Today it is my great pleasure to share the work of Sony Associate Artisan Thibault Roland whose long exposure photography captures a fresh view of the world through time exposures several minutes in duration or longer.
Thibault (pronounced ‘Tebow’ like the QB) is originally from France but lives now in Boston where he works as a Biophysics researcher at Harvard, using light and microscopy techniques to study the fundamental aspects of life.
His training in Physics and career as a scientist pushed him to develop a fascination for light, how it interacts with materials, bounces off surfaces, as well as for the notion of time, and how it can be integrated and depicted in still images. This inspired his passion for long exposure landscape and architecture photography.
Q: I love the stillness in your images that comes as a result of extremely long exposures – how did you get started shooting that way?
Thank you Brian! Photography, and especially long exposure photography, has been a pretty long road for me. I started taking all sorts of “regular exposure” pictures about 15 years ago. At the time I did not really focus on anything in particular, subject or technique, and I did not really think about what I was doing.
It took me a long time to actually realize that there was more to photography than just point and click, and the first realization happened while reading a photography magazine and seeing a few images that had nothing to do with what I was familiar with. Those images were obviously long exposures, and they were so utterly different, beautiful and out of this world.
I think my journey into the world of long exposures started this particular day. I had to learn more about the technique and do it myself.
After that, it was just a question of getting the right equipment, lots of trying, making mistakes and slowly converging to where I wanted to go. It may seem straightforward, but I can assure you it was not. I have never taken a photography class in my life, and it was hard and slow work to learn how to use a “real” camera, how to compose a good image and to acquire a sense of anticipation at what result you can expect the image to look like depending on the weather conditions.
Q: I notice your shots of architecture tend to have really dark skies but your shots of water are high-key – is that intentional on your part?
Yes it is. Right from the moment I set up my equipment to take the shot, I already have the final photograph my mind, and decided if it will be dark or bright.
Generally speaking, I like to play with contrasts, both in my seascapes and architectural work, in order to create tension or a sense of serenity, and also to guide the eye of the viewer to the actual subject in the image.
I tend to favor darkness for architectural work because I believe that the strong leading lines and sharp edges of modern architecture inherently call for tension. I like to turn these huge masses and mineral blocks into something surreal, eerie and almost worrisome. I also like to use the photograph I shot as a raw material that can be shaped into my inner vision during black and white conversion, and to turn day into night by darkening the sky (each one of my images are shot in day time). In a sense, I enjoy modifying and stepping away from reality, and blur people’s impressions, sense of time, turn my photographs into something different, something more, something that they will wonder about.
As for my seascapes, 90 percent of the time, I will go for a bright image, with soft tonal transitions and a “simple” composition that is intended to bring the eye to the subject of the photograph. I am very partial towards building a sense of calmness with my seascapes. I think I was greatly inspired by some of the masters of long exposure seascapes: Michael Kenna, Håkan Strand, Moises Levy…
Another difference between my two main bodies of work is that I make my architectural photographs more complex, with more depth and details than my seascapes. I love to keep seascapes to the bare minimum, with huge negative space and a sense of minimalism. Adding or removing details also work for either building tension or calmness.
Q: How much Neutral Density are you using and what’s your average exposure?
This depends highly on weather conditions and time of day.
As a general rule, the brighter it is outside, the more Neutral Density filters in order to increase the exposure time (reduce the amount of light captured), and the slower the clouds are, the more ND filters to make nice streaks in the sky. However, the more clouds there are, the shorter the exposure time is in order to keep structure in the sky.
Now, most of the time I will try and work with exposure times of about 3 to 5 minutes, because this is about when the clouds make nicest streaks and the ocean waves disappear. In order to get to such durations, you need to use 13 to 16 stops ND filters. Unless you look directly at the sun through such filters, the attenuation is so large that your eye would see them as plain black.
Q: You’re kind of taking Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘Decisive Moment’ to the other extreme, aren’t you?
That’s right, in a sense. Because I stretch exposure time to minutes, rather than to hundredths of a second, you might believe that it really does not matter when you take the shot, that anything happening on the short time scale won’t show and have any impact on the final photograph; and, to a certain extent, it’s true, but not entirely.
You still have to look at your surroundings and anticipate what will happen, much like with “regular” street photography. You must be aware of the direction of the wind and anticipate where the clouds will go, what they will look like, during the entire exposure time. You must guess whether the sun will be hidden behind clouds or not during the next 3 to 5 minutes. You must choose the right time when nobody will stand still or sit somewhere in your shot for at least a quarter of the exposure time, otherwise they will show. Or you might, on the contrary, want to see shapes and figures in your photograph to give an even more ethereal look to it.
The same way as in regular street photography, there are so many factors that come into play and you need to anticipate. It’s tough to get the perfect image! Almost every time I go and take pictures, I double or triple the shot, because I know some detail won’t be perfect in the first try. When I can, I will also go back to the same location several times because the clouds might look better on the next day, or because there is less wind, etc.
So even if short time events usually don’t matter at all, longer time events do, and there still is a ‘Decisive Moment’ to get the right photograph.
Q: Do you have ND filters in every size or do you use a filter holder or step-up rings?
When I started shooting long exposure, I used to have screw-in ND filters in all sorts of sizes. But I rapidly realized this was not a good idea on several levels: first, it’s expensive to buy a new set per lens (you actually want several density filters so you can combine them and adjust the exposure time), secondly, they introduce heavy vignetting with wide angle lenses, and it’s even worse when using tilt/shift lenses.
Now, I use square filters from Formatt-Hitech and a filter holder. It makes life so much easier.
Q: I’m guessing this takes a really sturdy tripod – especially in high winds. What tripod and head do you use and are there any tricks to avoiding movement?
Getting the right tripod and head is indeed extremely significant. I’ve used several over the past few years but settled with the Manfrotto MT055XPRO3 Pro Aluminum Tripod, because it is heavy and sturdy enough not to have to worry about high winds, and I can also attach a bag to it in order to clamp it down even more. With it, I use either a Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared Head or Manfrotto 405 Geared Head because it makes it easier to control perspectives.
Q: Let’s talk about the lens mount adapter you’re using. What do you like about the Mirex tilt/shift adapter and what tricks should people know?
A large portion of my work is based on the use of tilt/shift lenses or regular lenses that I turn into tilt/shift lenses thanks to special adapters. There are two reasons for it: because I need perspective control, in particular when I shoot architectural photographs, and, on certain occasions, because I want to introduce blur and move the focus plane around.
But in the case of my old full frame or medium format lenses with full manual control, I use Mirex tilt/shift adapters. Those are the only adapters for E mount cameras that allow as much as 10 degrees tilt and 15mm shift together. Another advantage is that they are completely light tight and very sturdy. And, on top of that, using medium format lenses such as Mamiya 645 (M645) is possible, and you can combine a T/S M645 → Canon EF adapter with another T/S Canon EF → Sony E adapter, giving you the potential to tilt by 20 degrees and shift 30mm. This opens a whole new world of possibilities and Sony’s A7 series is the only full frame body line that lets you do this!
Q: How about cameras, I know you use a Sony A7R – how have you dealt with light leak issues and is that isolated to that camera or have you had to modify cameras that you used before?
Light leak is a real concern when you shoot long exposures. Some cameras are better than others in that respect, but none is perfect. You always have to modify, wrap or tape them.
The A7R is no different than any other cameras: I experienced some minor diffraction issues with it, but wrapping the lens and body with some fabric solved my problem. I should also mention that I sent the camera to have it tweaked by Sony’s customer service, and it solved my problems when using regular lenses. When I use tilt/shift lenses though, I still have to wrap the lens with fabric because light leaks in through the cracks of the lens itself, not the camera.
I’d like to also mention one point that in my mind is a huge advantage of the a7 series compared to others. As I said before, shooting long exposures means preventing light leakage, and one huge source of light leakage on usual DSLRs comes from the optical view finder, which lets light in the camera and causes diffraction. With the A7 series and their electronic view finder, there is no such issue: you can still use the view finder in bright environments, without fear of light leakage.
Tilt/Shift lenses and adapters covered with black fabric blocking direct sunlight during long exposures.
Q: Any other tricks to shooting really long exposure, such as turning off the LCD or pulling it away from the body to keep heat off from the sensor?
To be honest, I have never had any issues with letting the LCD screen on or leaving it in contact with the body. I know some people say they need to pull it away to increase heat dispersion, but I’ve never experienced any increase in noise level when shooting long exposures with the screen kept tight to the body versus not.
However, I would recommend wrapping the camera in a light colored fabric in order to reflect most light and prevent over heating the camera when it is hot outside.
On a different note, make sure the tripod is very nicely balanced and immobilized, and use an L bracket to shoot portrait mode long exposures, because tilting the head vertically will compromise the head and tripod’s balance and increase vibrations from the wind.
Lastly, if you use a filter holder and stack filters, I’d recommend you tape the filters all around the holder to prevent any light from going in between the two filters, causing diffraction and messing up your exposure time.
Q: Is your work currently in any shows or galleries?
I just took down a show in France, and currently have a few of my pictures at PhotoHaus Gallery in Vancouver. The show should be up for most of December.
Q: Where can people see more of your work or follow you?
THIBAULT ROLAND’S GEAR LIST:
F-Stop Loka backpack
Sony RMT-DSLR2 wireless remote control
Peak Design sling and clip
Sony Vertical Battery Grip for Alpha A7/A7R/A7S Digital Camera
Quick Release L-Bracket for Sony Alpha A7/A7R
Sony 64 & 128GB UHS-I SDXC Memory Cards
Series of step up and adapter rings for Formatt Hitech holder
Lolumina shutter button