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Neutral Density Filters – When, How, Why

Ernesto Santos (esantos)


Keywords: how, to, landscape, filter, neutral, density, graduated, reversed, nd, gnd, singh, ray, lee, format, hitech, bw

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WHEN TO USE ND FILTERS

Although ND filters are certainly not relegated to use only outdoors, I can safely say I can’t think of a single time I’ve ever used one indoors or under controlled lighting. So, in this article, I’ll focus on outdoor use only. Let’s start with the solid ND.

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Blurring Passing Subjects – Solid ND filter.
Click for an enlarged view.

 

The ability to use the passage of time, motion, and light to stir emotion and project a message or mood is what I think makes photography a true art. It gives the photographer the ability to present imagery that escapes the bounds of the static capture, going beyond the documentarian style that can at times be limiting, stilted, and lifeless. With a solid ND filter at your disposal you can take a picture of a moving object and use effect to record that movement across the frame. Let’s say you are photographing a bicycle race and you are fortunate to be standing near the road or track. It is sunny outside and the light is so strong that you can’t set the camera exposure so that you can use a shutter speed that is slow enough to record the motion of the passing cyclist. You want to blur him to represent motion and without a filter to hold back the light you won’t be able to get this type of image. But if you attach an ND filter to the lens you can effectively reduce the light to the point where you can now utilize the slower shutter speeds that give you some blur. This usually works better, from an artistic perspective, than a static image where the cyclist seems to be frozen in time; just sitting on his bicycle with the tires stopped and no motion in his legs as he pedals on past you. With the ND filter you can represent the cyclist as a blurred, ghostly object, while the roadway and the background are frozen with sharp details. Or you can reverse this play on motion and pan your camera keeping the cyclist in the middle of the frame as you shoot. With the ND filter the motion effect would show the cyclist relatively sharp while the background would almost be a complete blur – again representing motion in a very effective way.

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Using an ND Filter to Soften Flowing Water.
Click for an enlarged view.

 

Another very popular use of the solid ND filter is to record moving water, like a stream or the surf of the ocean, with a slow shutter speed. Some people don’t care for this effect, but I find this to be one of my favorite techniques when shooting water. The slow shutter speed that is, again, provided by the light filtering capability of the ND filter will produce the moving water as a misty, ethereal , almost cloud-like feature. To me, it has a very soothing effect. In my view recording moving water as a frozen mass of churning froth just isn’t something that gives me a calming effect. I almost don’t desire to be there. By contrast, when I see a beach scene with some large rocks where the surf is coming in and out and it is recorded as a misty veil of softness amid the hard boulders I immediately want to be there.

A third way that a lot of outdoor photographers use to great effect is to record fast moving clouds with the ND filter. This is similar to the water effect except that in this case you have a sharp and detailed foreground with clouds that take on a rushing motion across the frame.

Finally, an ND filter can be used to access wider apertures rather than to lengthen shutter speeds in the exposure equation. Wide apertures (smaller f-stop numbers) will give you less depth of field. This is a desirable feature when you want to isolate a subject by blurring the foreground and background. The Japanese have a name for this out-of-focus effect; it’s called “bokeh”. A single flower isolated in a close up photograph with the background well out of focus giving a creamy background is a good example of this technique.

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Using a Graduated ND Filter in a Landscape.
Click for an enlarged view.

 

Now let’s move on to the graduated ND filter. This filter has a specialized purpose and is rarely used outside of landscape photography. Simply put, this rectangular filter is used to hold back the light intensity in the sky so that you can set an exposure value that will capture details in the darker terrain or foreground. It really is quite a simple filter to use but the key to success is placing the transition of this split filter so that it is hidden in the scene. This takes a little practice. The other important issue with this type of filter is choosing the correct strength so that the overall exposure remains balanced, a true and natural looking interpretation of the scene you are photographing. I’ve seen many images where the filter is not placed precisely and it either darkens the upper region of the foreground, or it is placed too high in the scene resulting in an unnatural bright halo just above the horizon. Also, if you don’t have the correct amount of density you can get weird looking results. If the filter is not dark enough for the situation, or by contrast, you might have a filter that is too strong the sky will just not look right. For this very reason, and in order to use these filters effectively, you must have a set of filters spanning several densities. There are also two types of transitions – a hard transition for use when the horizon is well defined and level across the frame, and a soft transition where the terrain’s edge is jagged, like a mountain range in the distance. Here is a good place to explain my little rant in the previous section about ditching your circular graduated ND filter. These filters have the transition from dark to light right in the middle of the filter. This means that the only possible way to use this filter is to frame your shot where the horizon runs exactly in the middle of the frame. In almost all cases and situations you want to avoid this placement of the horizon. It is one of the most unpleasing compositions I can think of. Good landscape photography depends on compositional decisions that create pleasing imbalances between light and dark often referred to as “tension” or “positive versus negative space”. Placing the horizon smack-dab in the middle of the frame will never give you this tension. So, like I said, take that circular graduated ND filter and run over it with your car.

Many photographers, including myself, often stack two or three, rectangular ND grads to get the strength of filtration we need. This is another big advantage of using rectangular filters.

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Using the Reverse ND Grad Filter.
Click for an enlarged view.

 

 

(36 Votes )
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Originally written on October 13, 2015

Last updated on December 7, 2017

23 comments

John D. Roach (jdroach) on December 8, 2017

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Fine article. Variable ND and the regular .3, .6, .9 ND are what Keep with me. Sometimes size of kit limits to the VND. You make good points, Ernesto.

Annie Parm (annie459) on August 7, 2017

Everything was awesome.Thank you.

Edwin Wilson (hattrick) on May 28, 2016

I should add to my comment above, that I use a 2 stop soft Singh-Ray ND Grad. filter in a Cokin P series filter holder. I shoot with the Nikon D7100. Skip

Edwin Wilson (hattrick) on May 28, 2016

Thank you for your nice article. Could you please tell me about the proper metering through a graduated neutral density filter (ND Grad). You mention using the Matrix metering and in manual mode, metering at 0. John Shaw in his classic book, Nature Photography Field Guide, talks about first metering the bright area, eg snowy mountain top, through the darker part of the ND Grad, to allow for any tonality discrepancies of the filter, adding compensation eg +2 for the snow, and then adjusting the position of the filter and shooting. I assume he is using spot metering instead of Matrix. Will Matrix metering and using 0 on the metering analog truly give an accurate reading for the whole scene using the ND Grad? Shaw in that book, may have been talking only about film rather than digital then but I am not sure. Also, how does one blend 2 photos in Photoshop Elements 11 if one were to just take 2 different exposures without the filter one for the snow and one for the darker foreground? Is special HDR software needed? Thanks Skip

Steve McTeer (NRVVA) on February 13, 2016

Excellent introduction, for me, to the application of ND filters. Thanks!

Gary Worrall (glxman) on February 6, 2016

Awarded for his high level skills, specially in Wildlife & Landscape Photography

Much appreciated Ernesto, This has been on my "to do" list for some time, I have a 14-24 and would love to get the Lee Filter Holder and a Big Stopper, Trouble is I keep buying other things instead! This year maybe , I hope Thank you for taking the time for this detailed article Regards. Gary

Craig Menzies (foamfollower) on December 1, 2015

Thanks for this article,it's clarified a lot of questions for me about using ND Filters and the importance of this still despite software options in the Digital World.

Mark Yeazel (Mplsmark1) on November 4, 2015

An excellent article. It should help me progress quickly beyond experimentation stage. Thanks!

donald cvitkovich (dcvitko1) on November 2, 2015

Appreciate clear concise coverage. Good article

Joanna Pecha (PixiePixels01) on October 19, 2015

Thanks for a great tutorial..Look forward to implementing!

User on October 17, 2015

Excellent article. It brought back some of the basics that I never should have forgotten.

Gary Marshall (gtm) on October 17, 2015

Good refresher for me. Having just added the Lee 100 ND filter kit to my bag and having the ability to rotate the ND grad on the ring makes it nice. Thanks for writing about this. As a thought how about doing one on circular polarisers especially when using wide angle lens. I tend to get that dreaded dark blue vignette effect in the upper right of my sky.

Ernesto Santos (esantos) on October 17, 2015

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian. Winner of the Best of Nikonians Images 2018 Annual Photo Contest

John, For ND filters look at: B+W, Singh-Ray, LEE, Tiffen, Hoya. For Grad ND's look at: Hitech, Singh-Ray, LEE. These are listed in no particular order.

John Hernlund (Tokyo_John) on October 16, 2015

Do you have any recommendations for good filters that are widely available? I was excited to play with ND filters a while back and bought a Kenko PRO-ND1000, which is a 10 stop ND filter (Kenko is Tokina in Japan)...unfortunately the quality is terrible, colors and contrast are terribly muted and the resulting image looks nothing like the same image taken without the filter at 10 stops faster exposure. I tried to come up with a correction scheme in Photoshop, but failed to produce anything reasonable.

Marsha Edmunds (meadowlark2) on October 16, 2015

Donor Ribbon awarded for her support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Fellow Ribbon awarded for her continuous encouragement and meaningful comments in the spirit of Nikonians. Donor Ribbon awarded for her generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for her generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Awarded for her in-depth knowledge and high level of skill in several areas.  Awarded for winning in The Best of Nikonians 2019 Photo Contest

This was so useful. I learned some things here that I had never thought of or known before. Can't wait to experiment.

Ernesto Santos (esantos) on October 15, 2015

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian. Winner of the Best of Nikonians Images 2018 Annual Photo Contest

Duke, That has not been the case in my experience and I cannot think of any reasons optically why that would be the case. Neutral Density filters simply hold back the light and nothing more. Now, there is a combination filter made by Singh-Ray that combines a a variable ND with a polarizer and a color intensifier called the Vari-N-Trio, but that is something different, adding color intensification purposely. Lower quality ND's will impact the image quality but in a negative way, such as loss of contrast and color shifting/color casts.

User on October 15, 2015

I'm told that an ND filter, solid, when used to extend a typical exposure, will enhance the overall color. True or false?

Ernesto Santos (esantos) on October 15, 2015

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian. Winner of the Best of Nikonians Images 2018 Annual Photo Contest

Geoff, Thanks for spending time to read and comment, much appreciated. My point about screw-on filters was related to graduated neutral density filters only because the transition of those filters forces you to make compositions where the horizon runs right through the middle of the frame, generally not the best of framing options. There is nothing wrong with solid or variable density filters that screw on to the lens. I have several and use them frequently. Hope this clarifies. :-)

Geoff Baylis (GBaylis) on October 15, 2015

Donor Ribbon awarded for his support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Awarded for his generous and continuous sharing of his high level skills with the Nikonians community Writer Ribbon awarded for his contributions to the Nikonians Articles. Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his win at the Best of Nikonians 2107 Annual Photo Contest Winner of the Best of Nikonians Images 2018 Annual Photo Contest

Great article Ernesto. You made the point that screw-in variable grad filters are to be avoided, but exactly why is that? (I should point out that I don't own one!). Is it because once secured onto the lens you can't rotate it, like you can on a polarising filter? If it could be rotated, would that put them on a par with rectangular drop-in filters, and if not, please elaborate on why that's not the case. Thanks, Geoff

David Summers (dm1dave) on October 13, 2015

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded as a member who has gone beyond technical knowledge to show mastery of the art a

Great info! Thanks for sharing.

Ernesto Santos (esantos) on October 13, 2015

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian. Winner of the Best of Nikonians Images 2018 Annual Photo Contest

Hi Doug, Thanks for your great feedback. Yes, you are correct, and do mention this (if in somewhat of a fleeting way) you can in most cases correct the exposure range in post processing. If the images to be blended are taken with care to not move the camera you can get very good results. The difference is in an intangible sense that getting a single correct exposure in-camera using ND grad filters is somehow different. Better? No, not necessarily. To my eye they just seem a little more natural looking. One is not better than the other and I consistently use both methods. I think it is good to have the knowledge and skills to employ different techniques to achieve the same end. That makes us better photographers.

Doug Nickle (fivesense) on October 13, 2015

Thank you Ernesto! Great article with lots of good information. Question- how are ND filters different than what one can achieve in post processing, i.e. using the graduated filter tool? Are ND filters simply better at achieving the best exposure in-camera? I always prefer getting as much as possible in-camera...

User on October 13, 2015

Excellent article Ernesto! You've covered all the bases.

G