Choosing a Neutral Density Filter

Neutral Density filters block light from the camera sensor.  There are many Neutral Density (ND) filters of varying strength which block anywhere from 2 stops to 15 stops of light. In landscape photography, we use ND filters to reduce the light coming into our camera sensor so that we can slow down the shutter speed for creative effect. The ND filters that I always carry in my bag are 6 stop, 10 stop and 15 stop filters from Breakthrough Photography. The one that I need at any given time depends on the light of the scene, the subject I am photographing and the creative effect I am envisioning in my frame. 

1 second exposure in Oahu using a 6 stop Neutral Density Filter from Breakthrough Photography

1 second exposure in Oahu using a 6 stop Neutral Density Filter from Breakthrough Photography

6 Stop Filter 

A 6 stop filter is perfect for a number of situations where you want to reduce your shutter speed in the .4 second to 5 second range.  I use my 6 stop filter when I want to create abstract photos of water or trees by using a panning technique. The 6 stop filter is perfect for photographing waves and water when I don’t want to freeze the motion but I want to keep some shape, texture and detail in the water. This is a technique I love to use at the ocean, lakes or rivers. It is also perfect for smoothing the water of waterfalls to create a soft flow. The longer exposures of 5-10 seconds will create a very smooth effect while less than 5 seconds leaves a little more texture in the water.  In very low light, the 6 stop can allow an exposure of 10 seconds or more, but in brighter light, the 10 stop will be needed. 

.4 second exposure with a 6 stop Neutral Density Filter

.4 second exposure with a 6 stop Neutral Density Filter

1 second exposure capturing the movement of the waves of Lake Michigan using the 6 stop Neutral Density filter

1 second exposure capturing the movement of the waves of Lake Michigan using the 6 stop Neutral Density filter

1 second exposure panning the autumn color in Grand Teton National Park using a 6 stop Neutral Density Filter

1 second exposure panning the autumn color in Grand Teton National Park using a 6 stop Neutral Density Filter

Shutter Painting at Crystal Cove State Park using a 6 stop Neutral Density Filter

Shutter Painting at Crystal Cove State Park using a 6 stop Neutral Density Filter

1.6 second exposure with a 6 stop Neutral Density Filter

1.6 second exposure with a 6 stop Neutral Density Filter

The 10 stop is my go to filter for exposures 15 seconds and longer. In daylight, the 10 stop is needed for these creative long exposures of water or clouds. Imagine those super smooth waters and wispy clouds. Those are when I pull out my 10 stop filter. 

2 minute exposure during sunset with a 10 stop Neutral Density Filter

2 minute exposure during sunset with a 10 stop Neutral Density Filter

3 minute exposure during very early sunrise with a 10 stop Neutral Density Filter

3 minute exposure during very early sunrise with a 10 stop Neutral Density Filter

30 second exposure at Oxbow Bend with a 10 stop Neutral Density Filter

30 second exposure at Oxbow Bend with a 10 stop Neutral Density Filter

The 15 stop filter is the filter I need for creating dynamic wispy clouds during the daylight. This filter will allow me to shoot 3-6 minutes of clouds and capture creative clouds even with slow moving clouds. 

4 minute exposure using a 15 stop neutral density filter from Breakthrough Photography

4 minute exposure using a 15 stop neutral density filter from Breakthrough Photography

Neutral Density filters are an incredible tool for adding creativity to your landscape, seascape and nature photography. I highly recommend Breakthrough Photography filters for their great quality. Have more questions about choosing a filter, feel free to reach out and ask me! I’m always happy to help.


Kristen Ryan is a landscape and fine art photographer residing in the Midwest suburbs of Chicago. All images can be purchased in the Fine Art Store. Kristen leads ladies landscape photography retreats in the TetonsChicago, and the Canadian Rockies, offers private mentoring and teaches an online landscape photography workshop twice a year.

9 More Tips for Astrophotography (Part 2)

My last blog post, toward the end of June, shared tips for Astrophotography. Summer travel and family life occupied all my time in the last month and a half, but as promised, here is part 2 with 9 more tips for shooting those starry night skies!

1) Check the Moon Phase calendar when planning your Astrophotography. The less moonlight, the more stars you will see and the brighter the Milky Way will be. New Moon will be the darkest time of the month. This is when there is no moonlight at all. During other moon phases, you may still be able to shoot the stars and Milky Way without moon interference, but you’ll need to check the moonrise and moonset times. I love to use the Sun Surveyor app to find out the moon phase plus rise and set times. Sun Surveyor also gives the times the Milky Way core will rise and set and when it is visible without moon interference in your location. I highly recommend checking out this helpful app.

2) Use an app like Photopills to plan your Milky Way shooting. Photopills will help you to find out where the Milky Way will be located at any time in any location. At home or away, you can put the pin on any location and see where the Milky Way will be at midnight, 1:00 a.m, 3:00 a.m., etc. For this June’s Teton Retreat, I had our 2:00 a.m. String Lake Milky Way shoot planned when I chose the dates of the retreat knowing the Milky Way would be in the ideal position from 2:00-3:00 a.m. Using an app such as Photopills allows you to know what to expect and plan for success.

Milky Way over the Grand Teton at String Lake in June 2019 at the Magic in the Tetons Retreat

Milky Way over the Grand Teton at String Lake in June 2019 at the Magic in the Tetons Retreat

3) Get To Know Your Gear In The Dark - The very dark skies are great for capturing millions of stars, but this also means you can’t see your gear without a flashlight. If you are shooting with a friend or a group, turning on flashlights can ruin the exposures of your fellow photographers. Being able to put your camera on your tripod in the dark, adjust your tripod and check your LCD without turning on your flashlight is extremely helpful. Additionally, the longer you keep lights off, the more your eyes adjust to the dark.

4) Watch Your Histogram & Expose To The Right - In evaluating your exposure, check your histogram rather than relying on your LCD screen. Exposing as bright as you can without blowing the highlights will produce the best quality image with the least noise. Noise is inevitable in the dark conditions with high ISO. The better exposure you have, the less noise there will be. Check to see that your histogram is as far toward the right as it can be without it climbing up the right wall. There will be more tones toward the left because it is so dark, but keeping them as far as possible off the left wall of the histogram will capture a better quality image.

5) Consider Foreground Exposure - The foreground of your scene will be much darker than the sky full of stars. There are a couple options for getting a well exposed foreground image to composite with a great exposure of the sky. The first is to get out before the sun sets and capture the frame you want with a well exposed foreground before sunset or during blue hour when a little more light will light the scene. Be sure to choose your composition and leave the frame and focus where it is before shooting the night sky. The second option depending on the foreground scene is to light the foreground with a flashlight or headlamp. The foreground will need to be close enough, and your light strong enough, to be lit with your supplemental light source. Light painting must also be allowed where you are shooting. Grand Teton National Park, for example, does not allow light painting so during my retreats we do not light the foreground. The third option, if you arrive in the dark, is to take a brighter exposure of the foreground to composite with the sky by taking a longer exposure. This will create star trails in the sky, but you can composite your longer foreground exposure with your static star exposure in Photoshop.

A starry evening at the Three Sisters in Canmore, Alberta Canada

A starry evening at the Three Sisters in Canmore, Alberta Canada

6) Consider Stacking to Reduce Noise - One technique to try for less noise in astrophotography is taking multiple exposures of the same frame and stacking them in a program called Starry Landscape Stacker. This program is very easy to use and stacks multiple exposures of the sky into one by lining up the sky. The resulting image has less noise than editing one single exposure. For example, you can capture 10 exposures at ISO 6400, f/2.8, 15 seconds and stack them in Starry Landscape Stacker. The program is $40 but very worth it!

7) Consider Composition - Just as with landscape images, composition matters in astrophotography too. It can be easier to find a pleasing composition in the daylight, so it can be helpful to scout out a location ahead of time, or get there before dark as mentioned above in the Foreground Exposure tip. Even in daylight, you can use your Photopills app to see where the Milky Way will be in the Night AR part of the app so if you will be shooting the Milky Way, you can think about composition ahead of time. Consider where other aspects of the scene may be comfortably placed in the frame and how you can create balance between the left and right sides of the frame as well as the top and bottom.

8) Look for Interesting Foreground - As you consider composition, look for a location that will have interesting foreground to be part of the scene. Mountain peaks, rock formations, barns, trees, and oceans all are examples of foreground spaces that will add impact to your night sky images.

Milky Way over the Moulton Barn in Jackson Hole, Wyoming at the June 2019 Magic in the Tetons Retreat

Milky Way over the Moulton Barn in Jackson Hole, Wyoming at the June 2019 Magic in the Tetons Retreat

9) Pack Extra Batteries - A final gear recommendation for shooting astrophotography is to make sure to have at least 1 or 2 extra batteries. With (often) cooler temperatures and long exposures, batteries drain more quickly and it is disappointing to be capturing amazing images only to be thwarted by a dead camera battery! Make sure to head out prepared.

It can be challenging to get out to shoot at night, especially when it means giving up your sleep, but I promise it is worth it when you see the Milky Way on the LCD, or even just some beautiful stars!


Kristen Ryan is a landscape and fine art photographer residing in the Midwest suburbs of Chicago. All images can be purchased in the Fine Art Store. Kristen leads ladies landscape photography retreats in the TetonsChicago, and the Canadian Rockies, offers private mentoring and teaches an online landscape photography workshop twice a year.

My Essential Landscape Gear

As I prepare for my first 2019 Ladies Magic in the Tetons Retreat, I thought I would share the tools that I carry in my bag to capture the beauty around me. Landscape Photography is a genre that tends to be heavy on gear. And quite often I will weigh down my shoulders in order to have all the creative options available to me. If you read my recent article on the Best Lenses for Landscape Photography, you know that there is not just one lens that works best for every scene. Add in tripods and filters and my bag gets pretty full! Keep reading and you can learn about my favorite and most used gear and why each is essential to my landscape work.

1. Promaster City Backpack

I absolutely love my Promaster bag. It has a big main section that fits 2 camera bodies plus several lenses. The top flap has a thin compartment that is perfect for carrying an iPad, small laptop, or important papers or items to stash away in a safe area while out and about. There are several zippered compartments perfect for holding my other gear I will share below such as an intervalometer, filters, extra batteries and memory cards. One side has a pocket perfect for my water bottle or coffee thermos and both sides have straps to hold a travel tripod.

2. Nikon D850 & Nikon D810

My D850 is my workhorse camera and it is the main body I use to capture the majority of my images. It has incredible resolution and is super sharp. The tilt and touch screen is amazing for capturing unique perspectives and all the buttons are so intuitive and easy to adjust settings with ease. My D810 is my well loved second body and I always have it with me not only as a back up but to be able to set it up for a time lapse or shoot fast shutter speed images while my D850 is shooting long exposures.

3. Tripod

My tripod is an essential item in my landscape bag. I have two lightweight carbon fiber tripods that travel with me for my landscape photography trips. My lightest and most compact tripod is my Gitzo GIGT1555T Traveler Series 1 Carbon Fiber Tripod. It is extremely light and compact and can fold up to fit in a carry on roller bag. My other tripod is a Promaster Specialist Professional Tripod and it is also very light with flip lock legs. I love that there is a soft foam area on one tripod leg for carrying as the tripod legs can get extremely cold in frigid weather. A tripod is essential to have for long exposures, night photography and time lapse photography. I will often have two tripods so that I can do time lapse and long exposures at the same time.

4. Nikkor 16-35mm f/4G

This wide angle lens spends a lot of time on my camera. I love a wide angle that showcases dramatic skies or the jaw dropping expanse of a mountain range. 16mm can capture an extensive scene while 35mm is still a wide angle but brings the scene closer to what our eyes experience in real life. It is a perfect range for capturing the incredible landscapes of the world.

16mm

16mm

5. Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8

My 24-70mm lens is my go to lens when I go on a hike and just want to carry my camera with one lens. At 24mm, you can get a nice wide expanse. At 70mm you can zoom in and get more detail. In the mid range, the images beautifully represent the landscape the way our eye experiences the scene.

24mm

24mm

60mm

60mm

6. Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8

I adore my 70-200mm f/2.8. The lens is extremely sharp and captures those beautiful details that are far away from me. This telephoto lens allows me to capture the beauty of light hitting a mountain peak or filling my frame with details and texture that draw me in. While the wide angle focal lengths capture the great expanse of the whole scene, the telephoto captures those far off details.

200mm

200mm

7. Sigma 14mm f/1.8 & Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8

These two lenses are my go to lenses for astrophotography. Both of these lenses are extraordinary choices for shooting the night sky. Not only do their ultra wide angles capture an incredible number of stars but they are also fast, allowing me to keep my ISO lower as I open up the aperture. One might ask why have two lenses for astrophotography but I love to set one to take a time lapse while I experiment with compositions with my other camera & lens.

14mm

14mm

8. Sigma 150-60mm

This lens is a beast of a lens but it is perfect for capturing those very far off details like the tip of a mountain top, a tree with beautiful light across a lake or wildlife in which you must keep a safe distance.

550mm

550mm

9. Breakthrough Photography Filters

Filters are an essential technical and creative tool in my landscape imagery. Polarizers, Neutral Density Filters, and Graduated Neutral Density Filters are each helpful in their own way. Polarizers cut out haze and glare and give greater definition to clouds and vibrance to colors. They also cut glare off of water when shooting rivers, waterfalls, and lakes.

Graduated Neutral Density filters cut out light from part of the frame, such as a bright sky, to allow you to brighten your exposure and capture more detail in the shadows without blowing out the highlights of the scene. This filter is extremely helpful scenes with a large dynamic range.

Neutral Density Filters cut light from the entire frame. You can purchase neutral density filters in varying degrees of strength. I own 6 stop, 10 stop and 15 stop filters. Depending on the ambient light and the creative effect I am going for, I choose which filter will help me create my art.

Natural Bridge.jpg

10. Intervalometer

My remote intervalometer is one of my most used tools. A remote trigger is helpful to avoid any camera shake when the shutter is pressed. I use my intervalometer for shooting long exposures and time lapses.

11. Headlamp & Flashlight

If I am headed out at night, I have a headlamp and a flashlight for both lighting my way in the dark and locating necessary gear or buttons. It is so helpful for night photography to know your gear well in the dark, but sometimes you need a little extra light. A strong headlamp light is not only helpful but is also comforting in the pitch black as you get to your shooting location.

Lake Louise at night.jpg

12. Extra Batteries & Memory Cards

There is nothing worse than discovering your camera is missing its memory card or battery, finding them run down or out of space at the beginning or middle of a shoot. I keep several extra batteries and memory cards in my bag so that I have back ups in case of an emergency.

13. L Bracket

My L Bracket on my D850 allows my camera to sit tight in my tripod whether I am shooting vertically or horizontally.

14.. Extras

Some additional items I often carry in my bag are clean microfiber clothes & Zeiss Lens wipes for cleaning my lenses, extra AA batteries for my intervalometer, hand warmers for colder weather, and a coffee thermos and/or water bottle!

Folly Beach Sunset.jpg

Beautiful landscape imagery can be captured with whatever gear and camera you own, so don’t let what’s in YOUR camera bag stop you from getting out and capturing the beauty. But if you are looking for new tools, I hope these favorites of mine will help you out!

Kristen Ryan is a landscape and fine art photographer residing in the Midwest suburbs of Chicago. All images can be purchased in the Fine Art Store. Kristen leads ladies landscape photography retreats in the TetonsChicago, and the Canadian Rockies, offers private mentoring and teaches an online landscape photography workshop twice a year.



Best Lenses for Landscape Photography

Are you wondering what lens is the best choice for landscape photography? I often get asked by my online students and retreat attendees what lens is best for landscape photography and which lens is my favorite. The simple answer is that my favorite lens/focal length is the one that best captures my vision of the image I am seeing in the moment.

The more in depth answer is that there really isn’t a SINGLE best lens for landscapes.  It depends very much on the particular location. Sometimes you may need an ultra wide angle to get the entire scene in the frame or the sky is so amazing you want to include as much of it as you can.  Other times, you want to hone in on a smaller portion of the scene; just the part that is grabbing your eye. And sometimes you really need reach to grab detail that you cannot get with anything other than a telephoto.  

So, what’s the best lens? There isn’t ONE. However, I will give you some thoughts and examples of the several lenses I use and then you can see how these lenses would help you in the areas you photograph. 

First off though….zoom or primes? Prime lenses are sharp and fast and will capture high quality images. However, as a photographer with a landscape focus, I am partial to zoom lenses in most circumstances. The reason being that it is not as easy to just ‘move your feet’ to get a different angle in most cases. I often need to zoom ‘out’ or zoom ‘in’ to change the frame.  This also allows me to set up on a tripod and get various compositions from one location.

Ultra wide angle 

I shoot with both the Nikon 14-24mm, the Nikon 16-35mm, and the Sigma 14mm f/1.8. I also have a 16-35mm for my Sony a7rii.  All are fantastic lenses and I know from friends that the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 is also an amazing lens. 

These focal lengths will allow you to really showcase the expanse of the world. Imagine an endless sky, spanning view of mountains, or endless stars at night. The ultra wide angle is your best friend in these situations.  If you love sunbursts, a wide angle lens will also give you the most amazing sunbursts!

The ultra wide angle is often my favorite. I love taking in the wide expanse of the world and very often, only the widest angles will truly capture that magic.

16mm was necessary to capture this wide scene of the Chicago Skyline to include the golden morning sunlight shining in from the left.

16mm was necessary to capture this wide scene of the Chicago Skyline to include the golden morning sunlight shining in from the left.

14mm is my favorite focal length for capturing the night sky. The ultra wide focal length captures the vast sky of stars in addition to the foreground scenery.

14mm is my favorite focal length for capturing the night sky. The ultra wide focal length captures the vast sky of stars in addition to the foreground scenery.

16mm captures the entire sunset scene in the Tetons, including a vivid and distinct sunburst.

16mm captures the entire sunset scene in the Tetons, including a vivid and distinct sunburst.

16mm allowed me to include significant foreground and ocean in addition to the beautiful sunrise sky.

16mm allowed me to include significant foreground and ocean in addition to the beautiful sunrise sky.

But, I could not capture the variety that I do with only these widest angles.

Mid Range

I love my Nikon f24-70 f/2.8.  If you could only buy or travel with ONE lens, I’d probably say to choose a 24-70 or 24-105 (which I don’t own but there are some great lenses out there in this focal length range)

The 24-70 (or 24-105) gives you a nice wide angle in the 24-35mm range but also allows you to zoom in a bit and grab some closer details.   If I am hiking, for example, and want to only carry a camera without extra gear, this is often the lens I will grab. It is so versatile. This mid range gives you a very realistic view of the world’s scenery.

Some examples in this focal range.

48mm focused this frame between the trees. A wider focal length would have added distraction outside of the framed focal point of the waves.

48mm focused this frame between the trees. A wider focal length would have added distraction outside of the framed focal point of the waves.

60mm brings me closer to Mt. Moran in this sunrise scene and creating nice symmetry between the mountains and their reflection.

60mm brings me closer to Mt. Moran in this sunrise scene and creating nice symmetry between the mountains and their reflection.

70mm captures the birds and sun rays as the clear main subject of the frame while including the environment around them.

70mm captures the birds and sun rays as the clear main subject of the frame while including the environment around them.

70mm brings the frame closer to the mountains and makes them a more prominent part of the frame than a wide angle

70mm brings the frame closer to the mountains and makes them a more prominent part of the frame than a wide angle

Telephoto

 I own both the Nikon 70-200mm and the Sigma 150-600mm. I bought the Sigma more for wildlife and sports, but I also use it for some detailed landscapes.  

Focal lengths in the 100+ range allow you to capture details of the landscape that you cannot get close enough to with the wider angles.  Such as zooming in on a single mountain in a range, shooting across a body of water, or isolating certain details in a scene.

200mm  The week after Halloween, we got our first big snow. It just so happened I had just been out to the Arboretum the prior week photographing peak fall color. So after the snowfall, I drove through and spotted this incredible scene of seasons colliding. 200mm with my 70-200mm lens allowed me to highlight the detail of these two trees next to each other by filling the frame with the contrast of fall color and snowy branches.

200mm

The week after Halloween, we got our first big snow. It just so happened I had just been out to the Arboretum the prior week photographing peak fall color. So after the snowfall, I drove through and spotted this incredible scene of seasons colliding. 200mm with my 70-200mm lens allowed me to highlight the detail of these two trees next to each other by filling the frame with the contrast of fall color and snowy branches.

175mm  I used my 70-20mm at 175mm here to isolate the crashing waves in the ocean of the coast of Oahu.

175mm

I used my 70-20mm at 175mm here to isolate the crashing waves in the ocean of the coast of Oahu.

150mm  As the sunset’s golden light hit the Grand Teton, I captured this at 150mm to isolate the light on the Grand complimented by the colorful autumn foliage in the foreground.

150mm

As the sunset’s golden light hit the Grand Teton, I captured this at 150mm to isolate the light on the Grand complimented by the colorful autumn foliage in the foreground.

550mm  While capturing the sunrise at Oxbow Bend, I noticed the way the light was hitting this beautiful golden tree across the water. I put on my Sigma 150-600mm to isolate the tree against the background of low clouds.

550mm

While capturing the sunrise at Oxbow Bend, I noticed the way the light was hitting this beautiful golden tree across the water. I put on my Sigma 150-600mm to isolate the tree against the background of low clouds.

As you can see from the examples above, the best lens & focal length is the one that best captures the beauty speaking to you in that moment. Sometimes it is a wide angle, but other times you need a long focal length to isolate the beauty in the distance.

Hope these examples and thoughts help you to capture all the beauty in front of you at home and in your travels.


Kristen Ryan is a landscape and fine art photographer residing in the Midwest suburbs of Chicago. All images can be purchased in the Fine Art Store. Kristen leads ladies landscape photography retreats in the TetonsChicago, and the Canadian Rockies, offers private mentoring and teaches an online landscape photography workshop twice a year.