Running into a scene that’s got everything except good light, Time for Plan B

In Equipment & Technique, Landscapes, ND Filters, Polarizing Filters, Scenes & Scenarios by Jeff Bartelt

I often find wonderful compositions that prompt me to set up my camera and then wait for better light. And then wait some more. Sometimes it’s the weather that isn’t quite right, but just as often it’s the color or quality of the light that isn’t working for me. Every serious photographer has experienced the frustration of spending a lot of time and treasure pursuing an exciting image that’s just not happening the way we visualized it. Or maybe we’ve just come upon the perfect composition but it’s the wrong time of day and we may never visit this spot again. What can we do when we have only a few minutes to get it right? I go to Plan B.

If you’ve done landscape photography long enough, you know this scenario is more the norm than the exception. It comes with the territory. But we’ve also learned through experience that in order to maximize our potential, we have to be willing to adapt and overcome. When I’m pressed to get the best image I can, but the light won’t fully cooperate, there is one piece of equipment I rely on to go the extra mile for me; my Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue Polarizer. It’s almost magical how this little filter can take otherwise drab and lackluster light and make it sing. This is especially true with ‘golden hour’ light.

I had the opportunity to put this special filter to work again this past May on a trip to the Lake Superior North Shore. We had only 4 days to photograph and while the weather was fantastic, there was not much in the way of colorful natural light. I’m a golden-hour photographer and I’m crazy about color, therefore I decided it was time for Plan B. Time to see what the Gold-N-Blue could do.

I’ve been coming to the North Shore for many years and one of the most iconic symbols of this area is Split Rock Lighthouse. Now an historical site and state park, this lighthouse was built in 1910 and remained operational until 1969. It has become a symbol of Lake Superior and is probably one of the most photographed structures in the upper Midwest. For this reason it’s difficult to create unique compositions and great light becomes even more valuable.

“When I captured the image above, it was about 4 hours before sunset. This meant it was not textbook ‘golden hour’ and the sun was still fairly high in the sky. There was a hint of color but not nearly enough to satisfy my vision of the scene. Worse yet, on this trip, we were just passing through so there wasn’t time to wait for better light.

This image shows what the scene looked like straight out of the camera without using any filter. You can see a little color starting in the sky. The shadows, while not as long as at sunset, still show some contrast. There is also a bit of glare on the water and some all-around harshness in the scene. Overall though, it’s a beautiful composition just begging to be captured. It just needs some help with the lighting. Adding my Gold-N-Blue polarizer, I set it to produce more ‘gold’ tone but not enough to overpower the blues. I also wanted to smooth out the water and clouds to add a touch of serenity I always feel when visiting this spot, so I added a Singh-Ray Vari-ND (coupled with a Mor-Slo 5-stop ND filter) which combined to give me a 2-minute exposure. The result was the image seen at the top of this story. The Gold-N-Blue not only tamed the reflections and harshness, but it intensified the hint of color that was already there. The ‘gold’ magic from the filter effectively creates the ‘golden hour’ feel to the image at the top of this story. The slow shutter speed added the extra touch so it has a soft pastel quality. Thanks to the Gold-N-Blue, I was able to walk away from a rather dull afternoon with a keeper.

This experience repeated itself during the entire trip. The pair of images above again show how this wonder filter can transform the feel of a composition.

And what do we do when the inevitable happens? We arrived at the water’s edge in Grand Marais, MN, at about 4 pm to find generally harsh lighting conditions — and there’s no possibility of returning when it’s better. While the Gold-N-Blue can’t change the direction of the shadows, it can reduce some of the harshness and pull out a bit of those golden hour hues. The filter was again set with a mid ‘gold’ setting that still allowed the blue to come through. The result? An otherwise lifeless photo was given some real punch.

While it may be tempting to start thinking that the Gold-N-Blue can replace quality light altogether, a filter is only as good as the light it has to work with.A colorless scene will most likely not be a candidate for salvage, but quite honestly, if you are looking to bump up that golden hour feel in a less-than-perfect lighting situation, the Gold-N-Blue is a great option to have.

Photography has both a mechanical and an artistic side. It’s this combination that drew my interest and continues to hold it to this day. My concentration on lanscape photography is driven by its inherit unpredictability. Every shoot is different as you never know exactly what to expect. Creating a composition and then waiting for the weather, the colors, and the mood to be just right is an exciting challenge. Anticipating the possibilities makes the challenge irresistible, especially when I’ve got my Singh-Ray filters at my side.