Focus On Singh-Ray Filters

Thierry Hennet documents the colorful salt formations of Danakil Depression in Ethiopia's Rift Valley

Swiss biologist and nature photographer Thierry Hennet picked a very special place to visit in Africa recently. "The Danakil depression in North East Ethiopia is much like California's Death Valley, just deadlier. Both places are shaped by the earth's tectonic plates drifting apart. They feature salt flats and sand dunes, their lowest points are below sea level and they are extremely hot. Because of the torrid temperatures, Danakil is best visited in winter when heat seldom exceeds the 40°C (100°F) mark. Like Death Valley, the Danakil depression hosts impressive scenes that make it a favorite destination for photographers.

"Whereas Death Valley has no permanent residents, Danakil is the home of the Afar people, who live by rudimentary herding and by trading salt cut into rectangular slabs from the salt flats by Lake Assale. The salt then travels into the Ethiopian highlands by an almost continuous procession of camel caravans. The photo above captures the choreography of this salt trading industry as precisely orchestrated beginning with the arrival of the camel caravans to the small village of Ahmedela every evening.

"At dawn, the caravans leave Ahmedala and proceed to the salt flats. The view of the endless lines of camels on the salt flats is truly mesmerizing. In this image, my 3-stop soft-step ND Grad helped darken the sky while maintaining a bright line just over the horizon, thereby providing a strong contrast with the dark silhouettes of the caravan. I kept changing between my soft-step and hard-step Graduated ND filters while on the salt flats. With the rising sun low on the horizon, these amazing filters enabled me to achieve a wide range of effects.

"On the salt extraction sites the caravans meet the local workers, the salt breakers called 'Focolo' and the salt cutters, the 'Hadalimera,' who prepare square salt plates of exactly 7 kg (15.4 pounds). These men deserve great respect as they work using rudimentary tools under the burning sun and without eye protection against the blinding light. After loading their camels with salt plates, the caravan leaders head back to the highlands to deliver their precious load.

"After this day of photography, I was quite impressed by how well the Singh-Ray Graduated ND filters helped retain the vivid colors throughout my images, as clearly seen by the radiant sunburst. However, at this point of the journey I had not yet discovered a very different application for my 3-stop hard-step ND Grad during my visit to the next landmark of Danakil.

"The drift of the tectonic plates have turned the Danakil depression into one of the most active volcanic areas on earth. The local volcano Erta Ale even features one of the few worldwide active lava lakes in its crater. The view of this lava lake at night is absolutely breathtaking, but the extreme lighting conditions make it quite a challenge to properly expose. To capture both the incandescent lava in the foreground and the night sky, I rotated my 3-stop hard-step ND Grad by 180-degrees -- upside down -- to reduce the light intensity of the lava lake as shown on the image above. The 30-second exposure at f5.6 provided a way to highlight both the incandescent walls of the crater and the burning smoke against the dark blue sky. Unfortunately, the overhanging and unstable rim of the crater made any effort to capture of the whole lava lake risky. I certainly did not want to repeat Gollum’s fall.

"Whereas Erta Ale offers an exclusive spectacle, there's another volcano in Danakil that shines with a unique natural phenomenon. The volcano Dallol is located close to the border with Eritrea, meaning that the area is only accessible under military escort. To make Dallol even more intimidating, the site was awarded the world record of the highest average annual temperature by reaching 34°C (94°F). In spite of all this apparent hostility, the unearthly view of Dallol made my visit so exciting I immediately forgot the extreme heat and the reigning strong smell of sulfur gases. The surreal colors and the fantastic shapes found in the crater of Dallol gave the impression I was on another planet. The hot springs constantly transport minerals and salt to the surface, yielding saturated yellow and orange structures surrounding green ponds of sulfuric acid.

"To emphasize the saturated colors and to minimize the light reflection on the acid pools, I used the Singh-Ray LB Neutral Polarizer throughout my stay on Dallol. The following image shows how the Polarizer revealed the sulfur veins in the acid pools, thus giving an almost organic impression to the scene. The image was taken with a 16-35mm ZA zoom lens set to its 16mm focal length with an exposure of 1/125 at f/8.

"The next image was taken at Dallol using the same LB Neutral Polarizer again to underline the color saturation and the gradation of green tones found in the acid pools. This image was taken at noon under bright sunlight. The Polarizer managed to reduce the glare and reflections of the bright sunlight while maintaining the sharpness of all the details.

"Based on current predictions, the Danakil depression will be flooded by the Red Sea in a few millions years. This is definitively a good reason to pay a visit to Ethiopia before these unique landmarks become the floor of a new sea. If you do make the trip, remember to take your Singh-Ray filters!"

You can see more remarkable images from Thierry's Ethopia adventure here, along with many more images from his other travels. You can also keep up with him via his website.

On Thierry Hennet's recent trip to Iceland, his Singh-Ray Filters solved a wide variety of challenges

When Thierry Hennet was young, he loved to browse through the family's photo albums. "Over time, this reinforced more memories from my childhood than I otherwise would have. Now that I am a professional biologist, family man and amateur photographer in Zurich, Switzerland, I love taking pictures because they remind me of the eager anticipation I felt at the moment I released the shutter. For me, nice pictures bring back nice memories.

"My last trip to Iceland several weeks ago is a good example. Iceland richly deserves its reputation as the perfect playground for landscape photographers. To capture its magnificent textures and vibrant colors, I made sure to bring along all my Singh-Ray filters. The filters take very little space, they're light in weight and they turned out to be extremely valuable. My filter kit includes hard- and soft-step ND grad filters, the LB Neutral Polarizer, the Vari-ND filter and the Gold-N-Blue polarizer.

"The ever-changing weather and strong winds are the main challenges to deal with when photographing Icelandic landscapes. Often, rain and sunshine alternate at a fast pace, thereby increasing the haze and muting the rich colors of the landscapes. In such conditions, the LB Polarizer is simply magical at restoring the tones of Icelandic earth and vegetation. I especially appreciate this filter's excellent optical quality and its impressive light-transmission that allows me to maintain high shutter speeds at apertures between f/8 to f/11. The amazing properties of my LB Polarizer saved the day several times during the trip.

"For example, I captured the image at the top of this story during a hike to the Bláhnjúkur mountain (Blue Peak in English) in the Landmannalaugar. The strong wind made taking pictures quite challenging, even using a sturdy tripod. The LB Polarizer enabled the selection of short exposure times while saturating the natural colors and increasing the contrast of the beautiful rhyolite formations of the Landmannalaugar. This picture was taken close to the top of Bláhnjúkur. It is a stitched image of five frames captured with my Sony a900 using a Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70 F2.8 zoom set at 50 mm. Even with the LB Polarizer on the lens, I managed to freeze the scenery at 1/320 second at f/8 with the ISO set at 400. The polarizer perfectly neutralized the morning haze, thereby rendering the rich tones of this Icelandic landmark. The LB Polarizer nicely complements the sharpness of the Zeiss lens and I am always impressed by the amount of information recorded when examining images at 100% magnification. On the original size of this panorama view, several hikers can be spotted near the opposite ridge on their way to the Hrafntinnusker hut.

"Waiting for the right moment is not always possible under harsh weather conditions, especially when standing at the bottom of a rushing waterfall fully exposed to strong winds. While visiting the Svartifoss waterfall in the Skaftafell National Park, I wanted to render the water as white streaks falling on the sharp hexagonal rocks at the base of the waterfall. Svartifoss is flanked by high basalt columns, which break off to the bottom of the cliff as nearly perfect hexagonal prisms. Being so close to the waterfall required extreme water protection for the camera and quick handling to avoid being soaked to the bone. I used a preset f-stop of f/8 at ISO 200 on my Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70 F2.8 zoom set at 70 mm and used the Vari-ND variable density filter to achieve the best effect in the shortest time possible. This image was taken at 1/13 second with the neutral density set at 5 stops. The truly amazing Vari-ND filter allowed me to test several exposure times in rapid sequence. I could not have imagined switching solid ND-filters and tuning the shutter speeds under that kind of shower. Overall, I was surprised how often I used the Vari-ND filter on my trip to add slow-motion effects while capturing waterfalls or breaking waves on coastlines.

"For the end of my stay in Iceland, I did not want to miss the glacier lagoon of Jökulsárlón, where dozens of icebergs float towards the sea. The view is impressive in itself but even before my arrival, I was imagining how my Gold-N-Blue Polarizer could enhance the scene. Jökulsárlón is a recent appearance, which is caused by the melting Breidamerkurjokull glacier. Before 1950, the glacier almost reached to the sea. Breidamerkurjokull now recedes by 200 meters per year and calves large blocks of ice, which drift as icebergs on the lagoon. The icebergs of Jökulsárlón feature beautiful white and blue tones with bands of black lava sands. Their slow motion on the lagoon looks like a hypnotic ballet, which mesmerize any spectator. Jökulsárlón is one of the few places on earth where everyone becomes a photographer.

"This picture shows a typical view of Jökulsárlón captured with the Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70 F2.8 zoom set at 50 mm without using the Gold-N-Blue Polarizer. To maintain a broad depth of field, the photo was taken at f/18 and ISO 200. The composite image above illustrates how the mood can be transformed using the Gold-N-Blue. As discussed in several previous stories on this blog, it's important that the white balance be adjusted either prior to shooting -- by creating a custom white balance in the camera -- or during post-processing. If you plan to adjust the white balance in post-production, be sure to shoot in RAW format when using the Gold-N-Blue polarizer. Software such as Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture allow me to change the white balance easily and achieve the desired effect with very little tweaking.

"For this image, I used the Gold-N-Blue polarizer to increase the blue tones of the glacial water and enhance the impression of cold. At some places, the turbid water of the lagoon was loaded with sediments, of which the brown-gold tones could be underlined using the Gold-N-Blue polarizer. The Gold-N-Blue filter is definitely a powerful tool in any filter kit. The filter's color effects, however, need to be carefully controlled to achieve the best result. In any case, this filter is definitively an ideal tool to achieve a personal expression of a photographic subject.

"I am still processing the photographs I made in Iceland. I do not try to rush through this task, because playing with my digital darkroom pleasantly extends my experience of this magnificent country. I will return to Iceland and my Singh-Ray filters will certainly come along, too."

Thierry has recently begun to build an impressive gallery of images on both his website and his Flickr stream. Be sure to watch for new photos to be posted regularly.