Always keen to try out something new.. I jumped at the chance to experiment with Astro-Photography. Canon hosted another experience day billed as Landscape, Light Painting and Astro, With special host David Noton A well known and established UK based landscape Photographer.
The location was Durlston Country Park, a 1.13 square km country park and nature reserve stretching along the south coast of the Isle of Purbeck near Swanage in Dorset, England. I was still struggling with a Sinus Infection, but was not going to let that get in the way. No Man Flu here.
However, en-route is Corfe Castle, a fortification standing above the village of the same name on the Isle of Purbeck. One of Britain's most iconic and evocative survivors of the English Civil War, partially demolished in 1646 by the Parliamentarians. I couldn't help but pull over for a few shots..
The actual event kicked off with coffee and cake, followed by a presentation by David Noton on his approaches to landscape Photography and how it has evolved. A very interesting spread of different types of landscape, from traditional scenery/sunsets, to increasingly more urban work. This seems to be a common trend amongst photographers the world over.
A rep from Lee Filters was available with a selection of their Filter Kits for trial... I have been very frustrated with my cheap £15 'Amazon' kit that has been plagued with a nasty Purple Color Cast that has proved nigh on impossible to fix in Post. Hence I was very keen to compare with a decent professional set. I quickly bagged a set of Stoppers (6,10 and 15) and Grads (Hard, Medium, Soft). These were the 100mm System which I now understood was perfectly adequate for my 6D (and similar) kits.
The first thing I immediately noticed was how 'well made' the bracket was compared with my previous plasticky Amazon kit. The 'cheapo' kit fit's by sliding over the mounting ring but requires you to bend it quite severely to push it over a retaining 'catch'. The Lee system has a far more sophisticated metal spring-loaded catch that makes flipping the filter holder on and off the camera a breeze, even with filters attached.
The rep had some very interesting advice... which was to avoid purchasing the 'Starter'/'Deluxe' kits and instead pick and choose the specific filters that you know you want to use. This will save you paying more money and having a bunch of filters amongst your pack that you never actually use. This seems counter-intuitive for a Sales Rep to say, but certainly gave me confidence that this business (interestingly now owned by Panavision) was serious about treating it's customer's with respect.
A complete set of 3 ND's GRADS can be purchased for £245 (possibly £200 if you look around). Individually around from £86-£100. Overall, these are not cheap, so need to take care of them. You'll be pulling these in and out of your bag and sliding it on and off your camera so good chance of them getting damaged. They do offer a pouch to individually store all your lee filters inside, this was makes it very easy to identifying and pull out the right filter quickly when you needed it. Also, the pouch is designed to protect you filters when travelling, it's been known for Filters to scratch or even crack if left in the camera bag loose, or attached to the camera itself.
It also seems that the days of Major Filter shortages was over... around a year or so ago, there were 9months lead times on their filters due to problems with supply and manufacturing throughput. These issues have been resolved.
Also interesting to note that every Lee filter is individually dipped in it's resin to create the relevant GRAD. They’re tested afterwards to ensure consistency, of course, but every one is lowered into the dye and held there by a human factory worker, not a machine. Apparently, this is to ensure the smoothest most natural transition between the clear and darkened parts of a graduated ND filter:
So armed and loaded, onwards we head to the Victorian Durlston Castle which forms the Visitor Centre to the national Park. A wonderful building with endless maze like corridors and staircases. Just down from the castle there are various paths clinging to the side of Jurassic cliff sides, affording fabulous views of the English Channel to the South, the Isle Of White to the East, Old Harry' Chalk rocks Cliffs to the North, and the Anvil Point Lighthouse to the west. A fantastic location with multiple options for photography shoots and styles.
Finding a perch on the path with a clear view of the lighthouse, I tried a bunch of experiments. The sun was slowly setting, which also meant that the lighting was constantly changing - not ideal when trying out various different long exposure timing.
I concentrated on 2 things, firstly was balancing the top and bottom halves of the image using the Graduated filters. It's very difficult to use the Soft GRAD - the blend is so broad that it's awkward to line up effectively. I found the HARD and MEDIUM Grads more useful. Here's my favourite shot of the night. Taken with a Medium GRAD, and a 6 STOP ND. The quick release mechanism of the Lee System proved invaluable as I was rapidly swapping grads in and out as the sun was setting. I suspect that I was changing grads more often than I would for a regular shoot, but I wanted to try all the kit. Very pleased with the smooth gradient across the horizon. Plus a bonus of catching the passing birds.
Very little post processing in these images at all, just a slight colour balance tweak. The long focal length of the telephoto lens does a great job of compressing the image, and bringing the buildings boldly into the frame.
[1/30s, f8, ISO400, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM @200mm, Lee Medium ND GRAD]
The other aspect I tried to concentrate on was to smooth out the waves using a Long exposure to create a more restful image. I struggled here, partly due to time (the session was coming to a close) combined with the long exposure time required, each attempt took 80+ seconds. My tripod was a MeFoto RoadTrip Compact which was not ideal for such long exposure times on a windy coastline.
[84s, f7.1, ISO400, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM @75mm, Lee Medium ND GRA, Lee 10 Stop Big Stopper]
If I could go back, I would certainly try getting lower down the coastline and try using the stoppers to frame the waves splashing on the rocks in the foreground. I would also take my industrial strength Manfrotto Tripod with it's Pistol grip head (all 4Kg of it !) to ensure a rock solid base for the Long Exposures.
Look out for part 2 where we wait for the sun to set and try getting some shots of the Milky Way !!