Tag Archives: Tokina 11-16

Road trip: Peak District

Road Trip, Peak District, Derbyshire, UK.

Ladybower reservoir
Ladybower reservoir

 

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Review: Cokin varicolor

A varicolor really starts to shine when you use it on seascapes.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a real Photoshop filter that screws onto the front of your camera lens and just makes color look better? If landscapes, architecture, seascapes and vehicles are your thing, there is such a filter: the varicolor polarizer.

The varicolor used to make drab dirt and ordinary foliage more interesting
The varicolor used to make drab dirt and ordinary foliage more interesting

The varicolor consists of two tinted polarizers rotated 90 degrees from each other. Thus light is colored by one or other of the two tints depending on its phase… um, that means absolutely nothing to most people, so here’s a better description:

Most landscape scenes have two types of light: direct and reflected light, such as

  • Direct light from the sky vs light that has been reflected from water
  • Direct light from the sky vs reflected light coming from the ground.
  • Reflected light coming from two very different surfaces, typically shiny vs rough.
  • Highlights and reflections vs non-highlights from the same metallic object (typically vehicles).

The varicolor filter will separate the direct and reflected sources and tint them via two different colors. The amount of tint can be varied by simply rotating the filter.

Many photographers assume a varicolor is simply a variable warming and cooling filter, and the packaging on one of the main suppliers of varicolors, Cokin, does little to kill this miss-assumption.

Cokin Packaging, showing a varicolor being used as q variable warming/cooling filter. This is not how it is usually used!
Cokin Packaging, showing a varicolor being used as q variable warming/cooling filter. This is not how it is usually used!

It is true that a varicolor filter can be used just for global warming/cooling, and can totally change the lighting.

Blue/yellow varicolor, used to turn a blue sky (left) into a magenta, orange and violet sky.
Blue/yellow varicolor, used to turn a blue sky (left) into a magenta, orange and deep blue sky.

More usually though, you make slight changes to the ambient. You are more typically not trying to tint the scene so much as tint the direct and reflected light via two complementary colors ( typically, but not always, warming and cooling) to get a visual separation between the two.

In this series of shots, the sky light is rendered bluer, and the ground and foliage yellower
In this series of shots, the sky light is rendered bluer, and the ground and foliage yellower
The cool thing about these photos is that there is almost no color correction going on: the photos pretty much looked like this from the camera live-view when I took them!
The cool thing about these photos is that there is almost no color correction going on: the photos pretty much looked like this from the camera live-view when I took them!
In this scene, the small puddles could not be seen, the ground was a uniform grey, the sky an overexposed solid white and the foliage the same shade of green throughout. All this changed when the varicolor was used, and I saw the change directly through the camera viewfinder, rather than having to do it all in post.
In this scene, the small puddles could not be seen, the ground was a uniform grey, the sky an overexposed solid white and the foliage the same shade of green throughout. All this changed when the varicolor was used, and I saw the change directly through the camera viewfinder, rather than having to do it all in post.

Buying a varicolor filter

Varicolor is an effect most suitable for wide angle lenses. There are two companies that sell wide angle varicolor filters, Singh-Ray (‘gold-n-blue’) and Cokin (P173). Hoya also do them, but in smaller sizes (typically 58mm) that are not really useful as we are nowhere near wide angle diameters.

The Singh-Ray is priced too high for most people’s pockets. The Cokin is about 1/5 the cost and very affordable, but comes as a square cassette for the Cokin P Series holder rather than a standard 77mm filter thread (such as the one I need for my Tokina 11-16mm, a lens that suits a varicolor perfectly).

A Cokin P series filter cassette (l) and the standard 77mm circular filter format (r) most non-Cokin users would prefer.
A Cokin P series filter cassette (l) and the standard 77mm circular filter format (r) most non-Cokin users would prefer.

There is a third option: make your own standard varicolor filter, using a cheap Cokin P173 and an even cheaper no-brand circular polarizer filter.

Making a standard 77mm varicolor filter

The Cokin filter cartridge is easy to open (you just prise it open with a knife at one corner enough to get your fingernails in, then open it with fingers – it opens very easily as it isn’t glued down) to reveal a much more standard looking circular 75mm glass filter body. We next need a standard 77mm CPL (circular polarizing filter) to put the varicolor glass into. It has to be a CPL filter because like a varicolor, the CPL has to be rotatable on the lens for it to work. It also has to be a non-low profile CPL, for reasons we will see next.

The Cokin cassette opens easily. It is just held together by a series of plastic plugs, no clips/glue to overcome.
The Cokin cassette opens easily. It is just held together by a series of plastic plugs, no clips/glue to overcome.

When you take the varicolor filter glass out from the Cokin cassette, the first thing you will notice is how heavy and thick it is. A standard CPL is about 1.5mm thick glass. The varicolor is three times that: 4.5mm. In other words, it is half the thickness of a standard window pane!

That makes a kind of sense: the varicolor is two CPL filters, each with its own color filter added on, so we are talking x2 CPLs which takes us up to 3mm, and then x2 color filters on top of that. The upshot of this is that you cannot use a low profile CPL filter ring: it has to be full height.

Even with a full height filter, I had problems putting the varicolor into the CPL filter ring. The varicolor is just too thick! The only way to get it to fit was to reverse the filter retaining ring as shown below. The varicolor is about 2mm smaller in diameter than a standard 77mm CPL, and you can use that space by turning the retaining ring over so it goes down further into the filter, and just enough to become fully threaded into the filter body.

Top, the difference in thickness between a standard CPL and varicolor. Bottom, For a CPL, the retaining ring is screwed well into the filter. To get a varicolor into the same ring,  you typically have to reverse the retaining ring for it to screw in fully.
Top, the difference in thickness between a standard CPL and varicolor. Bottom, For a CPL, the retaining ring is screwed well into the filter. To get a varicolor into the same ring, you typically have to reverse the retaining ring for it to screw in fully.
My completed Cokin P173 Filter in a standard 77mm thread, ready to screw into my Tokina 11-16mm ultra-wide.
My completed Cokin P173 Filter in a standard 77mm thread, ready to screw into my Tokina 11-16mm ultra-wide.

Rotating the completed filter whilst looking through it at the sky, you will see the sky tint from bluish to yellow, going through a series of pinks and magentas at the midpoint. If you have any reflected light in the scene (coming from windows, water, or highlights on pretty much anything), they will take the opposite tint to the sky. This occurs because one CPL is tinting the direct (sky) light and the other one is tinting the reflected light.

Choosing the varicolor tint pair

The secret to using a varicolor is realizing that they move your overall white balance, and you need to fix this in post, removing any introduced color cast and pulling the varicolor effect back towards something much more desirable.

As well as the P173 (blue-yellow), Cokin also do the P170 (red-green) P171 (red-blue) P172 (pink-orange) and P174 (blue-lime). The p173 varicolor is the most popular because its two colors match the white balance temperature range. I’d be tempted to start with a P173, and chances are that it’s the only one you will ever need.

The Lightroom color balance slider, showing that color temperature is a variation between cold (blue) to warm (yellow). This color range is replicated in the Cokin P173.
The Lightroom color balance slider, showing that color temperature is a variation between cold (blue) to warm (yellow). This color range is replicated in the Cokin P173.

So, using the P173, you can tint the two light transmission types (reflected, direct) in a scene so one is warmer and the other is cooler. In the photos of the wood above, the light coming from the sun is cooled via the varicolor, and the leaves and foliage are made warmer. This creates a nice contrast between the two, and the lighting and reflected light thus become more prominent than it was on the day.

Using a varicolor

Although a varicolor can be used to give a nice warm-cool color balance differential between the sky and ground, its standard textbook use is where there is water, reflecting metal, or glass.

Effects of blue-yellow varicolor on water: yellow (left), no filter (center) and blue (right). This is as shot, no photoshop. A pretty strong effect!
Effects of blue-yellow varicolor on water: yellow (left), no filter (center) and blue (right). This is as shot, no photoshop. A pretty strong effect!

The above three photos were all shot with the same P173 filter, rotated to get the leftmost and rightmost versions.

Most people don’t care for this effect. Not only is the water overly tinted, every other color is way off via an undesirable cast. The effect puts a lot of photographers off, until you realize the secret of using varicolors properly…

The secret to using a varicolor is realizing that they move your overall white balance, and you need to fix this in post, removing any introduced color cast and pulling the varicolor effect back towards something much more desirable.

Setting the white balance (in this case by clicking the Lightroom white balance selector tool on the ground below the tree trunk to set it back to its original neutral grey) will also reduce the effect of the tint.

Yellow version pulled back via white balance correction. Much more subtle!
Yellow version pulled back via white balance correction. Much more subtle!

If you are shooting landscape, a bit of white cloud or grey ground will suffice to set white balance, but more generally, you need a grey card. If you don’t have one, an almost perfect stand-in is a square of card from an unwaxed, unbleached breakfast cereal box. The inner side makes a perfect grey card for the purpose of white balance. If you expect to be in direct sunlight, get a smooth stone or a bit of fine emery cloth and sand the grey side down for about a minute so it starts to lighten slightly. I’ve tested such a piece of sanded card against a calibrated X-Rite grey card, and the resulting color balance is consistently within 1% of the calibrated (and very expensive) X-Rite!

Varicolor filters and seascapes

A varicolor really starts to shine when you use it on seascapes.

The situation where a blue-yellow varicolor absolutely excels is when you need to take a photo of the sea on an overcast or very bright day. In this case, both the sky and sea will be the same grey (or blue-white). Grey on grey isn’t a very compelling color scheme. The grey light of the sky is at a different phase to the grey coming from the sea though, so using a varicolor we can save the day by creating a color separation where there was previously only grey. In fact, in this situation, the varicolor is a requirement to getting a decent shot unless you want to do some serious post processing!

In the shot below, I used the varicolor to turn the water blue, ignoring what was happening to the sky.

Out-of camera shot, initial varicolor
Out-of camera shot, initial varicolor. Lots of color separation, but also a pink cast

We now have some color separation between the sky and sea, but white balance has been totally destroyed and we need to reset it in post. We can either select the blue of the sea as our white balance point (which will warm the entire image towards sepia, and might have been appropriate if the sun was in the sky), or the grey of the sky (which will give us a blue sea and grey sky). Both will fix the issue, but will give us a totally different look. I want a blue sea, so have clicked the sky:

Changing white balance to tone down the varicolor: (l) making the sky grey or (r) making the sea grey.
Changing white balance to tone down the varicolor: (l) making the sky grey or (r) making the sea grey.

Tweaking the image further gives us our final photo…

Finished Seacape, with proper color separation between sky and sea.
Finished Seacape, with proper color separation between sky and sea.

In the actual scene, the sky and sea were the same color, and although this final version has been processed for exposure, I have hardly altered color at all apart from the initial white balance correction and lowering yellow from the foam. I left most of the color correction to my trusty real-life Photoshop filter – the Cokin P173.

Another cool use of the P173 is when you are using HDR photography. HDR will take the varicolor tints and overdrive them, giving you a dramatic effect.

Original Shots (top) and white balance corrected for grey sky and ready for HDR (bottom)
Original Shots (top) and white balance corrected for grey sky and ready for HDR (bottom)

When shooting HDR of fast moving water, it makes sense to use a fast shooting camera. The Sony A77 does 12 frames per second. That and its fast WYSIWYG live view make it perfect for landscape HDR, especially if like me you prefer to shoot hand held.

Final photograph: Robin Hoods Bay, North Yorkshire, England.  5 exposure HDR, rendered via HDR Efex Pro. Final correction (exposure dodge/burn) via Lightroom.
Final photograph: Robin Hoods Bay, North Yorkshire, England. 5 exposure HDR, rendered via HDR Efex Pro. Final correction (exposure dodge/burn) via Lightroom.

Disadvantages of the varicolor

As mentioned earlier, the varicolor is really two tinting CPL filters. It comes as no surprise then that the varicolor has such a strong color effect as it is really two filters, each with two elements (CPL+tint).

You will have the usual negative issues of stacking what is really two filters onto a lens, the biggest one being stop loss: you lose up to two stops of light. That’s enough to kill your autofocus even on a bright sunny day. Fast f2.8 glass is pretty much a must, otherwise its down to tripod and manual focus.

Vignette is another issue, so you may need to correct for that in post.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, a varicolor is seriously thick glass: 4.5mm, which is half the thickness of a standard window pane. On the bright side, such a filter is complex, so you simply can’t get cheap knock-off versions, and there are really only two brands available (Singh-Ray and Cokin).

Conclusion

Varicolors are typically only recommended for landscapes with water, and many photographers simply dismiss them as a variable tinting filter, but they can be used for so much more once you realise that the secret to their use is fixing white balance in post. After that, they become very useful, being able to make mundane color look dramatic (and often the focus of the shot).

  • They allow you to set the warmth of reflected light coming from windows in architectural and motor vehicle shots.
  • They allow you to crank up the contrast between the light coming from the sky and the light reflected from the ground, something that can make all landscape shots look different, bringing up color and enhancing lighting.
  • They create iridescence (think ‘body of a peacock’) when you shoot close-up foliage and car bodywork, especially when you have highlights.
  • They can act like an all-in-one warming-to-cooling filter when you have flat lighting

A blue-yellow varicolor is something to try out in all use cases where you would reach for your wide angle lens. It will be a firm favourite with anyone who has one of the affordable super-wide lenses (Tokina or Sigma) but you will need to do some DIY to move the filter glass from a Cokin P series cassette to a screw in filter, or you need to hold your breath and get a Singh-Ray.

Perhaps the best thing about the varicolor is that not many photographers use them. They don’t realise the white balance trick or are off put by the two stop light loss. That makes the varicolor a less used filter than it deserves and far from being an overused effect. In fact, if you pull back the effect with white balance, nobody will guess you created the effect optically!

Notes

  1. All forest photos shot with an Olympus Stylus 1 (the varicolor was hand-held in front of the lens).
  2. All seascapes shot with a Sony Alpha A77, Tokina 11-16mm, with the varicolor modded to screw onto the Tokina as a standard 77mm filter.

Creating Classical Landscapes via digital techniques

The Japanese Garden, Tatton Park, England
The Japanese Garden, Tatton Park, England

Here in the UK, we had an Indian Summer over the last week or so. A bright, low September sun combined with the beginning of autumn foliage was something I have wanted to photograph for some time. The combination would give me the same colour palette as some of the great British landscape painters (e.g Constable’s The Hay Wain).

The photo above is the result. Click on the photo to see a larger version (1200×800).

This treatment took almost no time to create. Almost no post processing was performed other than a simple HDR pass. Here’s what I did…

Step 1: Three Photo bracket

3 Image Bracket, 0.7EV apart, shot with Sony Alpha A500
3 Image Bracket, 0.7EV apart, shot with Sony Alpha A500

The 3 photo bracket was taken using -07EV, 0EV and +0.7EV. The shot was timed close to sunset after a particulalry hot day (in fact, the hottest on record for an English September day!).  As there was so much available light, I shot hand held.

Step 2: Process the 3 photos via HDR

The key to getting the painterly texture  effect is structure (if you use HDR EFEX Pro), also known as micro contrast (if you use Photomatix).

Actual size view, showing the effect of structure
Actual size view, showing the effect of structure

I set structure to maximum to bring out the leaf textures and start making them resemble small paint daubs. To work well, the effect requires strong directional light in the original shots.

Step 3: Edit for composition in Lightroom

The 3 shotscombined into a single HDR image
The 3 shotscombined into a single HDR image

Here’s the photo after HDR. I particularly like the way that the long grass in the foreground looks realistic, but the farther away we get, the more painterly the photo becomes.  Unfortunately, There is no balance to the photo: we need to do something to add a feeling of composition.

To add balance and composition, I cropped such that the foreground grass, the lily pond, and far shore conform loosely to a horizontal rule of thirds.

Defining composition
Defining composition

That on its own was not enough though. The foreground grass was too overpowering n colour and brightness. To fix this, I darkened and slightly desaturated the lowest third of the photo via a graduated filter (graduated filters are not just for skies!).

Finally, I increased the effects of HDR structure further by sharpened the photo, removed some of the more obvious HDR Halos around the far treeline, and reduced the purple channet to zero (to get rid of any chromatic abberation around the tree line: increasing structure also increases the visibility of chromatic abberation).

Finished!

Conclusion

What I really like about this photo is that it was so quick and easy. No Photoshop, and almost no Lightroom. The whole effect was created in HDR EFEX Pro, and the entire post processing was done in about the same time it took for you to read this article. Cool!

Capturing a Ghost Tree

Whilst walking through a forest, myself and my partner game across a clearing containing a fallen dead tree.

It’s sad to see something so tall laid still on its side, but this is an important part of the forest’s life cycle. Without the felling of dead and dying trees (and the associated yearly thinning of the forest), the forest itself would weaken and fall down.

I took some pictures.

If we assume the forest itself as a living organism then the dead tree is still alive because it remains part of the forest’s ongoing lifecycle. I wanted to illustrate this in my photos. In short, I wanted to photograph a ghost tree.

The dead tree looked very striking in real life but not as striking as the ghost tree in my mind’s eye: a multi limbed leviathan. An organic whipping writhing thing slowly breaking itself apart to give itself up to the living.

Dead tree, as shot
Dead tree, as shot

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the results of my initial photography were less striking than my imaginations. My camera recorded a static green moss covered tree lost against an equally green forest.

High Dynamic Range sequence; -2EV, 0EV, +2EV
High Dynamic Range sequence; -2EV, 0EV, +2EV

Luckily, I figured I would need a lot of post-processing, so I took a series of shots 2EV apart (-2, 0, +2) to process for High Dynamic Range and/or composite for colour. As HDR images by definition contain a lot more range (both colour and tonal), they are very useful for post processing (they are much less likely to create clipping or banding, as well as maintaining textures better). Even if I didn’t end up using HDR, the use of bracketting would later allow me to pick the best exposure as a starting point for my post processing (nothing brings out exposure deficiencies in a shot faster than post processing!).

HDR output; Colour (left) and tonal (right)
HDR output; Colour (left) and tonal (right)

Back home at the computer, I created 2 HDR images; a ‘realistic’ HDR image, and a high contrast tonal HDR image (the latter being for the reasons discussed in this post).

Although neither image met the specifications of the thought in my mind, a little more thinking got me to the living moving tendrils of the ghost tree. I used the tonal (B&W) image as the final image, and colourised the tree using saturation values from the colour HDR image;

The Ghost Tree
The Ghost Tree

The organic movement and the sense of otherworldliness comes from my choice of ultra wide angle (11mm). The dead tree is separated from the rest of the forest by colour. Further, by colouring only the dead tree, my hope is that it ends up looking like the only living thing in the scene.

Click here to see a larger image of the final piece (1200×800, 1.1Mb, opens in a new browser/tab).

Conclusion

Most times, the creativity in photography is stepping over optical and digital inaccuracy to get the camera to reproduce a realistic shot. Sometimes though, you need force the camera (and yourself) to stop reproducing the scene and instead make it run with your imagination: you need to make the camera see what you see.

Notes

Tools used

  • High Dynamic range images created with HDR EFEX Pro (as a Plugin for Lightroom 3).
  • Composite created  in Photoshop CS5.
  • Camera/Lens: Sony A500, Tokina 11-16mm lens.

What colour is snow?

Winter sunset (Tokina11-16 @1/50s, f6.3)
Winter sunset (Tokina11-16 @1/50s, f6.3)

Click here for larger image (1200×800, opens in new window).

In most images snow is either white or a high neutral grey. Makes sense… snow is white, right?

Snow takes on the colour of the light shining on it. Most of the time, that colour is negligible, but at dawn and dusk (or in the shade during high sun) snow takes on definite pastel shades, usually pinks, yellows and cyans (‘baby blues’).

I often give snow a colour. The viewer mentally assumes snow is white and fails to notice the colouration. Instead, they unknowingly take in the pastel shade and assume the ambient light is that colour. The colour of this light tends to promote an emotional ambience, so our snow tinting is a quick shortcut to imply that most difficult of things; mood.

In the image, I’ve left the snow tinted cyan. Mostly to show we are in shade (we are looking up the shaded side of a short hill) , but also partly to retain a feeling of extreme cold, and partly to contrast with the oranges of the setting sun.

Until you read the paragraph above, I bet you would have sworn the snow was a neutral grey (white darkened by being in the shade), and by implication assume that the camera is in a very cold and quiet shade. Look back at the image and my trick becomes obvious; the feeling of coldness is enhanced by the implication of the local ambient being towards cyan.

I know some photographers would complain about the image, saying it looks a little unnatural to them; snow is white. I have no problem with that (and would do the same for a shot in direct high sun), but I would advise against blindly setting white point with reference to what you think should be a neutral white if the affected hue is widespread in your image and caused by natural light. Doing so may inadvertantly kill the ambient light colour. This is especially true in winter photography where although the scene  may be predominantly tonal (blacks, whites, greys, slate blues and earth browns) it is the ambient light that actually gives you colour.

Image shot with Tokina11-16, at 12mm, 1/50s f6.3, hand held and pointing down at the near-middle distance.

Post processing (using Lightroom): original snow tint retained by setting the colour temperature low (9500… for the snow to be ‘corrected’ back to white, the white point would be set to 11000). Ice tinted yellow (using adjustment brush) to differentiate it from the snow and to exaggerate the implied sky hues. Trees and foliage lightened slightly by adding exposure (again using adjustment brush). Reduced overall image exposure 1 stop to deepen colour of the sunset (from yellow to orange – this also darkens the snow, enhances the feeling of shade, and makes the snow tint a little deeper). 10% crop for aesthetics (removed sky at top to maintain a subdued overall key, cropped slightly from the right to make the fallen log point more to the centre). NB – Usually with snow, its more normal to increase the exposure by 1.5-2.0 stops rather than decrease it, because left to its own devices, a typical camera will try to make snow a grey corresponding to a 12-18% reflective grey, depending on your camera model (but usually closer to 12%, which incidentally, is why I never use a 18% grey card!), but in this shot, darker snow is ok because I want to emphasize the fact we are in shade.