Learning how to use filters for landscape photography

The Isle of Wight is a fantastic destination for photography, knowing we were staying very near the beach I wanted to be sure I had the right tools for the job of catching some nice seascapes. I have owned a polarising filter for almost as long as I’ve owned a DSLR, but am somewhat embarrassed by how often it stays in my bag. Taking wildlife shots in challenging light means I am rarely able to sacrifice the little light I have to a polarising filter.
I have tried and failed in the past to use bracketing to capture a sunset and combine the shots later in Photoshop, so I ordered some ND grad filters to see if I could get things right in camera without having to spend my time post processing. I ended up going for a Cokin P filter kit and holder, the kit came with 3 different strengths of filter which I hoped would cover my needs. Unfortunately I made an error ordering and had to fashion a homemade holder using card and bulldog clips until the slotted holder finally arrived a few days in to the trip.

Kit List

  1. Nikon D7000
  2. Nikon 50mm f1.4G
  3. Nikon 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 VR ii
  4. Nikon MC-DC2 wired remote
  5. Tripod (my trusty Gitzo with ball head)
  6. Polarising Filter (Hoya G-Series Circular Polariser)
  7. Cokin P-Series filter holder
  8. Cokin Neutral Density Graduated Filter Kit;
    Gradual ND2 filter (P121L) with 1-stop density and hard-edged transition
    Gradual ND4 filter (P121M) with 2-stop density and hard-edged transition
    Gradual ND8 filter (P121S) with 3-stop density and soft-edged transition
  9. Tide Times

The last item on my kit list was probably the most important. We were only away for a week and I have to plan my beach photography carefully to ensure that the tide was in the right place for the sunrise or sunset images I wanted to capture. The image below was taken at 1st light after I had spent about 20 minutes deciding on the best spot to capture the sunrise from. Bembridge beach in the Isle of wight has lost of interesting features that get exposed at low tide, I was literally spoilt for choice with rock pools, moored boats and half submerged structures. I opted for a set of decaying metal structures and decided to use them to frame the sunrise.

First serious attempt at landscape photography, Bembridge Beach

Nikon D7000, Nikon 50mm f1.4G (75mm equiv.) – f13, ISO 100, 2 sec.

I used the 50mm lens to maximise sharpness on the image and then a combination of polarisong filter and two of the ND gradient filters to darken the sky. I also set the camera up to bracket +/- 0.7 EV either side of it’s matrix metered exposure. I thought I would try to do a HDR with the image to show more of foreground detail, especially the metal structures covered in seaweed that are in silhouette. Then it was a case of sit back and watch the show clicking away at my remote shutter release. I quickly worked out that by setting my D7000 up in 2 second timer mode it would take all 3 bracketed shots at once, saving me from having to keep count of my shutter presses. After processing the HDR I am still undecided as to which version I prefer.

Bembridge Beach sunrise

Nikon D7000, Nikon 50mm f1.4G (75mm equiv.) – f13, ISO 100, 2 sec.

I have to admit the polarising filter was having limited impact on the image, it was reducing some of the shine on the foreground pebbles and making the sky show a little more detail, but I don’t think the image would have been enormously different without it.

Next up was a sunset shot a a slightly more challenging venue. I had seen some lovely pictures of Bembridge Harbour taken at low tide with boats glistening in still reflective pools. Unfortunately the only time I could get to the harbour for photography was shortly after high tide. This made for a different feel to my image and also meant I struggled to find any foreground interest for my composition. I did walk along the beach looking for inspiration ultimately settling for the view below. It took me a while to work out the best settings for the camera here. The boats were moving around quite a bit so I had to find a good balance between shutter speed, aperture and ISO. I chose my kit lens for the wide angle although I was limited by how wide I could use the lens due to all the filters stacked on it, I found anything much wider than 31mm started to vignette. Just one ND gradient filter this time (the ND4), I used the polariser again and had to over expose by +0.7 EV to bring out some suggestion of detail in the boats as I didn’t want them completely black

Nikon D7000

Nikon D7000, Nikon 18-55 f3.5-5.6 VR ii at 30mm (45mm equiv) – f9, ISO 250, 1/80 sec.

Finally a bit of a different image. In between these two images we took a trip out to Alum Bay. This is where the famous Isle of Wight coloured sands come from. The day was a little overcast with with plenty of cloud cover, a trip out on the boat was an essential part of our visit and a really great photo opportunity. The image below was captured from a moving boat using a Sony RX100 handheld. A polarising filter was essential to add some colour to the scene, it also had a pleasing effect on the sands adding a little contrast between the different colours. The final touch was to use googles Nik Collection to extract some detail and really add impact to the image in post processing.

Alum Bay

Sony DSC-RX100, ISO-125 f/8, 1/125 sec. Taken at 10mm (28mm equiv.)