The Bridge – getting the shot with a “Big Stopper”

I promised that I would say something about taking this picture when I posted it last week.  Since then I’ve realised that it’s a much bigger task than I thought.  Exactly what aspect of it to concentrate on?

Planning? Composition? Equipment? Post-processing?

A blog covering all these topics in detail would be REALLY long and likely nobody would get to the end of it. So, I’m going to concentrate on the technical aspects of taking the shot for now.  I shall do a separate video blog about this side of it too, and then another, separate video blog about the post-processing.

I went out, in part, to test some equipment – namely a couple of nice new lenses – the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 and the Nikkor 16-35mm f/4.0. In addition, I wanted to make use of my somewhat under-utilised Lee Filters “Big Stopper”.

Setting aside my disappointment at the lack of wind and dramatic cloud, and the mess in the water, I decided to still use the Big Stopper, but take some pictures with and some without.  This would help to hide the water surface and at least show some movement in the sky and soften the contrails.

This image below shows a 1/8th second exposure, looking from a slightly different vantage point, but illustrates what the surface water looked like with a short exposure – yuk:

Itchen Bridge, Southampton
Itchen Bridge, Southampton

If you look at the water surface, it’s a mess!  This was not an attractive finish, so I was glad to have the Big Stopper with me.

The Big Stopper officially slows the shot down by 10 stops.  Or about 1024 times slower to put it another way.  In practice, I have found that it is nearer to 11 stops.  There are some particular “processes” to follow when using the Big Stopper:

  • Remove your lens hood and put on the Lee Filters filter holder mounting ring. Then add the filter holder
  • Set an aperture of at least f/8.0 or f/11.0 – whichever hits the sweet-spot for sharpness with your lens. I used f/8.0.
  • Set the ISO to 200 or 100. I used 200.
  • Compose first, without the Big Stopper in place. You won’t be able to see anything through the view-finder or the live-view once the Big Stopper is in place.
  • Take a test shot, exposing for the foreground.  The sky should over-expose.
  • Add any ND Graduated filter or polariser that you wish to use.  I used a 2-stop Hard Grad for the blog shot. This needs to be in the second or third slot, not the one nearest the lens.  Align carefully to ensure that the transition point of the filter is right for the composition. There’s nothing worse than “tan lines” showing in your carefully crafted image because the filter was wonky!
  • Take another test shot and check the histogram on your camera to make sure that the highlights and shadows are not blown out either way.
  • Focus the camera about 1/3rd the way into the shot to ensure a sharp focus throughout.
  • Switch to manual focus if you haven’t done so already
  • Insert the Big Stopper into the filter slot nearest the lens, making sure that the neoprene seal is facing the lens to avoid reflections or other light leakage.
  • Close the view-finder eyepiece or cover it – you may think your camera seals this off when you take a picture and the mirror goes up, but take my word for it, light will get in and mess things up if you don’t.
  • You now need to convert your shutter speed to allow for the extra 10 to 11 stops.  Lee Filters provide a card for converting, but I’ll show other ways of doing this in the video blog.  My shot required a shutter speed of 91.0 seconds – a full minute and a half.
  • You may wish to set mirror lock-up to reduce any risk of camera shake, but I don’t tend to bother with such a long exposure.
  • I did, however, use a remote shutter release with a Bulb setting.  Mine includes a timer that tells you how long the exposure has been so far when in Bulb mode.

So, after doing all that you’re ready to press the shutter release!

In a few days I’ll show some video I took whilst setting up the shot and post that in a separate blog with a link from this one.

Thanks for looking in and let me know if you have any technical questions.

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