ND Filters: Beyond the Basics

Natural light photography enthusiasts know that good photography is more about the light than the gear. However, there’s no denying that a few pieces of gear can take your photography to a new level. A neutral density filter is one such piece of equipment:

Neutral density filters (or ND filters, as they are popularly called) are designed to stop some light from entering the lens. This is a serious advantages, especially when you shoot in natural light. For example, what if you want to shoot with a shallow depth of field on a very bright day or take a long exposure? An ND filter gives you more control by blocking some of the light and allowing for slower shutter speeds and wider apertures.

Using ND Filters for Long Exposures

With a neutral density filter, you can create a long exposure at night to create long star trails or light trails, or you can make a busy street appear completely devoid of people in the middle of the day. You can even shoot a body of moving water and make it appear like mist.

neutral density filter in broad daylight

To make such a shot follow these steps:

  1. Put your camera on a tripod.
  2. Set framing, focus, and exposure without the filter.
  3. Use a big f-stop (e.g. f/22) to give you the maximum depth of field.
  4. Switch to manual focus.
  5. Take a test shot.
  6. Now screw the ND filter into place on your lens.
  7. To get the maximum out of the ND filter, slow down the shutter speed depending on the density of the ND filter. This chart should help:
tips on using nd filters

Shutter Speeds without ND 16 filter (left) vs. With the Filter (right)

  1. Use a remote release or cable release.
  2. Take the shot.

Creating Shallow Depth of Field in Bright Conditions

Everybody loves bokeh, and when it comes to portraits in natural light, you’ve got to have bokeh. The problem, however, is if you attempt to use a wider aperture such as f/1.8 or even f/1.2, you risk washing out your images. This is where ND filters can help.

wide aperture portrait nd filter

ND filters also work when you want to shoot photos with motion blur, such as when you’re shooting with continuous AF with subject track on. A slightly slower shutter speed is preferred while keeping the aperture wide. In broad daylight that is only possible when you shoot with an ND filter.

capture motion blur with ND filters

Motion blur using ND filters

Using Graduated ND Filters

Grad ND filters

Graduated ND filters

Graduated ND filters have a clear side and a light blocking side, allowing you to easily balance an exposure in situations where you have a bright sky and a dark foreground.

graduated nd filter

Image Without Graduated ND Filter

graduated nd filter for bright sky

Image With Graduated ND Filter

Graduated NDs are used not so much for long exposures as they are for shooting landscapes. They come in predominantly rectangular shapes and are found in different densities (light stopping power). There are many varieties of them, including reverse graduated ND filters, which are exclusively used for shooting sunsets and sunrises.

sunset with reverse graduated filter

Image Taken Using a Reverse Graduated ND Filter

Using Variable ND Filters

Variable neutral density filters are extremely versatile and give you an incredible edge out in the field.

what are variable ND filters?

A variable ND filter in action

Imagine a filter that allows you to choose anywhere between 2 to 10 stops of light stopping power just by dialing it in! Variable ND filters completely negate the requirement for carrying multiple filters with different densities. Just pack in your variable ND filter and you’re good to go.

What are your tips for using neutral density filters? Share them in the comments.

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