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Martin Lawrence On Cokin Filters

Landscape photographer Martin Lawrence puts Cokin's latest filters through their paces.

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Martin Lawrence, ePHOTOzine member Marvy, is a professional landscape photographer that also runs photo courses in the lake district. Recently, he's been working with Cokin Z Pro series ND Grad filters and here, we find out more about him, his work and how the filters help with landscapes. 

Martin Lawrence Blencathra no filter

Blencathra with no filter, © Martin Lawrence

Tell us a bit about how you got into photography.

Since I was very young, I have always been a lover of wildlife and the countryside. My parents realised this and bought me my first camera - a Pentax Program ‘A’ film camera - which I still have.

I was inspired by the images of Colin Prior, particularly those he has taken of the Scottish Highlands that is a place very dear to my heart. I tried to emulate him, but soon realised that copying someone else’s work was not the way to sell images and that I needed to develop a style of my own as I was getting no satisfaction out of what I was doing. I realized that there was no point in copying another photographer, as people will just see your image as a copy and identify you as having no creative style of your own. By all means start with an image that has been taken before but shoot it from a different angle, at a different time of day or time of year to that normally taken. Get off the usual paths and get out to where other people rarely go. These are the images that can sell – not a copy of someone else’s work.

The passion grew from there and escalated when I started fell walking. I was then able to put the two things I loved the most together and my Landscape Photography career began. After many years as a keen amateur photographer, I decided to start a landscape photography business called Lakescenes that I ran alongside my main job as an IT Manager. As business increased, I found myself working long, but rewarding, hours just to keep up with the demand. It quickly became apparent that I was enjoying my part time job much more than my full-time one and I decided that this was where my future lay.

In 2008, I decided to leave my job in IT and become a full-time professional photographer. It was at this time that I re-branded as Martin Lawrence Photography and began giving One-to-One and small group photography courses alongside my other photography work.

Martin Lawrence Blencathra flowers 1 stop

Blencathra flowers taken using the Cokin Z Pro 1 stop filter, © Martin Lawrence

What attracts you to landscape photography?

Once you take up landscape photography you start to see the world through different eyes. There is always another photograph to take or a place to re-visit so that you can try and improve on a previous image. I love the outdoors and I love nature and it is a privilege to be able to capture the scenery that I live in amongst. It's a great life when you can get out and 'smell the roses' and get paid for it as well. The beauty of my job is that you see the world in all its seasons from winter snows and frosts with crisp clear light to spring’s early fresh colours and from summer’s warmth and early morning reflections to autumn's rich red colours. How can you not like being a landscape photographer?!

 

Martin Lawrence Blencathra

Blencathra with the Cokin Z Pro 2 stop ND Grad filter, © Martin Lawrence

As a landscape photographer, filters are no doubt a key element to your kit. How important is it to have a good quality filter?

After putting my camera and lenses into my camera bag, the next thing to go in is always a set of Graduated Neutral Density filters. These really do play a big part in my Landscape Photography. It’s so important to be able to expose for the foreground and then use the relevant ‘stop’ ND grad to ensure the sky is also correctly exposed. I very rarely take landscape shots where there is no need to use an ND Grad. You, therefore, need to use a good quality filter. I really don’t want to get back after a day’s shoot to find different colour casts or images slightly out of focus, which can be common problems when using some filters. A common argument is that these problems can be corrected post-capture using software processing. This is true to some degree, but I’ve always been an advocate of trying to capture the best image you can in camera to avoid too much pixel manipulation.

 

You've recently had the chance to trial some of Cokin's filters. Can you tell us a bit about which ones you trialled and what they're good for?

I have recently trialled filters from the Cokin Z-Pro Series – ND2, ND4 and ND8 Soft Edge Neutral Density Graduated filters.

ND Grads can make a really dramatic difference to your landscape photography. Images captured on film or digitally cannot record the same range of brightness as the human eye, leading to disappointing results. By using Cokin ND Grads, you can control the contrast between a light sky and dark foreground, allowing the camera’s sensor to record the detail in both these areas. They can rescue a landscape image that would otherwise be spoilt by washed out skies or dark foregrounds. I get many images sent me and the main problem area always seems to be ‘washed out’ skies where the image was crying out for the correct use of an ND grad. I work mainly in the Lake District for my own photography as well as teaching and I know that the light can be tricky especially with flat light where you’re trying to correctly expose for the foreground without blowing out cloud formations you have. There have been many times where several ‘stops’ of ND Grad have been needed to be able to capture what the eye can see.

Martin Lawrence Blencathra no filter

Blencathra with no filter, © Martin Lawrence

Martin Lawrence taken with a Cokin Z Pro 2 stop ND Grad

Blencathra taken with a Cokin Z Pro 2 stop filter, © Martin Lawrence

How easy are the filters to fit on the camera / swap over etc?

Cokin ND Grads are very easy to fit. There are three parts to the kit you need, the filter holder, relevant adapter ring and the ND Grads themselves. The adapter ring screws easily to your lens and the filter holder just slides over the ring into place. You can then position the height of the filter and the angle of the filter very easily to suit the light condition of the image you are taking. I found the swapping of filters or removing the filter system straightforward with no issues at all.

 

Are they easy to transport?

The filters that I trialled came along with a zipped carry pouch complete with shoulder strap and belt carrier. The pouch contains a number of compartments that safely hold up to 7 filters. Each filter comes with its own soft protective pouch to prevent scratching. There is also room for a filter holder and several adaptor rings. This makes them easy to carry on your shoulder or belt or they can safely slot into your camera bag along with your other kit without fear of damaging them.

Martin Lawrence Clough Head no filter

Clough Head taken with no filter, © Martin Lawrence

Martin lawrence Clough head taken with 3 stop filter

Clough Head taken with a Cokin Z Pro 3 stop ND Grad filter, © Martin Lawrence

What would you say is the best feature of these filters?

The first impressions I had were that the filters looked a quality item. They are really well made and have a professional appearance. There are several aspects that impressed me:

  • They gave consistent results throughout the whole range. There was a distinct difference between all three ND grads (1 stop, 2 stop and 3 stops grads )
  • There was virtually no colour cast, which can sometimes occur when using neutral density filters.
  • My Canon 5D Mk3 with either the 16 – 35 or 24 – 105 lenses still focused quickly no matter what combination of filters I used.

 

With respect to the filter holder, this is made from a polycarbonate plastic, which is strong and has a couple of nice features which photographers will appreciate which are as follows:

  • There are 3 plastic studs that prevent the holder from accidently coming off the adaptor ring. When this sometimes happens with other brands of filter, they can get damaged or even lost.
  • There are brass thumbscrews that can be tightened by hand if you wish to alter the number of slots you want to use. This is very convenient when time is of the essence or in low light conditions.
  • I did find when using a three bay system that there was some slight vignetting when using my 16-35 mm lens at its widest but this can be reduced by altering the focal length of the image slightly, removing one of the bays or switching around the holder to a single bay which is now positioned close to the lens.

Martin Lawrence Derwentwater no filter

Derwentwater taken with no filter, © Martin Lawrence

Martin Lawrence Derwent Water 1 stop

Derwentwater taken with a Cokin Z Pro 1 stop ND Grad, © Martin Lawrence

Would you recommend them?

Absolutely. The Cokin Z-Pro Series filters are a great addition to your kit. They are easy to use, produce great consistent results, look well built and are affordable.

One of the main requirements when teaching students is that they try and come with a set of ND Grads. If not, then my Cokin set is there for them to use during the course. From feedback received after the course, a set of Cokin filters is one of the first purchases my students make as they are so surprised by the dramatic difference they made to their images.

 

If you could give 3 top tips to a budding landscape photographer, what would they be?

  • Make sure that your photography always expresses your own personal style and not someone else’s - “Life is like photography, we develop from negatives. Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.” Judy Garland
  • Control the contrast - One of the best purchases that you will ever make is a set of Neutral Density Graduated Filters (ND Grads) that will allow you to control the contrast between a light sky and dark foreground, allowing the camera’s sensor to record the detail in both these areas.
  • Don’t always write the day off - If you had planned a day’s shoot and woke to low clouds and rain, don’t always write the day off. If you can be in place when the clouds lift and the sun breaks through you can capture some moody and unique images that you wouldn’t have got staying in bed!

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