How bad do you want it?

Though this is a blog about photography, “how bad do you want it” is a question that applies to just about anything and everything, but I digress…

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Austin, Texas under a clear starry night. This shot made it all worth it.

You may be thinking, Jason, what the hell are you talking about… well. “How bad do you want it” is a question I ask myself just about every Friday before my head hits the pillow. For those of you who don’t know, much like many many other landscape photographers, I have an “adult” job. Not adult like an adult film star or anything, but a full-time job that has nothing to do with photography.

After working over 40 hours a week, at times away from my lovely wife and all the comforts of home for several days, there is nothing more I would rather do than sleep in, relax and marathon Walter White as he Breaks Bad. So,  I have to ask myself, “how bad do you want it“? And for me, “it” is that one banger shot that makes you smile when it pops up on the back of the camera after hearing the shutter click. It could be vivid colors of the Milkey Way arching over Enchanted Rock or a beautiful smile beneath piercing eyes in dramatic black & white.

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The beautiful Austin, Texas skyline from the boardwalk along Lake LBJ.

Being a photographer in a digital world is, in many ways, so much easier than it was when I started shooting film. In an instant after freezing time, you can know if you captured your vision. The leaps in technology have, for sure, brought with it benefits that I can’t imagine living without. However… with all those wonderful leaps forward there is bound to be an equal and opposite reaction, according to some guy that goes by the name Issac.

Social media is without a doubt a huge part of what I do as a photographer, as it is with just about every business these days. It is still possible to do well without social media, but when you can reach 100K plus people with one banger image, well,  that’s a large audience and you would have to be a little crazy to pass that up. But,  with social media, there is a constant pressure to produce great content. That could be a single image, a video, tutorial, or a blog post like this one. And, contrary to what some people think, pumping out content and posts that will actually catch the attention of an audience is a large dedication of time not to mention a lot of work.

My office for the night

One Friday night, a few weeks ago, after a very busy week at my “real” job, I had to ask myself “how bad do you want it“? The weather forecast that night called for zero clouds, which can be great if you’re into shooting nightscapes like I am. It also called for temperatures in the upper 30’s. I know what you’re thinking, upper 30’s isn’t cold. Well if you live in Central Texas and are going to be standing lakeside on a breezy night, its cold.

For several weeks that I had been waiting for a clear night on a weekend so I could get what I hoped would be Star Trails above the Austin, Texas skyline. But that meant waking up at 3:30am, driving for over an hour, walking for about a mile with 38 pounds of camera equipment on my back, just to stand in 39° temperatures for several hours. Gotta want it pretty bad to go through all of that after the week I had.

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This is a combination of 24, 2-minute exposures. There are very faint star trails in the upper right corner showing the rotation of the earth.

So it was cold… really cold… But I think I mentioned that. My fingertips and toes were numb and the filters I was trying to use kept getting condensation on them, which really sucked because it ruined the shot I wanted so much. Originally I had a grand plan of making a video out of the trip with some great aerial B-role as the sun broke the horizon and illuminated downtown Austin. Though I did piece together the video below, there isn’t any epic drone. I couldn’t feel my fingers by the time the sun started to rise. Sometimes things just don’t go as planned. But, the video doesn’t do it justice and I loved every minute of it.

So, that brings us full circle. How bad do you want it? What are you willing to do to get the thing you want most? Next time you think you would rather sleep in or not get out and make it happen, ask yourself that.

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What elevates your Landscape Photography?

It seems that there is always something new coming out to make taking pictures easier or better. Some are amazing leaps forward that can simplify your workflow and others that are just gimmicky waists of money.

After making a few disappointing purchases, a Facebook friend sent me a message asking if there was something I have purchased that stood out and really made a difference in my landscape photography. That is a tough one to answer because everything I use adds something in one way or another to my particular style and how I shoot. But, I can say there was something that immediately improved my images many years ago that I still use today, filters

camera photography lens colors

And no, I’m not talking about the Instagram or Facebook filters you may be familiar with. There are a lot of different filters that do many different things to change the final look of an image, but the basic way they are all used is the same. Filters are somewhat translucent materials that affect the wavelengths and/or color of light that hits the camera sensor or film. There are color filters that block specific light waves, some are used for special effects causing a foggy look in a scene, and others add another dimension to the image.

For me and my style of landscape photography, there are really just a two that I use on a regular basis. One is a larger category of its own, and I probably use in 75% of my photography, the Neutral Density filter. An “ND” filter reduces or modifies the intensity of all wavelengths and colors of light equally, giving no changes in hue of color. So its similar to potting on sunglasses.

One of my favorite ways to take advantage of this is when shooting landscapes with motion, like water and clouds. Let’s say you are shooting a river scene and would like to soften the white water as it passes over rocks, but your proper exposure calls for a shutter speed of 1/60 second, which wouldn’t give that softness. You can either tighten your aperture, possibly affecting your depth of field and sharpness, Or use a 6 stop ND filter allowing you to have a shutter speed of 1 second and achieving that soft velvety look.

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The Roy B. Inks Bridge in Llano, Texas / 16mm, 45 seconds exposure at f/11, ISO 50

Another type of ND filter is the Graduated ND. These filters transition from clear on one side to the ND tint on the other and are used for balancing an exposure rather than modifying the entire scene. For instance, say you are shooting a sunset and your foreground is somewhat dark because of the fading light, but the sky is bright and filled with highlights due to the angle of the sun on the atmosphere. Normally taking this shot would either cause the sky to be too bright and blown out losing all detail in the clouds, or the foreground would be dark and silhouetted.

By using a 3 stop Graduated ND filter you can adjust the horizon line with the tint line on the filter, allowing you to use a longer shutter speed to capture both the detail in the foreground and properly expose for the sky allowing all the beautiful colors of the sunset to come alive.

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Canyon Lake, Texas / 16mm, 6 seconds exposure at f/22, ISO 50

The other filter I use most of the time is a circular polarizer. A polarizing filter is often placed in front of the camera lens in order to darken skies, manage reflections, or suppress glare. I have gone through how I use this in an older blog, How Did You Do That?

Using a filter is pretty simple. There are 2 main types of filters, round screw on filters and square drop-in filters. Which one is best is a decision that I think is up to the photographer and what they prefer. Personally, I use the LeeFilters 100mm drop-in system, for 2 reasons. First, for quality and affordability, I don’t think you can beat the LeeFilters filters. And second, using the drop-in system allows me to have one set of filters that can be used on all my lenses rather than buying a screw-on filter for each of the different millimeter sizes of my lenses.

If you are interested, below is a list of all the filters I use with links.

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Lee Filters Foundation Kit / Filter Holder
Lee Filters 105mm Slim Landscape Polarizer 
Lee Filters Little Stopper 6-Stop Neutral Density Filter
Lee Filters Big Stopper 10-Stop Neutral Density Filter
Lee Filters Supper Stopper 15-Stop Neutral Density Filter
Lee Filters 2 Stop Medium Edge Graduated Neutral Density
Lee Filters 3 Stop Medium Edge Graduated Neutral Density
Lee Filters 1 stop Soft-Edge Graduated Neutral Density 
Lee Filters 2 stop Soft-Edge Graduated Neutral Density 
Lee Filters 3 stop Soft-Edge Graduated Neutral Density
NiSi 100mm Natural Night Filter
Lee Lens Cap Pack 3

How did you do that?

Over the past few months, several people have messaged me on Instagram and the book of faces asking how I get the water in a lot of my shots to be so clear and colorful. Well, this seemed like a great time to pass along a little of what I have learned over the years.

Canyon Lake Sunrise-23

First I will answer the most common question I am asked on this subject, No, I didn’t use photoshop to paint in colors and detail. As you can see in the image above, the water in the foreground is very vibrant and clear. You can see the rocks and details under the water, and it looks almost a tropical color.

As much as I would like to say I have some secret skill or a magic wand that creates this look, It’s really much more simple that most people think. So in the majority of my outdoor landscape images, I use a filter that is called a Circular Polarizer. Here is a little of the science behind the filter.


The light that reflected off of a non-metallic surface becomes polarized. This effect is strongest at angles about 56° from the lens. A polarizer rotated to pass only light polarized in the direction perpendicular to the reflected light will absorb a lot of it. This allows glare reflected from water to be reduced.

So to simplify that, as you are looking through a lens with a Circular Polarizer attached, if you turn the polarizer you will notice the glare reduction and in some cases, disappear. There are 2 images below that illustrate this.

 

Both images are with the same settings, with a circular polarized and have the same post-processing adjustments. The image on the right is un-polarized and as you would see if there were no filter on the lens. The image on the left is the polarized image after turning the polarized about a half turn. You can see the difference mainly in the reflections off the water. The polarized image has very little reflection which allows you to see the detail under the water. In addition to the detail, you can see more of the color through the water.

For this image, I actually went with a semi-polarized shot because the contract created by the reflections improved the overall look. That’s just my opinion though.

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There are a variety of Circular Polarizers on the market from a number of manufacturers. After using several different types, I am now using the LeeFilters system. They have wonderful clarity in the glass and the system is easy to use. If you are interested in learning more, there is a link HERE.

Hopefully, this has helped answer some of the questions you may have about photography. There are always new techniques and products coming out, I am learning more and more every day. Let me know if there is something more you would like to know and I will see about getting an answer for you.