For the past two years, I’ve been working on a project that combines my love for architecture and photography. Called The Fountainhead, after the Ayn Rand novel, this series features images of skyscrapers that have been dramatically distorted to give them a very modern and futuristic look. Rather than transforming these images by using Photoshop, however, I resorted to a much more ‘old-school’ technique that enabled me to visualize and capture the final images in my digital camera.
I photographed the image of each building as it was reflected from a ferrotype plate — a chrome-plated steel sheet with a near-perfect mirror surface that many photographers once used to produce a high gloss on silver printing papers like Kodabromide. This very flexible plate is similar to a funhouse mirror and by twisting it in different ways, I am able to obtain a variety of distorted reflections. Initially, I chose very fast exposures to avoid blurring caused by the ferrotype plate moving in the wind — this large 16 x 20-inch metal sheet had a tendency to act just like a sail! But the more I photographed, the more I yearned for the special look of the long exposure. So I set out to overcome the challenges involved.
I devised techniques to allow a 30-second exposure using my Vari-ND filter and stacked a Mor-Slo solid ND filter in front of it. This adds up to 13 f/stops of neutral density, which usually enables me to get a 30-second exposure in most lighting conditions.
Because the plate can move in the wind and change my composition, I must have a way of quickly rechecking the framing before I make each exposure. With solid ND filters this last-second checking step is impossible because the filters are so dark that I cannot see the image through the viewfinder. Using the Vari-ND, I can quickly rotate the filter ring to minimum density and see enough to adjust the composition, then rotate the ring to close it back down and get the shot. Before I had the Vari-ND, I’d have to screw the filter on and off to be able to see and just hope that I didn’t accidently move the camera or change the focus. Additionally, in fast-changing environments I simply cannot spare those 15-25 seconds!
While I did get some good shots with the faster exposures, the best images in this series are those with the long exposures. The resulting movement adds dynamic energy to the images.
By keeping my equipment, shooting procedures, and workflow simple, I’m able to produce images of more consistent quality. Nevertheless, I consider my Singh-Ray Vari-ND and Mor-Slo filters to be among my most indispensable tools. Without them, I could not have created many of my most prized images.