When he travels the world, this photojournalist packs only essentials — including his filters

In Equipment & Technique by Sean Widker

Born and raised in Belleville, Kansas, veteran travel photojournalist Jim Richardson has covered the world for National Geographic magazines since his first story appeared in 1984. “When I captured this image, our location was 54° 24′ 55.885″N, 9° 5′ 38.520″E. So we were due west of Ballyshannon, Ireland, and the sea had turned to glass.” At the time, Jim was with a group aboard the expedition ship National Geographic Endeavor. “Most of the guests were tucking into breakfast (or still asleep) while a mere handful of us were on the foredeck marveling at our good fortune. Away to the northeast the Irish coast peeked out occasionally from behind the low cloud banks. All that was missing was a Viking longboat, fresh down from Orkney looking for loot. But those of us there on the deck were content with the glorious scene as it was.

“I know where I was because I had my GPS unit hooked up to Nikon D700. When I shot the picture it recorded the location. It’s a tool I carry all the time now and I’ll never again go out in the field without every camera connected to the circling GPS satellites. It’s a tool I can no longer live without.

“The other tools I always, always carry in my bag are a number of Singh-Ray Galen Rowell Graduated ND filters. One of the things I look for when choosing a camera bag is how they will accommodate the Singh-Rays. They have to be up front and handy. I can’t be fumbling around in odd pockets when the great light strikes.

“That’s how it was on this morning. The sun was threatening to peek out at any moment and I had no time to lose. As I remember it was a two-stop hard-step ND Grad that did the trick. (Might have been a three-stop soft-step. Sorry, I don’t take notes at moments like these. I just try to make the picture work before it goes away.)

“My intent was to make the water the main actor in this little drama. Which is much the way it looked to my eye. But I realize our brains — not our eyes — do the actual seeing and, in the process, our brains do a lot of unconscious exposure compensation. Sort of like there’s an infinite set of ND Grads working to keep the brightness extremes of the image in the visible range. Our brain does all the heavy lifting while our eyes get all the credit.

“So really, the two stops of density introduced by the ND Grad just reduced the brightness of the sky down to what it looked like to me and the other folks standing up there on the deck. Later, when we were comparing pictures, most of the guests marveled that my picture looked like what they saw while their pictures had dark water and blown out skies. ‘How come?’ they asked. ‘Because I carry around those little rectangles of half-grey optical resin,’ I answered.

“That, too, is the other point of this scene. Somebody will always say ‘Well, yes, I can do the same thing in PhotoShop or Lightroom. I just use the digital ND filter feature.’ Well, no, we can’t actually. One of two things will happen in a situation like this, and maybe both. First, without the ND grad, I will blow out the highlights around the sun to such a degree that I will end up with a large, unnatural looking white blob where the clouds ought to be. I can darken it down, but I can’t get back any of the detail in the clouds.

“Second, if I reduce my exposure to save the clouds, I’ll get very dark water. Translation: I underexposed the water. Now when I use my software to lighten up the water I’ll get noise. Probably lots of noise. And with noise I lose the beautiful, creamy smoothness that drew me to the scene in the first place. There are just a host of situations where getting the exposure right in the first place is the best route to real image quality in the end.

“The morning I captured this scene on Loch Ness was a similar situation. Only this is a panorama that I stitched together in Photoshop. Then I used the tools in Nikon Capture NX 2 to pull back some of the detail in the forested hillsides. When I’m doing that, I need all the quality in the files that I can get so that I have maximum flexibility to make the image work right. Standing on the back deck of the Lord of the Glens that morning, I was hoping I could capture an image with the breadth and depth of what I was seeing. Most likely I did this with my three-stop soft-step filter. All the frames in the pan were verticals and I used the feathering of the filter to keep from being too obvious about it.

“One side note about panoramas: Since I work for National Geographic Magazine, there is a real limit to what I can and can’t do for the magazine. In my recent story on the Hebrides Islands of Scotland, we published two stitched panoramas. But we still included a note with the caption alerting readers that they were assembled images. Just two years ago, when we ran my night panorama of the Milky Way for the Flint Hills story, we did not stitch it into a seamless pan. We left the segment lines showing. At the time we were concerned that readers might feel deceived by the stitching. The situation is evolving, but we still need to be careful what we present to our readers and how we achieve those images. That’s one reason why I generally limit my filter set to ND Grads and polarizers.

“Fog is another situation that regularly calls for a bit of filtering in my book. Certainly this scene in Polperro, Cornwall, would have lost a lot of its murky gloom without the benefit of my two-stop soft-step ND Grad. If I look at the water splashing on the rocks, I would guess that the sky at the top of the image was just as bright, in absolute terms, as those splashing waves. But if I had left it a straight exposure like that all of the mood of the images would have evaporated like the fog. Either that, or the foreground rocks would have been much, much darker with very little color. This is much closer to the image my brain was ‘developing’ than my eye was ‘seeing.’

“On another evening there in Polperro, I walked out of our cottage (the one closest to the water right there in the middle of the image) and popped over the hill to the left where I could get down to the rocky shore looking out over the English Channel.

“Here is where I called on another filter that has earned a permanent place in my bag: my Singh-Ray Mor-Slo five-stop solid ND filter. With it in place, I could easily slow down my exposure to 30 seconds for the blurred-water look I wanted. And with its thin mounting ring, I can use it on my Nikkor 12-24 f4 without any cutting into the corners. That’s important to me, since I shoot so often with wide-angle lenses. I also used an ND Grad on the sky to pull it down.

“Besides the filters I’ve already mentioned, I also carry the Daryl Benson Reverse ND Grads. Sometimes I use them as intended, to bring down the bright area along the horizon at sunset without overly darkening the upper sky. But just as often I use them because they have a subtly different transition gradation from light to dark. Sometimes they are just right for bringing down a slice of sky up towards the top of the frame when the hard-step ND Grads are too ‘sharp’ and the soft-step ND grads aren’t producing enough effect. That’s why I usually carry five or six different filters.

“I’ve been around the ND Grad game for a long time now. Seems like twenty years since I picked up my first ones and I’ve seen a lot of them come and go. What sold me on the Singh-Ray filters is the neutral grey. I mean the really, truly neutral grey. I remember getting magenta skies or green clouds with other filters. I don’t deal with that any more. I don’t have to.

“Finally let me offer this. I work alone in the field. I work out of a camera bag and I’m much like Bob Krist: I don’t want to carry everything and break my back anymore. Those days are gone. Equipment really has to earn a place in my bag. I don’t carry anything for fun. It has to produce images and earn its keep if I’m going to carry it. When I’m in the field, I’m there to work and my equipment has to work hard every day, too. I’m still carrying my Singh-Ray filters.”