My Field Guide to Using ND Filters

Control

Modern cameras are wonderful and amazing bits of technology.  They allow us to turn our creative visions into beautiful images that we can connect with.  We have a lot of control.  We can change shutter speed, aperture, focus, ISO, and position, all with the aim of capturing that moment.  One thing we can't control is mother nature and so sometimes we need a little extra help "control the light".

This image required an exposure time of 72 seconds.  Generally speaking it would not have been possible to get an exposure of this length without an ND filter.

This is where filters come in.  Now, there are such a dizzying array of filters available it would be slightly foolish of me to try and cover them all here, so I'm going to concentrate on the use of ND (Neutral Density) filters or to be more specific how I use ND filters.

Though I use ND filters in my landscape work, it is probably in my seascape work that I will use them the most.  They allow me to creatively control how the water looks in the image.  It could be that I want to lengthen the exposure to 1 or 2 seconds to show the path of a wave, or even 3 or 4 minutes to smooth out the texture of a choppy sea.  Sometimes you just can't get exposures times like that just with the camera alone. 

The Process

I have a range of ND filters in my bag, all made my Lee Filters (my filter manufacturer of choice).  I have a 3 stop, 6 stop (Little Stopper), 10 stop (Big Stopper), and 15 stop (Super Stopper).  The Super Stopper is a recent addition to my kit bag and you can read how I got on with it on my first trip out with it here.

No matter which ND filter I use, the setup and execution process I go through is the same.   To show you what my process is I've created in this field guide video which takes you through my process while out on a shoot.

 

To recap from my video the process I follow is:

  • Composition - first things first, I need to have a composition.  Get this right first!
  • Base image - take a shot with no filters.  Check composition again, image sharpness and exposure.  If needed adjust, shoot and check again.
  • Add other filters - if needed, add ND graduated filters or a polariser.  Shoot the image again and do all the same checks.
  • Add ND filter - finally, add ND filter of choice and take the image.  Do all the same checks again.

Once processed the final image looks like this:

Final image.  Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 VR @ 28mm, f/13, 202 seconds, ISO 100, Lee Filters ND 0.6 (2 stop) graduated filter, Lee Filters Big Stopper (10 stop ND), cable release.

I hope the reading about my process for using ND filters has been useful.  Do you follow the follow the same process?  Do you do things a little differently?  Are ND filters part of your creative workflow?  Are you considering getting some ND filters?  Please let me know in the comments below.