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Ghosts from Last Summer – Exploring Light at High-Noon

Ghosts from Last Summer is a photographic experiment at high-noon, those hours photographers are told to stay home.

Not me, as long as I’ve Manfrotto ND filters in my bag.

The effects of long exposure in photography have always interested me, especially when associated with those hours of day photographers are told to stay home. While I understand the passion some have for the “magic hours” of photography, I much prefer to accept to be challenged by being out with the “wrong light” and end the day with some memorable photographs… at least for me, as I photograph for me, first and foremost.

To achieve the results shown here, I need filters, and that’s where the family of Neutral Density filters from Manfrotto comes to the rescue. Although long exposure has always interested, technically it wasn’t feasible, at least not with the ease and rate of success we have now, with digital cameras and a whole new generation of neutral density filters.

Creating long exposure photographs with film was always a challenge, as photographers had to deal with film’s reciprocity failure, which would make for exposures to need extra exposure time, the longer they were. It would mean working with exposure tables, one’s own notes with different emulsions and the always present notion of being working blindly. Sometimes it would take days or more to see the results and, if needed, go back to the field and reshoot images. Many times it was simply not possible.

Digital changed everything, allowing us to shoot and check the results immediately, adjusting accordingly. New cameras, with better sensors, always evolving, meant results one would never have imagined possible with film became possible. While it meant a great step forward, there was, yet, another problem to solve: many neutral density filters were not as neutral as promised, introducing a colour cast. This could be, more or less, corrected in post-processing, but there had to be, always, a compromise, or a lot of work with layers and local adjustments to get good results.

ND filters and colour cast

Throughout the years I’ve used different brands of filters, and I’ve kept away from dreaming much about long exposure, as I rather not have to deal with colour casts. The second problem with ND filters is that the darker they go, the more problems you’ve with colour casts, if there is any… and generally is! This means that if you get a color shift with a filter giving you a 3x variation in exposure, you can expect things to get even worst when you move to 6x or 9x stops.

The limitations of filters that should be neutral, but really aren’t, meant, for me, not exploring long exposures as much as I would like. I mean, really long exposures, created, not at the hours the light is low – that’s what most people do – but at high-noon. In fact, one of the things that has always interested me is to photograph during the day, at hours where there is a lot of light available, so, at least in theory, there is no need to go for a long exposure.

It’s only recently that a new generation of neutral density filters meant photographers could explore very long exposures, which is an area that I am interested in, using filters which allow you to adjust exposure, at the moment, up to 15 stops, which is absolutely crazy. I’ve worked with filters that offer neutral density that can be called really neutral, meaning they introduce density to the images, but don’t introduce any noticeable colour casts. I’ve been happy with them and more recently I was asked by Manfrotto if I wanted to try their ND’s. I accepted without hesitation, because Manfrotto’s collection offers three filters, with 3, 6 and 9 stops variation of light – or 8, 64 and 500 if you want to use the other unit used to measure them – that I could put to use on my project Ghosts from Last Summer.

Before I go deeper into the project, lets look at Manfrotto’s filters. Introduced in 2016, as part of a whole new family of filters, the Neutral Density filters from Manfrotto come in a circular shape, with different diameters, and offering, as said, 3 (ND8), 5 (ND64) and 9 (ND500) stops reduction of light. Made of optical glass with a 16 layer multi-coating with water and oil repellence for easy cleaning and sold with a protective case that helps to keep them clean and without scratches, the filters are widely used by landscape photographers… but their use goes well beyond landscape, something I will cover in a second article. For now, and because it is Summer, I wanted to center on a project that has kept me busy for some time, and which already shows a different approach to the use of ND filters.

Using NDs to create ghosts

The project Ghosts from Last Summer – Exploring Light at High-Noon, is one that has kept me busy… when I am not busy with work. Investment in these projects, that can last as long as I want them to, is always important to me, as they give me new paths to explore, and allow for a very precise testing of the potential of different tools. In this case Manfrotto’s ND filters.

I promised myself that I would sit down and write the story around the project, and the time is now. Although, I must say, I sat down for long periods of time to create the photographs that support this article. This project is related to the seaside, and it does show how the ocean looks when long exposures are used, but my aim was not to create any of those millions of “seasidescapes” people seem to associate with ND filter and long exposure. I’ve no real interest in doing just that, that’s why I introduced people.

Introducing people in the equation was, in fact, the core of my project. That’s why I call it Ghosts from Last Summer; because I photographed people by the seaside using long exposures, giving them an ethereal look that justifies my title. I’ve played with long exposures to create strange visions of people since back in the early 80s, when I returned to Portugal after a two-year period in UK for a professional course in photography and photojournalism, so being able to do it with digital and almost neutral density filters is a good thing. It wasn’t so easy then!

So, using long exposures with people moving inside the frame is one of the goals of my project, the other being to photograph at high-noon. In fact, these images are created between 11 am and 3 pm, when the sun is high in the sky and photographers are told they should stay home. Well, not me, because I love the challenge, and with a collection of filters like those from Manfrotto I can change the flow of time – that’s what this is all about, in fact – to create a different take on reality.

A project to challenge you

I am not going to bother you with technical aspects of the project, when you look at the images published here you get the general idea. There is no set rule, no right or wrong, you have to understand how the filters work, how exposure works when you “trick” the meter inside your camera, and then decide what you want to convey in your images.

For me the title says it all: I try to create the images as if we’re looking at ghosts walking the beaches during Summer. The pace at which people move, the different pace I should say, associated with the different shutter speeds used – I usually work with values from 1/8 of a second to 180 seconds, depending on what I want to achieve – makes for the creation of unique moments that show a different view of landscapes we think we have seen photographed all possible ways. Well, here is another one, with the notion that this is just a starting point, my project, and it can be adapted to so many other situations, your own project, if you dare. Just get the filters and try!

Having the three filters in your bag is essential, as it gives you the possibility to play according to your aim and the ambient light available. The freedom you have to create is – almost – only hindered by your own mind, and your knowledge – or lack of it – of how these filters work. Here, I just wanted to share the visions I created, some of them, that may all you need to try to explore the filters on your own.

Two illustrations published with this article are used as reference for whoever want to try this. One pair shows how things look different as soon as you change the exposure from a “normal” value to a long exposure. The other pair reveals the importance of choosing a framing and to stick with it for a series of photographs, while you watch the action. The remaining photos illustrate various examples, either with people playing by the seaside or how framing using static elements of the landscape helps to show the flows of people moving within the frame space.

Long exposures can be dangerous

Playing with the flow of time – after all, time is essential in photography – is my aim with this project. I like the idea of each frame being like a capsule of time, sometimes showing people moving through time at different paces. That’s what makes it so compelling to me. Now, be aware that photographing people in public places may cause you problems, like I’ve had with people coming to ask me why I am photographing them. Some will even suggest me that the scenic views are somewhere else and not where I am, and are very suspicious when I tell – or try to tell them – what I am doing. They don’t understand that I am photographing people in ways that make them look like… ghosts. Some of these encounters can feel menacing, so be prepared to defend your ground while trying to maintain things civil. Many times it is dangerous out there, when you’re a photographer, in these days when every smartphone takes pictures…

One last note, to mention the gear needed for long exposure projects. A stable tripod is a must, as you might have guessed. I trust my camera to a Manfrotto 190 tripod, but on windy days or very long exposures I will use my backpack – or a bag filled with stones or any other weight, to keep the whole system in place. Because the 190 tripod does not have a hook at the base of the center column, I use a carabiner to hang the bag from the tripod.

We’ve reached the end of this article. I hope it motivates you to get your ND filters and go out and use them. Not necessarily to create more silky ocean photographs. There are many other subjects waiting for your imagination and ND filters. But that’s something I will write about in my next article. I promise. If you need/want to know more about the technical aspects of the photographs published here, do get in touch.