Neutral Density Filters for Landscapes: A Primer

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I was enthralled with long exposure photography long before I took up the practice myself. There’s something about seeing movement represented in a still image that I’ve always found compelling. In everyday life, we observe stillness in more or less the same way we do in a photo. Movement, however, is represented differently in photography than we see it in everyday life, and long exposure photography allows us to explore and study movement in a unique, abstract way.

In the months after I purchased my first DSLR, I quickly realized there was more to taking a long exposure photograph than simply setting the exposure and tripping the shutter. Sure you can stop down to f/22, and turn your ISO to 100, but unless it’s really, really dark, you’re going to have a hard time reaching shutter speeds long enough to achieve a great deal of movement represented in your photo. Plus, many lenses don’t yield their best image quality at very small apertures. After a few frustrating attempts, and a whole lot of online research, I purchased my first six-stop neutral density filter before a trip to California a few years back. There was a bit of a learning curve, but by the end of the trip I got comfortable enough (and lucky enough) to capture the photo at the very top of the page, which shows a motorcycle whizzing through Joshua Tree National Park in bright moonlight. I’ve been hooked ever since.

Taken using a 10-stop ND filter, this 30-second exposure shows the peaceful movement in the clouds and water, conveying the serenity of the scene.

Neutral density filters reduce all of the light coming into the camera evenly, allowing for longer shutter speeds without any change to color. The photo below, shot across from Grand Central Terminal, was a 30-second exposure taken with a 10-stop ND filter, on a tripod. This long exposure time allowed me to record the colorful light streaks of the moving traffic, while use of the tripod helped to ensure that the still elements of the scene, like the buildings, remained sharp.

One thing that I love about shooting long exposures in an urban setting like New York City is that while the images capture the busyness of the city, they do so in broad strokes, such that depict a quality of stillness and activity simultaneously.

In long exposure photography, and by “long exposure” I mean photography that uses a shutter speed longer than a second or so, it is absolutely imperative to use a tripod. If you want to get anything close to resembling a sharp image when shooting at slow shutter speeds, the camera must be held stable, and the best way to do that is to use a tripod.

Like traffic lights, water is another common moving element in landscape photography. In the black-and-white image below, I was able to achieve the serene yet defined look of the water with a shutter speed of 8 seconds using a six-stop ND filter. As you may have guessed by now, the strength of a neutral density filter is measured in “stops of light.” Each stop cuts the amount of light being let into the camera by half, allowing you to slow your shutter speed without overexposing the shot.

So how do I decide how many stops of ND I need to take a great long exposure of a given scene? Well, it depends. It depends on the amount of natural light available, and it depends on the look I’m going for.

In brighter scenes, you may be able to use your camera’s internal meter through your various NDs to find the correct filter to fit your desired exposure time. But in darker scenes, or when using stronger ND filters, there is often too little light entering the camera for it to meter properly. In cases like this, you’re better off metering the proper exposure with the ND filter detached from the lens, and using one of the many great long exposure calculators available in the Apple App Store or Google Play Store to determine the best filter in your arsenal to achieve your desired shutter speed. The more you practice with ND filters, and tools like long exposure calculators, the more you’ll develop a “feel” for the appropriate filter and shutter speed to use for a particular scene.

There are two main varieties of ND filters that we can attach to our lenses, circular and square. Circular-type ND filters screw onto the front of your lens, and tend to be quicker and easier to put on and take off than square filters. Square filters are more versatile, and can be stacked on top of one another, but require the use of a filter holder, which can be a bit cumbersome versus the self-sufficient circular filters.

I hope you enjoyed this primer on neutral density filters. Please leave your questions in the Comments section, below, and I’ll be back to answer them as soon as I can. 

3 Comments

Where were the waterfall and train track photos taken?

Hi Blake, thanks for your comment. The waterfall is at Kennedy Dells Park in New City, NY, and the train track photo is taken in the Bronx, right near the Spuyten Duyvil stop. Thanks for reading!

Thanks for the info. Great photos. Looks like I'll be taking a road trip to Kennedy Dells Park. Thanks again.

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