(Monolith No. 50 – NOT created with the Canon 5DSr!)
I’m on the road in Utah and Nevada with my 5DSr and I wanted to report in with some first impressions. Unfortunately I cannot post any images until I return home.
The new camera looks, feels and handles like the 5D Mk III and so I was able to get up to speed relatively quickly. That was nice. However to take full advantage of the many new features, I will have to spend some time going through the menus. As always, the number of features is overwhelming.
There are two new features that immediately caught my eye and got me excited for long exposure work, they are:
Delay After Mirror Lockup: You can set the shutter to trigger after the mirror has flipped up and settled down, making sure the vibrations are gone before the shutter opens. I have mine set to 1/2 second.
This means that mirror lockup can now be a one button press just like a regular shutter! I cannot tell you the number of times I had forgotten to turn off the old two-button mirror lockup and then pressed the shutter once thinking I was taking a picture, when I was not. This new feature will help avoid that mistake.
Bulb Timer: You can now set the length of your bulb exposure in the camera! No more using your watch (and forgetting where you started) and I can now ditch the digital kitchen timer that was always going off in my camera bag just as I was going through security.
Now let me combine these two features and show you why I think this is so great for long exposures. I can now press the shutter button once and the following occurs:
- The mirror flips up and settles down
- A half second later the shutter opens
- The shutter stays open for as long as I’ve programmed it for
- The shutter closes by itself
I can still choose to shoot with a cable release, but now if I forget to bring one, lose or break it, I can still shoot long exposures. I had this problem on Easter Island when both of my cable releases went bad and I was really in a pickle.
These new features means that I no longer “need” a remote shutter release (although I still choose to use one for convenience) but the important thing is that I’ll never be stranded like that again.
One issue Canon did not address is the light entering into the camera through the eyepiece which caused internal reflections on the left and right sides of the 5D Mk III images. I had suggested to Canon that they put a small shutter on the viewfinder that automatically triggered during long exposures…but they didn’t.
To address this I had been using a hat to cover the camera during exposure, but in wind this didn’t work too well. So I build a “flap” that mounted to the hot shoe:
Unfortunately the flap doesn’t seal well enough around my Hoodman HoodEYE eyecup and so I ended up using the hat trick again. I’ll need to work on this contraption some more.
Note: Many people point out to me that Canon provides a small viewfinder block that you can slip into the eyepiece. Unfortunately this block does not work with the Hoodman HoodEYE installed and the eyecup is required to get an accurate long exposure meter reading.
Summary: I purchased the 5DSr so that I could print my images larger and so it was an unexpected treat to find some new features that makes long exposure work easier. I like these new features very much!
I’ll not know what the images look like until I get home. I’m curious how the new 50mp sensor does with noise during long exposures since I found the Mk III to be noisier than the Mk II.
Utah Hills, Created with the Singh-Ray 15 Stop Fixed ND Filter
After years of experimentation and trying various ND filter combinations, I have assembled what I believe to be the worlds perfect ND kit. It consists of the following:
- 5 stop fixed ND filter in 82mm
- 10 stop fixed ND filter in 82mm
- 15 stop fixed ND filter in 82mm
- 20 stop fixed ND filter in 82mm
- Singh-Ray Vari-ND in 82mm
- Step up rings on each of my lenses so they all can use 82mm filters
Those of you who are shooting long daytime exposures will appreciate what this means. I can now shoot with 5, 10, 15 or 20 stops of ND without stacking two filters together or vignetting!
I am in pig heaven. Seriously.
But my perfect kit would not be complete without a Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter. This is a variable filter that gives you between 3 and 8 stops of neutral density and it works just like a polarizer: turning it one way gives you more ND and turning it the other way gives you less.
It is critically important for me to have this variable filter because it allows me to photograph dynamic subjects (eg: people or other moving objects) quickly without removing the filter to compose the image.
With fixed filters the viewfinder is so dark that I cannot compose without removing the filter. And taking filters on and off takes precious time (which I may not have when photographing people) and sometimes I accidently change the zoom or focus settings, which ruins the shot.
With the Vari-ND I can dial the filter open, compose, and then close the filter down to shoot. I can do this very quickly which is critical.
The Vari-ND filter is the one piece of equipment that allowed me to photograph the ghosts at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
If had I visited the camps armed only with my fixed ND filters, I could not have created these images.
Now some of you looking at this list of filters might be thinking: everyone has heard of a 5 and 10 stop…but a 15 and 20???
Yes! Singh-Ray offers a 5, 10 and 15 stop filter and then they built a 20 stop filter for me (which I think they’ll be offering to the public before long).
Why would I want a 20 stop filter? Because it allows me to get an 8 and 16 minute exposure in bright daylight, and now I don’t have to stack to get it! Stacking creates some serious vignetting when shooting wide, here’s a before-and-after of a two stacked filter shot to illustrate:
Being able to go from 5 to 20 stops without stacking is a huge deal for me.
I hope this doesn’t sound like a commercial for Singh-Ray because it’s not, but it is an honest plug. I’ve long depended on Singh-Ray’s filters, they are top quality and the customer service is unbeatable.
So if you’re wondering what ND filters to buy, here is the perfect combination of filters to aspire to.
P.S. Just to balance out all this technical talk, here is a favorite story of mine that puts equipment into perspective:
“A photographer went to a socialite party in New York. As he entered the front door, the host said ‘I love your pictures – they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.’
He said nothing until dinner was finished, then:
‘That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific Stove.’”
Note: I am publishing this shortly before the clock strikes 12/21/12. I do hope you are around to read it!
December 18th 2012 by Andrew S Gibson
This article is part of a series of interviews with long exposure photographers to celebrate the release of my ebook Slow. You can keep track of the interviews by clicking on the Long Exposure Photography Interviews link under Categories in the right-hand sidebar.
Cole Thompson is a fine art photographer based in Colorado in the United States. As part of the interview I asked him how, in a world where it seems that many photographers are producing similar work, it is possible to create original photography? His answer is worth reading, as it brings up one of Cole’s most interesting concepts, ‘photographic celibacy’.
How would you describe your photographic vision? What kind of look do you try and create in your photos?
I cannot describe my vision because I believe vision is intangible and indescribable. I view vision as the sum total of my life experiences. It is what makes me see the world a bit differently than another, because my experiences have been different.
I do not try to create a look or pursue a certain style in my images, I simply follow my vision. If you pursue a look, style or technique without vision, then those things are mere gimmicks and your images will lack power and conviction. I have been creating images since 1968 and so my skills would allow me to pursue many different styles or looks, but I’m only interested following my vision.
What I’ve learned is that vision must always come first and then techniques and style must flow from it. I’ve also learned that I must only create images that I love, that’s where my passion is and where my best work will come from.
Name three photographers you like and why.
Edward Weston is my photographic hero, not because of his images (although I do love them) but because of his attitudes. In my opinion Weston was a true artist and not a photographer (I draw a distinction between the two). He was independent in thought and did not care what others thought of his work. He created for himself and he had no obligation to explain his work to others.
One of my favourite stories is told by Ansel Adams on his first meeting Weston:
“After dinner, Albert (Bender) asked Edward to show his prints. They were the first work of such serious quality I had ever seen, but surprisingly I did not immediately understand or even like them; I thought them hard and mannered. Edward never gave the impression that he expected anyone to like his work. His prints were what they were. He gave no explanations; in creating them his obligation to the viewer was completed.”
In so many ways Weston has been my mentor. I re-read his Day Books every year and often read them just before I go out to create new images. His independence and obligation to self has inspired me.
Wynn Bullock. As a 14 year old boy I taught myself photography and part of what I did was to sit for hours looking at the work of photographers. Wynn Bullock was one whose work I admired and it wasn’t until years later I realised how much he and I saw alike, with both of us gravitating towards dark and contrasty images.
Ansel Adams. For many years I dreamed of being the next Ansel Adams (like millions of other young photographers). And for years I tried to imitate his look and even specific images. But then something happened to me that changed my attitude and led me on my quest to find my own vision. I was at a portfolio review and a gallery owner quickly looked at my work, brusquely pushed it back towards me and said “It looks like you’re trying to copy Ansel Adams.” I proudly told him that I was because I loved his work! He then said something that really made me mad at the time, but later opened my eyes, he said:
“Ansel has already done Ansel and you’re not going to do him better. What can you create that demonstrates your vision?”
That was the beginning of the search for my vision. I still love Ansel Adam’s work, but I no longer want to be known as the “best Ansel Adams imitator in the world.” In fact, now if someone says to me “your work reminds me of Ansel Adams” I know that I have failed to distinguish myself with my own vision.
Long exposure photography – what’s the attraction and why do you do it?
The long exposure is not something I set out to pursue nor is it a marketing strategy I chose to become known as “the guy who uses long exposures.” But rather it’s the outcome from following my vision: it’s what I love, it’s how I feel and it’s how I see the world.
About 90% of my recent work was created using long exposures. I initially started off with water, then moved to clouds and now have been creating images of people with it as well. I suspect I’ll find other areas in which to use it as well.
Why black and white – what is the appeal for you?
That is a very difficult question to answer and perhaps my artist statement says it best:
I am often asked, “Why black and white?”
I think it’s because I grew up in a black-and-white world.
Television, movies and the news were all in black and white.
My childhood heroes were in black and white and even the nation was segregated into black and white.
Perhaps my images are an extension of the world in which I grew up.
I really don’t worry too much about the “why” behind things, I simply accept them as they are. I love black and white and always have. I’ve tried dabbling in colour and I’ve seen a few colour images that I’m drawn to, but in the end I really am just a black and white guy and I’m okay with that.
I can see from your portfolio that you are widely travelled, especially within the United States. How important is the contribution of travel to developing your portfolio from an artistic point of view? How has travel helped you develop as a person?
Travel is not critical for me in terms of subject matter, I can create similar images anywhere. But in terms of concentration and freeing my mind of my daily responsibilities, it is very important to get away. I have a full time job, a large family and many professional responsibilities, and I find that it’s difficult for me to concentrate when I’m on my home turf. However when I get away I’m able to leave all those things behind me. The best thing about being away is that I’m able to focus on just one thing: creating.
So travel has become very important for me. Many of these trips are to visit my children who have been stationed around the world. We visited my Marine Corp son who was stationed in Japan, my Peace Corp son in Ukraine and Poland and next year I’ll visit a son in Russia and Croatia. I am very fortunate to have family in these places because I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to venture there without them. However next year will be a first for me as I visit Iceland by myself.
I do also travel within the United States. I go to Death Valley every January, the Oregon coast every September and I’m looking to add a third location, probably Hawaii. I like going back to the same spot each year because I can continue working on an idea, but once I’ve lost interest in that idea, I find a new location.
There are so many photographers working with long exposure photography techniques in black and white that sometimes it is hard to be original. Yet your work is very original. Can you give our readers any tips for finding an original approach to long exposure photography?
One of the side effects of the internet is that everyone quickly knows what everyone else is doing. When someone creates a new look, it seems as if overnight everyone is copying that look. I did that for many years, imitate others look, until I realised that I wanted to be more than an imitator or copycat. I want to create my own unique work and that is what I focus on, ignoring what others are doing.
I have a friend who thinks the key to success is to photograph something that nobody else has photographed before. He once told me that he had discovered something unique: frozen chickens. He said that he would always have a frozen chicken in his images (to this day I’m not certain if he was kidding or not!). In my opinion success is not about finding a subject that’s not been photographed before (I doubt there are many such things) but rather creating something unique, from your own vision.
I never focus what others are doing, I simply go down my own path. I am unaware what others are creating because I practice something that I call Photographic Celibacy. It’s the practice of not looking at or studying the work of other photographers. I do this to reduce the number of images floating about in my head and to reduce their influence on my own work. I find that when I see a great image, my first thought is “how can I do that?” Then I catch myself and remember that I do not want to imitate, but create. I’ve practicing Photographic Celibacy for five years now and it has been very helpful, but I still have some iconic images floating around in my head and when I go to the grocery store I have to admit that I still look at the bell peppers! But I’m doing better at not imitating others.
Most people who hear about this practice think I’m crazy, they believe that imitation is how we build our skills and grow creatively. I disagree, I believe imitation is harmful because it retards the development of our own vision.
Can you tell us a little about The Lone Man series? What inspired it? What are you trying to express with these images?
Like most of my series, the Lone Man was an idea that I just stumbled upon and spontaneously created. Whenever I get an idea for a new project, I write it down on a long list. However the truth is that I’ve never once used one of those ideas, all of the ideas for my portfolios have been spontaneous and just took off like a wildfire.
That’s what happened with the Lone Man series. I was in North Laguna at one of my favourite dive spots, creating long exposures of the water. It was a pretty crowded day at the beach and so people were out on the rocks looking for creatures in the tide pools. A group of people were in my shot and I was impatiently waiting for them to leave. While waiting I decided to do a test exposure so that I’d be all ready as soon as they left. After the 30 second test exposure, I noticed that one of the people had stood still for the entire 30 seconds and I recognised his body language. It was pensive, thoughtful and you could tell the man was thinking about things larger than himself.
Soon I started noticing this effect in a lot of people, they would come to the edge of the world and just stare off into the distance. I began photographing these people and the Lone Man series was born. Here is the artist statement for this series:
Something unusual happens when a person stands on the edge of the world and stares outward. They become very still and you can almost see their thoughts as they ponder things much greater than themselves:
Where did I come from?
What is my purpose?
What does it all mean?
What is beyond, the beyond?
Do I make a difference?
Is there more?
At that moment they are The Lone Man, alone with their questions and thoughts about life, the universe and beyond. People are affected by this time of meditation and they often vow to make changes in their lives. But this moment is short lived as these weighty thoughts are replaced with more immediate concerns:
Should I eat at McDonalds or Burger King and should I try that new green milkshake?
Normally I do not comment on what my images mean, sometimes because they are just beautiful images and don’t have any deeper meaning, and often because I think it’s the viewer’s job to decide what they mean. But in the case of The Lone Man, I have revealed a bit of what I’m thinking about in my artist statement. When I was creating these images I was impressed at how standing at the edge of the world causes people to ponder their smallness and their purpose in life.
So many people have asked me “how did you get those people to stand still for 30 seconds” and “did you ask them to stand still?” I didn’t have to ask people to stand still because this is just what people do! You could see them deep in thought as they stood there, often for several minutes, and pondering the “bigger questions” of life.
The last part of my artist statement is a little dig, at how little time we spend thinking about those bigger issues and how easily we are brought back to our own petty concerns; my burger wasn’t cooked right, I don’t get a good cell signal at my house, the guy in front of me is driving so slow etc. So much of what we concern ourselves with is so unimportant in the larger scheme of things.
Another series I like is Monoliths. What draws you to photographing seascapes? What’s the appeal of the giant rocks that appear in these photos?
I grew up in Southern California and spend my youth at the Huntington Beach pier, bodysurfing at lifeguard tower number 1. I spent countless hours diving Laguna, La Jolla and Catalina. The ocean was a large part of my life until I moved to Colorado in 1993. Truthfully the ocean is the only thing I miss about California and whenever I visit, I am drawn back to it.
Photographing the movement of the ocean with long exposure is just a part of my vision, it’s how I see the ocean. To photograph it with a static image, seems to me a sin!
I have always had a “thing” about Monoliths, first when I was a young boy and read Thor Heyerdahl’s “Aku-Aku, the Secret of Easter Island.” Those stone giants really captured my imagination and I wondered who created them, how and why?
Next I was fascinated with the Monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” And so when I first saw the beaches of Bandon, Oregon with their statuesque “monoliths” (sea stacks to the locals) all of my past fascinations flooded back and I knew that I would photograph them. I am certain they have been photographed a million times before, but since I don’t look at others work, I am ignorant of how others have portrayed them. Even if I were to find out that I had unknowingly created images similar to others, it would not concern me, as my images are honest creations borne from my vision.
Perhaps related is your series Ancient Stones. What is the story behind these photos? What is significant about these stones, and where did you get the idea of photographing them?
The Ancient Stones series is related to the Monoliths in sense. I was wandering about in Joshua Tree, waiting for inspiration to hit me, and nothing was happening. In response to those “dry spells” I’ll usually find a nice spot to sit for a while, clearing my mind of clutter and trying to see more clearly. As I sat there looking at those large rocks, I had some thoughts that were similar to what I was thinking when looking at the monoliths in Bandon. How long have these rocks been here, millions of years? How many men have they seen scurrying about, going here and there, building this and that, full of self importance? I wonder if “they” find all of this amusing?
That made me want to photograph “them” in a way that showed their permanence and timelessness. I hoped the long exposure helped do that, contrasting the still stones against the movement in the sky. I’ve only just started this project and so I’m not sure where it will go from here.
I believe you earn a living, or at least a part-time living, as a fine art photographer. Do you have any advice for our readers on how they can work towards achieving the same goal? What can they do from an artistic viewpoint to improve their work and a practical viewpoint to selling their work?
I have a full time job and do not earn my living from my art. Many years ago I purposely chose not to pursue photography for my living because I feared it would take the fun out of it, and I’ve never regretted that decision. I create only for the pure love of it and am proud to be an “amateur” in the truest sense: I am self taught, I create for myself and I do not earn my living from my work.
What I dislike about earning a living from your art is that it invariably involves compromises and I never want to create for others. I want to create whatever and however I want, not caring if a single person likes my work. Ironically it is that independence that brings out your best work and may bring about success. I once posted on my blog that the fastest way to earn money from your photography is to sell your equipment. There is truth in that!
Cole Thompson’s website
Cole Thompson’s blog
You can contact Cole by email at Cole@ColeThompsonPhotography.com
Here are some more of Cole’s long exposure photos:
I recently spent time in Joshua Tree National Park in California, it was the first time I had visited there since 1987 when my wife I went camping. Coincidently our trip occurred right after U2 had introduced their new album “Joshua Tree” and I remember listening to it non-stop as we sunned ourselves on the large round boulders at the park. The music and that location were positively and indelibly embedded in my memory and each time I hear those songs I am transported back in time. So it was with great nostalgia and anticipation that I returned, hoping to find inspiration at this wonderful place.
As I headed to Joshua Tree I had no idea of how others had portrayed it, nor did I care, I only hoped that I could portray it through my vision. As many of you know, I practice something that I call “Photographic Celibacy.” What this means is that I do not study the work of other photographers in an effort to see as originally and freshly as possible.
I arrived and spent some time wandering and taking it all in. One of the first things you notice about Joshua Tree are the Joshua Trees themselves; a very large and treelike species of yucca. But what eventually caught my attention were those large round boulders, the same ones that I had sunned myself on 25 years earlier. They struck me in the same way the monoliths of the Oregon coast stuck me; ancient, unmovable and eternal. I imagined them sitting there, quietly observing the puny undertakings of man as he scurried about, full of self-importance. Perhaps these ancient stones were amused or perhaps they didn’t care at all.
I decided to create these images with long exposures; using from 30 seconds and up to 6 minute exposures. I wanted to give a sense of motion that would contrast with the stones and emphasize their permanence.
To achieve these long exposures, I used my Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter and my Singh-Ray Mor-Slo 5-stop ND filter, giving me 13 stops of ND but only allowing a 30 second exposure. Because the clouds were moving slowly that day, I needed longer exposure times to create the streaking effect that I wanted. To get longer exposure times I stacked a third 10 stop ND filter which gave me a total of 23 stops of Neutral Density.
To put this into perspective, if your correct exposure was 1/2000 of a second then 23 stops of ND would allow an exposure time of 32 minutes. For these images I was using a maximum of about 21 stops of ND to achieve 6 minute exposure times.
So why did I use a variable ND filter in this situation? First let me explain what a variable ND filter is, it operates much like a polarizer allowing you to adjust how much light enters the camera; turn it one way and you get more light and turn it the other way for less light.
The advantages of the Vari-ND in this situation are twofold: first I can “open up” the filter making it brighter and easier to compose through the viewfinder (at 23 stops it’s almost impossible to see anything). Secondly, it makes setting the correct exposure easier because I can simply turn the Vari-ND filter to get the right exposure.
While stacking three filters together allows long exposure times, it also presents some interesting challenges. Three filters give you a tremendous amount of vignetting at the corners, especially with shorter focal lengths. You can overcome this either by using a longer focal length or by going with a square format and simply discarding the corners. Because I was in close quarters when photographing many of these rocks, I could not go with a longer focal length, but the square format was perfect for this series. I think the square format is very elegant and find myself using it more and more.
When I photographed these stones I had a vision of what the final image would look like, but as is often the case, inspiration can also strike later in the creative process. While processing these images I chose to darken the images down, giving them an almost night time feel, and I also blurred most of the image except where I wanted the eye to focus on. It gives the images an almost tilt-shift look.
I enjoyed finding and creating these images. My trip to Joshua Tree was both a nostalgic and creative success.
View all of the “Ancient Stones” images.