Do I need graduated filters?

There’s a groundswell of opinion that the way to deal with the extremes of contrast in sunset and sunrise images in particular is to use a graduated ND filter. The principle is simple – set the filter so the darker part covers the brightest part of the image – usually the sky, and this then ‘holds back’ the light, giving a more balanced image. Sounds simple, but not so easy in practice. A tripod is essential to hold the camera still while the filter is correctly placed. That’s after you’ve worked out how strong a filter to use, and whether its a hard ‘grad’ (i.e. a quick transition from light to dark) or a soft ‘grad’ if a gentler transition is required. There’s also the small matter of carrying around the filters (up to 6 in a set) and the holder and adapters for different lenses, not to mention the cost of the filters themselves – could be £200 +.

Most decent digital cameras allow you to store the RAW image from the chip, and its generally possible to get quite a decent dynamic range by careful post processing – however with a really wide exposure range like the image below, that’s still not going to do the trick.

A very practical alternative is ‘exposure stacking’ – take one image exposed for the lighter parts of the scene (the sky here) and another exposed for the darker foreground detail. Then combine the two images in a programme like Photoshop to take the best bits of both. The image below was from images with 5 stops difference in exposure – far more than even grad filters could easily copy with, and was merged together in just a few minutes. Its a really practical way to cope with wide exposure differences – just remember to use a tripod so the 2 images correspond!


EDIT: Since writing this blog back in May 2014, I’ve actually invested in a set of grad filters. I don’t use them that often as its possible to wring a lot of detail out of Fuji RAW images, but there are times when they definitely help.

Handy bag for an X100S?

Is there ever such a thing as a perfect camera bag?  I don’t think so, and I’ve got a cupboard full of ‘nearly perfect’ bags at home to prove my point. My little Fuji X100S camera has been interesting from that perspective – its small enough to be handy for street and candid photos, but too big to go in a coat pocket. The Kata and Billingham bags I have tried for it are fair enough – adequate protection, and room for extras like batteries and filters, but somehow they are ‘awkward’ to use.  The Billingham Hadley Digital looks like a camera bag, and its not the easiest to slip the camera in and out of, and the Kata doesn’t hold the camera securely unless it’s all zipped up, so a compromise between accessibility and security.

Along came the Lowepro Streamline 150, and this is proving to be interesting – it looks like a Messenger or ‘man-bag’ but has plenty of room for the X100S, WCL converter and spare batteries etc. Crucially there is also room for a phone, keys, a notebook, and other odds and ends, so it’s a take anywhere bag that just happens to double up as a great camera bag. Brilliantly the camera just slips into its place  – secure enough anyway in its foam padding, but with the option to close the zip fastener on the front of the bag for extra safety.

Time will tell how it works out, but for now I’m happy to carry a lightweight shoulder/messenger bag with my camera safely ensconced, but available at a moment’s notice for that elusive shot.

EDIT: The bag is still going strong!  Its become my ‘carry-everywhere’ bag, and the X100S is always in it ‘ready to go’, with a fully charged battery, a spare battery and memory card, and everything set to Auto and ISO auto 3200. I’ve sold the WCL converter as I was never bothered to use it – if I want different lenses I just take my other camera. For ‘occasional’ use the camera just has a wrist strap fitted, or for longer sessions I put a neck strap on. My iPad mini fits in the bag for days out too.

EDIT:EDIT Almost a year on, and the bag is still in use! The X100S has given way to a Fuji X-E2, which with a 27mm lens is my ‘carry-everywhere’ camera. It will just about go with an 18mm lens, but too tight with a 35mm or with a grip fitted. For that I use a larger bag…