing water ruin an otherwise good exposure will appreciate the matte box option. Yet another bit of innovation that is quickly becoming the hallmark of Lucroit products.

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For my field trials with this system I had the 50 mm and 67 mm adapter rings, a filter holder with three slots, a seven stop neutral density filter and a 0.9 graduated neutral density filter.  Both of the slot filters were from Hitech Formatt but the system will work with any filter that is 100 mm wide.  The fit of the filters was precise, that is, once placed in the slots there was no sliding of the filter.  Once I was acquainted with the new gear, it was time to head into the real world and put everything to the test.

 

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I hopped in the car for the very short drive to one of my favorite locations, the gentle banks of the Platte River.  We’ve had a tremendous amount of snow this winter—nearly twice the yearly average—so I was able to obtain a vantage point that usually isn’t possible in the winter unless you have a four foot ladder to stand on!  Mindful that even the most solid of snow can form pockets and send you sinking onto the very large boulders below, I took a great deal of care where I walked and where I ended up placing the tripod.  Finally, I had my spot and an image in mind.

I chose a time of day when the sun was well above the horizon as I wanted to check the light sealing properties of the system with a neutral density filter installed.  The lens of choice for this outing was the Nikkor 70-200 mm f\4.

 

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The Lucroit 100 mm filter system in use at the Platte River, Benzie County, Michigan.

Weather conditions were fairly docile with the exception of the temperature, a much less than balmy 22 F (-6 C), but there was almost no wind to speak of.  One thing that can expose the weakness of a system or piece of gear very quickly are extreme temperatures.  As an example, I used to have an aluminum tripod and while it was a pure joy to use inside or during warm temperature outings, it turned into what seemed the coldest object in the Universe as the temperature dipped below freezing.

I have gloves with me when I venture into the freezing wilderness, but I have yet to find a thin enough glove that allows me to operate camera controls, tripod controls, or slide filters around with any sort of accuracy while at the same time keeping my hands warm.  As such, I’m usually putting the gloves aside once at the location and using hand warmers in my pockets to keep my hands workable.  Even so, moving an aluminum tripod in below zero temperatures quickly becomes uncomfortable.

The freezing cold can expose the weakness of a part in ways you would not expect—plastic parts mysteriously shatter, remote trigger cables freezing solid, and tripod heads suddenly losing their ability to maintain the camera position to list a few examples I have run into.

I have yet to see any problems related to extreme cold weather temperatures while using the wide angle Lucroit system and the new threaded filter holder system was no different.  The adapter screwed on, the filter holder snapped onto that, I placed the neutral density filter into the slot closest to the lens and not one bit of drama was noted.  I acquired a few images and packed up for the day as the light was disappearing and my position on the snow above the boulders was tenuous, at best.  As sessions go it was a short one, only a few hours, but it provided me with some pleasing images and put in my mind the confidence that this new system from Lucroit has earned a permanent place in the gear bag.

Visit the Lucroit page for more information about the 100 mm Filter kit as well as other systems available. To receive a 10% discount on your purchase, enter the code BOBS10 at checkout.  Discount does not apply to the Zeiss or Raico Rosenberg kits.

http://lucroit.com/shop/en/

 

essence_WEB

Essence

f\18, 4 seconds, ISO-100, 200 mm, Formatt Hitech 7 stop Pro IRND filter, Lucroit 100 mm filter system.

Chasing the Lights

Posted: October 12, 2013 in General Photography

Chasing the Lights

In my photography career few subjects have captured my attention and efforts as profoundly as the aurora borealis have. Also known as the Northern Lights, these surreal displays of color and shape punctuate the night sky and for those lucky enough to see them, the descriptions given often include the word indescribable somewhere in the conversation. Truly, they must be seen to be believed. The easiest way to see them, of course, is to do a simple internet search and have a look at the millions, perhaps billions of photographs, videos, and time-lapse captures of the phenomena. Many photographers specialize not only in photographing the aurora but leading workshops and expeditions to see them as well. However, as with all things worth experiencing, there is a bit of work involved.

Where and When?

One of the most frequent questions I am asked about the Northern Lights is “When will they be out?” and, of course, the answer is always the same—the lights are happening all the time. The aurora are active twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year and are the result, for the most part, of a constantly streaming flow of charged particles kindly donated by the nearest star, the sun. These constant lights exist in a band known as the auroral zone which is 3-6 degrees in latitudinal extent at all longitudes and 10-20 degrees in all latitudes away from the magnetic pole as defined by the axis of the Earth’s magnetic dipole. In other words, a very thin circular-ish band that exists at the polar regions of the planet. All the time.

Now, if you are like me, this conjures up one word—cold! And, given that we are talking about the Polar Regions here, cold is probably an understatement. Long story short, if you want to pretty much guarantee a look at these lights, travel to the poles is one way to go about it. Practical? No. Fun? Even less so! But that is the reality—the lights are out all the time. However, there is this thing known as a geomagnetic storm…

Now Were Talkin’

On occasion, an event known as a geomagnetic storm will have the effect of turning a viewing of the lights from a trip to frigid hell into a relatively comfortable and memorable experience as the auroral oval expands and becomes visible at lower latitudes, changing from diffuse aurora, that is, a bland, perhaps not visible indication of the constant auroral oval to discrete aurora, when the boring band of light becomes a feature filled and dramatic display of color and shape that varies in brightness from very dim to something you can read by. We are, of course, after the discrete aurora, preferably the kind we can read by. And warmth, we are after warmth as well.

Over the years there have been many explanations for the lights, but the basic mechanism is as follows: oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the earth’s upper atmosphere are involved in collisions with charged particles that are traveling along the magnetic field lines of the earth. These collisions are of either an ionization or excitation type. In other words, the atoms collide with the high energy electrons—or, in some cases, charged variants of those very same atoms—and as they return to their ground state or the state in which they existed before being bothered by an energetic particle, light is emitted. This light, then, is what we see when we see the lights in the sky. Depending on the atom impacted, a different color light is seen. Nitrogen, for example, will emit blue or red photons, blue if it is gaining an electron after an impact, red if it is returning to the ground state after an excitation event. Oxygen is responsible for green and reddish-brown. Further, oxygen exhibits a bit of strangeness in that it can take nearly a second to emit the green light before it returns to a ground state and several minutes to emit the red light as collisions with other atoms and molecules prevent their rapid return to the ground state. For further technical reasons that involve the abundance of oxygen atoms in the upper regions of the atmosphere, the color red is rare, but not impossible.

Here, I’ll paraphrase the paraphrasing I have just done from my Wikipedia source:

Tiny things smash into slightly larger things and we see light and stuff.

There is one important thing to keep in mind here—we are, after all, dealing with light. The same kind of light that we might see at sunrise, sunset, or any other time there is light around. As such, as the intensity of the aurora changes, we need to keep on top of our camera settings so as to not end up with a bunch of completely black or completely overexposed images. If you haven’t taken the time to learn the basic manual functions of your camera, now is the time to do so—Auto mode is more likely than not going to fail miserably in these conditions and you can pretty much toss auto-focus out the window as well. And that hand held stuff you like to do? Fuggedaboutit.

ISO, shutter speed, aperture…if you want to end up with anything remotely resembling a picture of the aurora in the night time sky, you will need to get comfortable with those settings, what they mean, and how to change them rapidly. The only shortcut I know of is to let someone else take the picture!

And you know what? You got this. I guarantee it. It may involve leaving some photographic comfort zones, but if you want to go for pictures of aurora in the night sky, now’s the time to step up to the plate and hit one out of the park.

 

 

limited visibility_web

 

Zoning In On the Target

All the fancy camera knowledge, gear, and equipment in the world is meaningless if you are beneath a sky devoid of auroral activity. Just like it’s hard to take a sunset photo at midnight, it’s nearly impossible to capture images of the aurora when they aren’t around. I know, I know, these are boring and trivial details that we all could care less about but it does beg the question—how in the Sam Hill do we know when a geomagnetic storm is happening and, further, how do we know we would even be able to see them if a storm was happening? Excellent questions and I wish I had some excellent answers but all I have are good answers.

First things first. We happen to be in the midst of a solar cycle, that is, the once per eleven years or so when the sun gets all crazy and stuff on the surface with twisting magnetic field lines and stronger than usual ejections of particles that, surprisingly, lead to some rather amazing displays of the aurora, provided that they are earth directed. In other words, a gigantic solar flare that blasts off the sun on the side opposite the earth will have absolutely no impact on us. It may hit Jupiter or something, causing some auroral displays there, but we will be missed.

So…there is about eleventy gazillion dollars’ worth of equipment around the planet and in space that monitors the sun on a constant basis and when something happens on the sun, we know about it rather quickly. Be it a private astronomer taking photographs of our star or a fancy satellite in space measuring the properties of the solar wind, for example, the sun is a well understood entity. Well, much of it is well understood, much more of it remains a grand mystery.

But for us, the aurora chasers, only one thing is important—how big was the CME (coronal mass ejection) from the sun, and when will it get here? Here, you can proceed in two fashions; one, do absolutely nothing and hope your buddy tells you when the lights are out so you can leave the comfort of your home and head to a sky full of aurora, or, two, you can get your hands dirty and have a pretty good idea all by yourself of a good time to leave the couch and have a go at getting some aurora images.

We live in an amazing time as far as information is concerned. I read something a while back that informed me that I have, at my very fingertips, more information available to me at a moment’s notice than my grandparents did over the course of their entire lives. This is mind boggling, to say the least, but there is no doubt that the proliferation of the world wide web has given us access to information that those who came before us can only dream about. But all is not rainbows and Unicorns here…how, exactly, do you wade through the mass of quadrillions of bits of information and find exactly what you need? Practice, that’s how. And your favorite search engine. Mine is Google, yours might be something else, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is becoming proficient in the use of that search engine and knowing what to keep and, more importantly, what to throw away. I’ll cut to the chase here and give you two of my favorite sites for keeping an eye on when the aurora might be visible in the sky:
First, the Geophysical Institute Aurora Page.

http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/NorthAmerica

There is a lot of information there and I am not going to go into it as, for the most part, it’s self-explanatory. Take a look around the page, click on various links, look at the diagrams, and get familiar with it and if you have questions about it there are about seventy five trillion forums, Facebook groups, etc. available online that go into rather extensive detail about what you might come across on this page. I suggest you start at the FAQ on the page itself.

Second, I will go to this page as well, Soft Serve News.
http://www.softservenews.com/Aurora.htm

Again, in addition to providing predictions of when and if the lights might be out, and where they might be visible, the page is full of interesting and important information regarding the aurora.

There are, no doubt, countless others out there and there are even pages you can pay a small fee to and they will send you alerts via various electronic means such as email or text message.

I do not mean for my brevity here to be misconstrued as having no patience for those lazy folks out there but as I mentioned earlier if you want to get pictures of the aurora—or even see them—a modicum of effort is required on your part. As a lazy person myself, I am well aware of the pitfalls of missing out on all the fun due to inaction on my part.

 

noise in the woods_web

A final word—even with all of this fancy information at our fingertips and a CME headed our way as may be indicated by all of this fancy information, some hard facts remain. The lights might not show up. Or they might show up a day early. Or they might be a weak show that is barely visible. The factors involved in why this is so are numerous and certainly beyond the scope of this article, but one thing is for sure—if you are not prepared to stand outside for hours on end in the frigid cold of a middle of winter night then the aurora chase may not be for you. Believe me, I often decide that the chase is not for me! It’s sort of like chasing that perfect sunset, you never quite catch it. The aurora is like that, but magnitudes more complex because the sun sets every day, visible aurora in your area may happen a handful of times a year, if at all.

And don’t even get me started on cloudy skies during amazing aurora displays…

Getting the Shot

You’ve checked the web pages, corroborated with other sources, talked with your buddies and are all but certain that tonight is the night. The batteries are charged, the tripod is working and with you, your favorite lens is on the camera, your dressed for the weather and have your cellphone with you in case of a grizzly bear attack or some other emergency…what next? First, drive to the location where you want to take pictures. In my area, Lake Michigan is a popular spot as displays of the aurora leave beautiful reflections on the surface of the water, an interesting compositional element. You may prefer the solitude of a wooded area or secluded stream and this is fine just make sure that your spot is not impossible to navigate and, more importantly, is not so obstructed as to block out the lights!

Here is a quick tip for determining if the lights are out as they are often not visible to the naked eye. Set the ISO of your camera to around 6400 (or as high as it goes if it will not go to 6400), select a shutter speed of around 10-15 seconds, manually focus the lens to infinity—it’s that sideways ‘8’ on the lens—point the camera in a general northern direction and take a picture. See any green or other colors? If you do that probably means the lights are out! I’ll do this before I ever get out of the car and if I’m not seeing anything on the viewfinder I may remain in the friendly confines of my Subaru, checking the aurora web pages on my cellphone, repeating the quick and dirty check with the camera.

But we didn’t leave to get skunked, so, the lights are out! Now is the time to get setup for our shots. It’s good to have a flashlight handy, preferably one with a red filter over the light so as to not destroy your night vision. I use the light to set the focus to infinity, after that I rarely use it until it is time to navigate treacherous terrain or ward off evil spirits. If you can’t change you camera settings in pitch black conditions, learn how. As mentioned earlier, the intensity of the lights can change in an extremely short amount of time and those settings that were getting you perfect images a couple of seconds ago now might be generating useless and overexposed images or useless and underexposed images.

 

escalation-web

There are no hard and fast camera settings and, in general, I’ll start with the following settings and tweak them as needed:
Full manual mode

ISO-1600. I start here, but, depending on light intensity or even a certain effect I may be going for, this can be as low as 640 or as high as 25,600. If you’re just getting started, keep it simple, use and ISO that gives you satisfactory results for the conditions you find yourself in.

Shutter speed-15 second exposure

Shutter release—I have a wireless unit that I like to use but for the most part I don’t use it. Many cameras can be setup to have a slight delay after pressing the release button before the shutter trips.

Lens focused to infinity—careful here, this may very well be a temperature dependent adjustment and what works in the summer might not work in the winter. Take a shot, zoom in with the LCD controls and check sharpness. Adjust as needed.

Aperture-f\2.8. Lens dependent, but the larger the aperture, the more light will get in and you can use a shorter exposure time and\or lower ISO which helps to reduce noise in the final image. I prefer to use an ultra-wide angle lens but you can use any lens you want. But as the focal length of the lens increases, your field of view decreases, so, use the widest lens you can get your hands on to get a large patch of sky in your images.

Tripod. Don’t question it, just do it. Tripod. Use one. Period. If I see you out there without a tripod I will beat you with mine! Of course, I would never do that, but you get the point. I hope.

LCD brightness—low. If set too brightly, the LCD can fool you into thinking you got a great shot but when you get home to look you can barely see anything. I do this all the time and kick myself for it all the time. Finally I gave up and now use the Histogram. Learn how to use the histogram. It’s unlikely you’ll be getting a nice and smooth histogram all along the exposure region, but you do want more than a single spike at the far left. Read about it, learn about it, the histogram is your friend!

And…there you go. That is what I do and that is just to get started. Once you find a spot and get setup, you may find yourself under some rather dim or boring lights, perhaps a simple green band along the horizon, for example. Be vigilant, be patient. If a geomagnetic storm is on the way it is most likely going to follow its rules, not yours. That boring green band might turn into a wall of light and color in the blink of an eye, I’ve seen it more times than I can count. I have also nearly frozen solid as I waited, for hours, to see absolutely nothing. When all is said and done it boils down to a race between your tolerance for boredom—or frigid cold—and your ability to remain beneath the stars. The ‘show’ might be as short as a few minutes or as long as several hours, you simply don’t know. It can be extremely frustrating. It can also be extremely rewarding, ethereal, spiritual, an experience of a lifetime that is more than worth some temporary discomfort.

Once you get comfortable out there, change it up a bit. Lower the camera, turn it vertical, take a panorama, and move to another location! The possibilities are endless but only if the basics are well understood. I also strongly encourage you to check out the work of others who are known to have good results with the aurora, who knows, they may give you a secret or two…

I hope that I have given a decent overview of the basics of aurora photography here, and I apologize in advance for the brevity and skimming over. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions you may have and I will be more than happy to help!

Happy hunting and good luck!

Bob Simmerman

10-12-13

Supplemental Information.

Aurora Wikipedia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurora_(astronomy)

Various Northern Lights images by Yours Truly:
http://simmermanphotography.zenfolio.com/f11323828

 

Numerous Facebook groups and pages dedicated to the aurora and other extra-terrestrial phenomena.

It’s About…About.

Posted: September 10, 2013 in General Photography

First things first—a big Congratulations to Jennifer Maxey, winner of the very first copy of the new, Limited Edition print, Revival’.  Congratulations to Jennifer and a big thank you to all who participated in the giveaway.  Here is a good look at that print, it’s one of my all time favorites of Bronson Lake, the small lake just across the road from my house and a long time photographic subject of mine.

Second things, well, second—I am happy to announce that a new front end to the web page has not only been constructed with extreme skill by Aaron Carpenter of Legendary Lion Web Design, the new page is up!  During the design phase we decided to not fix what wasn’t broken, namely, the excellent display of images and, just as important, the eCommerce side of things.  Zenfolio does a fantastic job all around, but their eCommerce system is simple, effective, and, most importantly, very easy to use.  I mean, heck, if I can use it then anyone can.  And make no mistake, from time to time I will buy a print or a new product a Zenfolio partner offers as a way to keep an eye on what the clients are receiving.

I was very excited when I noticed that Zenfolio had partnered with iVoke, and it wasn’t long before I had my hands on the dial to order up a sample to check for quality control purposes.  I chose one of my favorite images from the M22 Gallery, ‘Sunset At Good Harbor Bay’, selected the White Base option for the print and ordered it up.  Stunned would be an understatement, the image looks fantastic on the metal and with the White Base option the aluminum does not show through as it would if selecting the Clear Base option, but, as with many things, that is a personal preference.  Suffice it to say, I am happy with the end product and look forward to what the fine folks at Zenfolio have in mind next…

And last things last, I updated the About section on the new web page rather extensively.  I’m not sure who reads that sort of thing but I can say, honestly, that when I visit the page of someone—or something—that I am interested in, it’s one of the first buttons I look for.  To wrap up this blog, I am including the new About section from the new web page, in its entirety, below.

Before we get to that there is one thing I must do and that is send out a huge thank you to all of you who have supported me these past few years.  It’s been tough at times, but like all things worth doing there will be those tough times.  and I simply cannot thank you all enough for giving me the boost I needed when it would have been so much easier to simply throw in the towel and call it a day.  I don’t mean to say that all of a sudden Unicorns and rainbows are flying around my yard, no, nothing like that—it is life, after all, and that just ain,t the way it goes—but it sure does make it easier knowing you got folks on your side.

Forever, I am in your spiritual debt, thank you.

**********

About

Landscape Photography

Art via photography has been a hobby of mine for the better part of my life.  From snapshots of friends to the latest modification of a motorcycle or car, there are few better ways to capture a moment for all time than a photograph.  While growing up I traveled extensively and there was always a camera nearby.  From the eerie passages of Mammoth Cave to the most secluded areas of Reelfoot Lake, I was always trying to get those memories on film and, for the most part, succeeded.  None of them hang in the Louvre but they will always have a special place in my heart and the memories invoked by simply viewing them shall forever remain priceless.

It’s been a while since I have been south of the Mason-Dixon line and for nearly twenty years Northern Michigan has been my home, and, from an artist’s standpoint, what a home it is– we have the beautiful Northern Michigan landscape to explore and enjoy. From the stunning scenery along the M22 highway to the inland lakes, rivers, and streams that Michigan is famous for, the possibilities for new discovery are endless.

Architecture and Real Estate Photography

As a young boy, I was captivated by architecture.  From building models of houses that I dreamed of bringing to reality to standing motionless and awestruck in front of iconic buildings and structures as I traveled with my family through the southern and western United States, architecture has always had a special place in my heart.

These days, I don’t have the time to build models of houses and the trips and vacations are few and far between, unfortunately.  As a compromise, I capture the essence of the structure with the camera and provide the client with truly unique and accurate images that go beyond a simple snapshot.

Gear Up

There is little doubt that having the greatest camera gear in the world will not make you a better photographer, there is also little doubt that having sub-par gear will, eventually, affect a photographer in a detrimental way, usually at the most inopportune times.  I often find myself standing in fast moving bodies of water or on the shore of a frozen beach in gale force winds and it is times like these that having gear that can take the punishment and still deliver the artists vision are a true blessing.

I take pride in my camera, lenses, tripod, and supplemental photography kit, ensuring that they are performing in top condition any time I go on location, be it the splendor of the Aurora Borealis or the handcrafted beauty of a one of a kind construction project.

My camera of choice is the Nikon D800.  Rugged, weather resistant, and boasting a sensor capable of image quality rivaling that of some medium format camera’s the Nikon D800 is an industry leading imaging device and has yet to let me down when it counted.  In the bag are a variety of lenses but my favorite, by far, is the legendary Nikkor 14-24 mm f\2.8.  Known the world over for its edge to edge sharpness and unrivaled image quality the Nikkor 14-24 mm f\2.8 is my go to lens when I absolutely positively must get the shot.

Long exposure photography is aided with filters from Hitech-Formatt and Cokin.  I am a big fan of the new Pro IRND ten-stop neutral density filter from Hitech and coupled with the ultra wide angle filter holder system from Lucroit, the Pro IRND allows for the capture of some truly stunning and ethereal imagery.

The greatest gear in the world is nothing if not stable and I can think of no other tripod system I would rather use than one from Really Right Stuff.  Lightweight, bulletproof, and able to support a whopping fifty-five pounds on top of the BH-55 LR ball head, the TVC-33S tripod from Really Right Stuff rounds out my photography arsenal in truly professional fashion.

After the Shot

I use a custom built computer coupled to an industry leading NEC wide gamut display for the post processing of my images.  Photoshop, Lightroom, and the Nik Suite of software products are vital to my workflow and ensure images of the highest quality that remain true to my vision, and, more importantly, true to the scene as it was witnessed.

My approach to the post-processing of images is the result of years of experience and constant evaluation and practice of new techniques and methods.  I prefer a realistic look to my images as I feel that it is difficult to improve on what nature so readily and freely provides—the real trick is being there at the right time, a time that, sometimes, lasts mere seconds.

Early in my digital photographic art career I did quite a bit of experimentation with combining multiple exposures of a scene and rapidly processing them using a well-known exposure blending software program.  Initially, I was quite impressed with the results as the software quickly provided a lot of ‘wow’ factor to the image.  But, as time passed, I began to take a very critical and honest look at the work I was producing with this method and was not happy with the results as they not only looked nothing like the image I was trying to capture in the first place, there was an easily apparent heavy hand to the image and it simply wasn’t for me, it was not the style I was trying to achieve and as a result I felt that I was selling myself short on not only the image quality, but on my vision as well.

As such, I have made some rather drastic changes to my post-processing workflow in recent years and I feel that the results I now achieve are far superior to my previous work and I look forward to further improving.  I feel that in order to be the best I can be a level of honesty must figure into the creative process.  We are all different and all have different preferences and styles but if we are not happy with our work then it is time for a change.

Inspiration

Thinking about this for a while I feel it might be easier writing down what isn’t an inspiration!  Briefly, some of the masters of their craft; DaVinci, Renoit, Matisse, Weston, Adams, O’Keefe, Warhol, Ferrari, Clark, Stewart…well, as I said, briefly.  Rumor has it that the internet has a word limit.

To continue, Patrick DiFruscia, Jay and Varina Patel, Colby Brown, Elia Locardi, Bobby Bong, Marc Adamus, Daniel K. Cheong, Felix Inden, Javier Olmedo, Xavier Jamonet, Steve Coleman and his list of 100 Landscape Photographers Worth Knowing…once again, this list is for all intents and purposes an endless one but these are some of the current photographers whose work is, to put it mildly, an inspiration to me. Brilliant and beautiful, their art is worthy of any wall, their vision worthy of any gaze.

A drop of dew on a blade of grass.

*****

The Final Product

Nearly three years ago, I began my first tiny steps of putting my work out there for purchase.  After some consultation and research I decided to begin my journey in this area with the fine folks at Zenfolio.  Simple to use and much cheaper than a full-blown web page designer, I have nothing but good things to say about my experience.  And their product lineup has done nothing but grow in the years I have been with them, offering everything from standard photographic paper prints to stunning images on aluminum, the product gallery is full and sure to satisfy the needs of the discerning customer.

In addition to what is offered by Zenfolio, I personally offer signed and matted images, small production run limited edition prints, and custom imagery by client request.  Please do not hesitate to contact me for any questions or concerns regarding anything product related.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you!  And I thank you for your support as well.  While it is true that I create art with a camera for little more reason than it is a passion of mine, it is an indescribable gratitude to know that others gain some enjoyment from my passion as well.

Bob Simmerman

09-09-13

I’ll often find myself at a location flooded with emotions as I take in the scene in preparation for an attempt at photographically capturing, at least partially, those emotions. A recent trip to the beach in Empire, Michigan was no exception.

The day was glorious–the sun was ablaze and the sky was abundant with beautiful clouds, puffy and plentiful, the kind you might see on a warm summer day. It was difficult to concentrate on the duties of my day job but I somehow managed, all the while making time for thoughts of a return to one of my favorite Lake Michigan locations, the Lake Michigan Beach Park at Empire. Long exposure, short exposure, low to the ground, eye level, near the creek, lighthouse in or out of the composition, my mind raced with the possibilities, but, remembering past sessions, I did my best to keep the thoughts in perspective–often it is the case that when we arrive at a scene, previous thoughts are rapidly replaced by an entirely new train of thought as we adapt to the reality that may be in direct conflict to our imaginations. And, as it turns out, this day at Empire was such a case.

The sun was still ablaze, that had not changed, but not a cloud remained in the sky! It was as if the giant weather machine known as Lake Michigan had decided that no more clouds were necessary, and, as a result of this, my arrival was met with a bit of discouragement, but that quickly turned to optimism as I adapted to the conditions, accepted the challenge, and proceeded to go to work. I walked past the Robert H. Manning memorial lighthouse and when I reached the creek that flows into the big water from South Bar lake, north of the lighthouse, I turned around and made my way back a short distance. I took a few shots of some random ice chunks and sparse driftwood, but was not happy with the composition so I walked a bit farther until I came to a very interesting ice formation on the beach. A mere remnant of the ice that dominated the shores not so long ago, it was clear that this particular chunk of ice was well on the way to disappearing forever and the scene captured my full attention beneath the rapidly setting sun.

In my mind’s eye I saw two things here–one, the very real fact that winter had yet to release its grip made all the more apparent by the quite cold temperatures and, two, the very real fact that winter, try as it might, has a limited time each year to present us with its beauty, a shelf life, if you will. I decided to capture the first image with the grip of winter in mind. Cold, windy, with the sun rapidly approaching the horizon, I chose a long exposure in an attempt to convey what I was feeling as I stood near that ice formation. Tripod secure and filter in place, I triggered the remote and for fifty-eight seconds patiently waited, hoping that I had captured at least a fraction of the feelings flowing through my mind and body as I stood on the shores of Lake Michigan. The resulting image, Shelf Life, exceeded my expectations and I could not have been happier with the result. I chose to emphasize the blue tones of the scene as I felt those conveyed how I felt, physically, as the warmth of the sun was more a thought than a reality at this point in the season.

shelf life web dist

Shelf Life

But, as I have alluded to earlier, the grip of winter was not all that I saw on this day. I also saw the hope and promise of spring, of warmer weather and new opportunities. For the next image, I chose a short exposure as I wanted to convey the motion of the waves and I concentrated on emphasizing the beautiful golden glow of the sun as it filled the horizon and caressed the edge of the ice formation, as if to say “I will be here long after you are gone…” 

seasonal conflict crop web dist

Seasonal Conflict

I did not feel the warmth of the sun that day, but I most certainly heard the promise of that warmth before it vanished below the horizon.

Bob Simmerman

Across the street from Bronson Lake

Ask any landscape photographer about the importance of filters and you might be surprised to hear the answer–for many, filters are as important as the camera or lens. Be it a polarizing filter for alleviating the harsh glare and reflections of a scene to a graduated neutral density filter designed to help even out the exposure differences of a scene–think bright sky and not as bright foreground–filters are found in any serious photography kit.

For the most part, filters are relatively easy to purchase and use. Most lenses have a threaded front ring of differing size and you simply make a visit to your local photography shop, find the filter that is compatible with the thread size of the lens, pay the vendor, and off you go. Simple. But there are some limitations that might not be readily apparent. For example, let’s say you are using the graduated neutral density filter mentioned earlier. A filter like this is perfect when you are taking a picture that has a bright sky and not quite so bright foreground, the filter has a portion designed to reduce the amount of light hitting the camera sensor or film–think of sunglasses for your camera–and this darkened region gradually fades away to a clear area that is designed to allow all of the light pass through. In other words, the dark portion evens out the brightness of the scene and makes it possible to capture the darker portions of the foreground and the brighter portions of the sky in a single frame.

However, limitations exist with this type of arrangement. For one thing, the graduation, in general, is roughly about the middle of the circular filter and if your composition involves, for example, two thirds of foreground and one third of sky then you will notice the dark areas of the graduated filter showing in your image as a very unnatural dark area, definitely not what we are looking for. Here is where the rectangular filter comes to the rescue as you can slide a rectangular filter up, or down, in the holder, perfectly aligning the graduation edge as you see fit. The following image is an example of that. I used a 0.6 graduated ND filter in a rectangular holder and, clearly, the sky is in the upper portion of the image but there is no visible dark line as I was able to slide the filter–and the darkened part–exactly where I needed to filter exactly what I wanted. Had I been using a circular filter a clearly visible darkened portion of the photograph would have been visible in the image starting at about halfway up, looking unnatural at best.

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View from the Frankfort beach northern break wall, using a Formatt Hitech 0.6 grad ND filter and Lucroit filter holder system.

This is one example where a rectangular filter solution is a good answer but there are instances where, for the most part, a circular filter will work just as well–up to a point. Take the example of a Ten Stop ND filter, this type of filter has no graduation and is, for all intents and purposes, a very dark piece of material, perhaps glass or special resin, with one design function and that is to reduce the amount of light reaching the film or sensor. You may have seen photographs of stationary elements in a scene with a sky full of dramatic streaked clouds or an ocean view with mystical, silky smooth water, giving the scene an almost ethereal look to it. Further, a Ten Stop filter, named because it literally provides ten ‘stops’ of light reduction, can allow the photographer to extend the exposure time even in relatively bright sunshine. An example might be a waterfall, river, or stream where the water appears to be smoothly flowing between the banks and through the scene creating a sense of calm throughout the image. Truly, the possibilities are endless. In the following photograph, a Ten Stop rectangular filter was used near sunset to extend the exposure time and smooth out the churning water flow over the rocks in the river and emphasize the lovely golden color as it was reflected from the surface of the water.

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‘Gold Rush’

Platte River image acquired with Formatt Hitech Pro Stop IR ten stop filter and Lucroit filter holder system.

A circular Ten Stop filter could have produced the exact same effect, however, as the aperture is ‘stopped down’, that is, less light is let into the camera and thereby increasing the depth of field, it is often the case that vignetting will occur as the edges of the circular filter ring begin to show in the image. This is relatively easy to deal with in post processing, but you do run the risk of losing some of the scene if the vignetting is extreme. Further, if you are stacking filters–one in front of the other, a common practice–the vignetting effect becomes much more pronounced. Once again, rectangular filters do not suffer to the extent circular filters do in terms of vignetting.

Even so, many photographers find circular filters to their liking over their rectangular counterparts for the simple reason that they are easy to transport and use.  The circular filters are definitely easier to use, but in the case of a Ten Stop solution it quickly becomes a pain when you are in the field and must remove the filter each time you change the composition as seeing through the viewfinder with a ten stop filter attached is difficult, at best. With the rectangular solution you simply slide the filter out of the holder, setup the shot, slide the filter back in and there you go.  True, you do have more hardware to deal with in the field—holder and filter—but once you are setup the transition from filtered to non-filtered and back to filtered image is very quick.

Simple, isn’t it?

Yes…and no. Yes in that rectangular filter holders have been around for quite some time and no in that there are lenses out there that not only don’t have a threaded front filter ring due to the radical nature of the front element they also present a difficulty in terms of even rectangular filter holder systems. For example, there is no way to screw on a filter of any type on lenses such as the Sigma 12-24 mm or the Nikon 14-24 mm ultra wide and rectangular filter systems, though available, have often fallen short of their intended goal with these and other ‘non filterable’ lenses.

As an art form, photography is not without its innovators and it wasn’t long after the problem of how to put a filter on these crazy lenses was posed that answers began to arrive. While there are currently several solutions in this review we will be dealing exclusively with the Lucroit filter holder system coupled with rectangular filters from Formatt Hitech.

Invented by a Spanish engineer who also happens to be a photographer, the Lucroit filter system is a solution for the ultra wide angle lenses that is as elegant as it is simple.  It consists of an adapter ring that slides over the lens hood of the lens and then a filter holder that snaps onto this ring.  Several adapter rings are available for several wide and ultra wide angle lenses and the neat part is that the filter holder itself fits any of the rings—no need to purchase a new holder for each adapter ring.  Simple, elegant, and functional, the Lucroit system provides a robust and easy to use solution in the ultra wide angle filter department.  The holder provides slots for up to two filters and the design is such that vignetting is practically non existent at even the smallest lens apertures.

Now you have the holder, you need some filters and this is where Formatt Hitech enters the picture.  Providing filters for practically any need, the Formatt filters are designed specifically for the Lucroit system.  Of special note is their newly released Pro Stop IR filter, a ten stop filter designed for enhanced color neutrality.

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Lucroit filter system and Formatt Hitech resin filters.

In the Field

Again we come to the part where the rubber meets the road—how does the system perform in the field?  Definitely there is more hardware to deal with as, unlike a circular filter, you aren’t going to be sliding a 165 mm filter into your pocket while composing the shot, for example, but if you are serious about your photography this is a minor issue.  Well, a minor issue as long as it isn’t too windy that is.  If you are like me, you are using both hands to adjust the tripod controls and camera while composing and focusing the image you wish to obtain and if you don’t find some way to keep that filter from blowing away, it just might blow away.  An unfortunate consequence of thin objects in the shape of a rectangle in windy conditions but a situation easily solved by simply placing the filter beneath something to prevent the effects of wind moving your valuable investment to another, less pleasing location—such as the middle of Lake Michigan!  I like to use a heavier, non scratching towel to place over the filter and then place a bit of weight on that to keep things in one place and it works just fine.

Another consideration is that once the filter is in place, there is quite a bit of surface area at the end of the lens and, again, a heavy wind can have an effect but as of yet I have not noticed any detrimental effects of strong winds once the filter—or filters—are in place such as blurred images due to tripod motion as the rectangular nature of the filter can have the effect of a sail on a boat but if you are using solid gear to support your camera (and no doubt you are, aren’t you?!) wind effects will be minimal to non-existent.

Installation of the system on the camera is a snap—the adapter ring has a friction fit and is place on the lens by carefully pressing around the ring in an even fashion until is in place.  There are notches on the ring that are specific to the particular lens being used and these notches fit into the lower parts of the integrated lens hood.

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Lucroit adapter ring installed on Nikon D800 with Nikon 14-24 mm wide angle lens.  Note adapter ring tabs and lens hood notches.

I had some initial concerns with how the adapter ring would work in differing temperature extremes given that the friction for the fit is provided by a rubber ring but I have found that even in the harshest temperatures—and by that I mean frigid cold—the system provides a firm and reliable fit.  One thing to make sure of is to have the ring fully seated on the lens as even a small amount of misalignment here will lead to vignetting after the holder is snapped on as a bit of the filter holder frame will find it’s way into the image at lower aperture openings.  Once placed properly, vignetting is nowhere to be found and the system can be left on without a filter should you wish to acquire non filtered images.

Having used both circular and rectangular filters I definitely prefer the rectangular solutions, however, care must still be taken with the rectangular filters as though the non-glass versions are not prone to breakage upon dropping, they are prone to scratching if not handled carefully.  Coming to mind is sliding them into a zippered pocket on the gear bag for quick storage, for example.  On the other hand, all too often dropping a glass filter can lead to catastrophic damage in the form of breakage and with an order wait time of up to six months for the Lee Big Stopper, for example, extreme care is the norm, nevertheless, accidents will happen and the odds of having a filter to use after that accident are greatly improved with a non glass filter such as the Formatt Hitech.

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Lucroit adapter ring, filter holder, and Formatt Hitech 0.6 grad ND filter installed on Nikon D800 with Nikon 14-24 mm lens.

Like all things that are worth doing, working with filters takes practice.  A ten stop filter has a dramatic effect on the amount of light coming through the lens, that is, it reduces it by about a factor of a thousand, a substantial amount.  Fortunately, there are handy charts available to give you a rough estimation of the proper exposure time needed given the exposure time calculated without the filter in place.  Another factor to consider is that not all ten stop filters provide an exact ten stop reduction in light.  Some may give a bit more, or a bit less, in terms of light stoppage and you will most likely have to do a bit of trial and error to determine the exact nature of your filters light reduction abilities but given today’s digital cameras and the ability to check the histogram as soon as the image is acquired, getting to terms with your particular filter is a simple matter of acquiring a few test images and adjusting the exposure time accordingly.

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‘Up’

An example of the dramatic effects that can be obtained while using long exposures.  Formatt Hitech Ten Stop filter and Lucroit filter system with Nikon D800 and Nikon 14-24 mm lens.

My experience with the Lucroit filter holder and Hitech filters has been satisfying and positive and, having tested the filter system on both the Sigma 12-24 mm and Nikon 14-24 mm lenses, the solutions offered by Lucroit and Hitech are definitely Top Shelf material and come highly recommended by this photographer.

The author wishes to thank James Baker, Executive Vice President of US Business Development for Formatt Hitech, and Lucroit for their valuable assistance with the filters and systems used in this review.

 

Bob Simmerman

Across the street from Bronson Lake