How to do Dreamy Landscape Photography with a Neutral Density Filter

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Neutral density filter 01

16mm lens, ISO 100, f/13, 2 second exposure

Perhaps one of the most overlooked and undervalued tools you can own as a photographer is a Neutral Density filter (ND Filter) or Graduated ND Filter. In fact, if photography is considered painting with light then a ND filter would be considered the brush tip. You see, different paint brush tips can be used to regulate, if you will, the amount of paint you apply with each stroke – just like different Neutral Density or Graduated ND filters can be used to regulate the amount of light you allow to enter your camera.

What is a Neutral Density Filter?

A Neutral Density filter reduces the intensity of all wavelengths or colors of light equally. That’s just a fancy way of saying it lets less light into your camera. They come in different intensities and styles. One such style is the Graduated Neutral Density filter which blocks light on half of the filter, and gradually transitions to the other half which is clear.

neutral-density-filter-07

Same scene as above without the Graduated Neutral Density Filter. Notice however that it is the same exposure – 16mm lens, ISO 100, f/13, 2 seconds

Mastering the ND Filter or Graduated Neutral Density filter does not take a degree from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft (though it couldn’t hurt). Below I’ll show you the dynamic photographs you are able to capture with the proper tools and then I’ll show you a technique to replicate the ND filter in the off chance that you don’t already own one, or can’t afford one due to the fiscal restraints your significant other has put in place to reign in your “hobby budget”. Remember, there is often more than one way to achieve the desired results in photography.

The neutral density filter is probably best recognized by its ability to slow your camera’s shutter speed to the point that fast moving water looks calm and silky.

Neutral density filter 02

23mm lens, ISO 200, f/16, 2.3 seconds

Anytime you are working with slow shutter speeds you need to be careful of camera shake so it’s always recommended that you use a tripod and either a remote shutter release, or set the self-timer. Depending on the neutral density filter you use, you may be leaving your shutter open for many minutes at a time. Shooting in RAW is highly recommended as most ND filters leave a color cast on your photograph and you’ll want the flexibility to fine-tune your white balance in post processing.

The Difference

Neutral density filter 03

26mm lens, ISO 100, f/18, 25 seconds

The above photograph was taken with a 10 stop neutral density filter in order to enhance the reflections on the water. The ND filter slows the shutter speed significantly allowing the water to look like glass. This is a more subtle example than the first photograph, but either way the end result is more unique than what you’d be able to do without it.

Think Outside the Box

Neutral density filter 04

16mm lens, ISO 100, f/16, 0.6 second

By now, if you’re a regular reader, you’ll have learned that there is more than one way to photograph a subject or scene. There are many articles that talk about the harsh light during the afternoon – the neutral density filter tames that light and allows you to create some really interesting photography. The shot above was also taken with a 10 stop neutral density filter, on a very bright day. The ND filter allowed me to slow the shutter speed just enough to blur the couple who walked in front of me. The end result ended up being one of my favorite shots that day.

Fine Art

Neutral density filter 05

16mm lens, ISO 3200, f/4, 30 seconds

Fine art photography is created within accordance of your own vision as the artist photographer. Sound vague? It is, but that’s the great thing about fine art, you can express yourself through your photography without following anyones rules, not even your own. The photograph above is actually classified as Intentional Camera Shake (or ICM) and it’s created by moving your camera while the shutter is open. I used a 6 stop neutral density filter for this shot and panned the camera to the left, and then back to the right while the shutter was open. If you are new to Intentional Camera Shake, the ND filter will give you more time with the shutter open in order to make deliberate movements.

What if You Don’t Have a Neutral Density Filter?

If you don’t already have a neutral density filter, but you’d like to improve the look of your photographs right now, there is a little trick you can tuck away in the recesses of your mind for the next time you’re out and about. Remember how your shutter speed and aperture are so closely related? Well, you can slow your shutter speed enough to make choppy water look smooth even without a neutral density filter by making a couple of adjustments.

Note:  I’m going to recommend that you to close your aperture (larger f-number) to the narrowest setting your lens will allow and you must be aware of the trade off. When you shoot with the smallest aperture your lens allows, you may cause lens diffraction. Lens diffraction is where your images will be less sharp due to light disbursement when passing through the small aperture opening of your lens. This is the tradeoff when trying to replicate the effects of a neutral density filter without having the actual filter.

For this example we are going to talk about fast moving water, the Virgin River to be precise. The photo below was taken at Zion National Park in rather bright conditions. The brighter the scene, the harder it will be to use this technique. In order to smooth the water you need to slow your shutter speed, right? Right. In order to slow your shutter speed without overexposing the image you need to compensate by reducing the amount of light that enters the camera another way. Opening your aperture (smaller f-number) lets more light in, while closing your aperture (larger f-number) will reduce the light, so we must close the aperture.

Neutral density filter 06

34mm lens, ISO 100, f/22, 1.3 seconds – no filter

Close the aperture as far as you can, and make sure your ISO is as low as possible as well. Slow your shutter speed (if you are shooting in aperture priority mode the shutter speed will adjust automatically). Be sure to use a tripod or you’ll have blurry photographs. You will want a shutter speed around 1/4th to 1.3 seconds.

Note: this will be pretty much impossible if you’re in full bright sunlight as the “Sunny f/16 rule” will apply and best you can do without a filter is 1/50th at f/22. So you’d need at least a 3 stop ND filter to slow down more than that, 6 stop would be even better in that situation. 

Finally

Remember, not all neutral density filters are created equally and the glass you put in front of your cameras sensor will directly impact the image quality of the photographs you take. You should strive for the best quality you can afford. The best ND filters can be purchased for $50-$200+ depending on the size and materials.

When shopping for a neutral density filter I’d recommend purchasing the screw on type to fit the size of your largest lens (the size of filter you need will be written on the lens with a little circle with a line through it next to it, and inside the lens cap). You will save yourself money if you stick with the largest lens size, as you can purchase cheap metal adapters, (called step down rings) generally less than $10, to accommodate your smaller lenses.

Let me leave you with this final tip. Your camera lets light in through the lens (and sometimes leakage around the lens) as well as through the viewfinder. When you shoot with fast shutter speeds this is not noticeable but when shooting with longer exposure times you’ll find that the light that comes through the viewfinder will cause brown areas to pollute your image. Cover your viewfinder when using a neutral density filter and you’ll eliminate this phenomenon. Enjoy.

Check out the newest dPS ebook – Loving Landscapes A guide to landscape photography workflow and post-production – a brand new dPS ebook by the authors of Living Landscapes

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John Barbiaux is located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but can be found traveling the world with his camera when time permits. Entrepreneur, adventurer, and founder of PhotolisticLife, an inspiring and light-humoured photography blog where he shares his passion with others.

  • Keith Starkey

    Nice, thanks. Question, though: you said, “You will save yourself money if you stick with the largest lens size . . .” What do you mean by “largest lens size? The largest on the market? The largest of a given category? Not sure what you mean here.

    Thanks,

    Starkman

  • Vivek Behani

    The largest lens size that you have or are planning to purchase. This will let you use it on the largest; also they can be used on smaller sizes using a step down ring

  • John Barbiaux

    *Correction, I meant to write step up ring, the step down ring would go larger lens to smaller filter. Vivek is correct though, by purchasing the largest size (in relation to the largest lens you own or are planning to own) you’ll save yourself hundreds of dollars. The step up rings are really cheap (5 or 6 bucks on Amazon).

  • Jeff Barnes

    In one of the Notes, you said “Note: I’m going to recommend that you to close your aperture (smaller f-number)”. Don’t you mean larger f-number?

  • WillMonson

    If you want to experiment with these techniques, but don’t want to invest in (somewhat) expensive ND filters, try starting with Welding Glass.

    Note: this glass is heavily color tinted (usually green), but Camera Raw or Lightroom can correct most (but not all) of the color issues. This is not an issue at all if your end result is black and white images.

    http://www.amazon.com/Sellstrom-16310-Treated-Passive-Welding/dp/B0086ANLC0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1397853831&sr=8-1&keywords=welding+glass+shade+10

    Note #2: auto-dimming welding glass won’t work 🙂

  • John Barbiaux

    Good catch Jeff, it should read larger (or higher) f-number.

  • Fixed! Thanks for catching that

  • One with the biggest filter size, or front of the lens

  • Steve Duffey

    One other thought (and I may be stating the obvious) but set your focus and then switch to MF before then attaching the filter. If you have a 10 stop ND filter I doubt you’ll be able to see through it well enough to focus.

  • Natasha Heredia

    Also, when doing long exposures without a filter, putting your ISO on the lowest native setting will help with how long you can keep your shutter open. Probably stating the obvious, but those are the things I tend to think of last when I’m in the moment!

  • From beginning to end….the portraits are just mind blowing and perfectly executed 🙂

  • Ron Jansen

    Another tip is to add a rubber band to your camerabag. These filters can get stuck on your lens or other filter, also due to temperature differences while shooting. A rubber band is a real helper to remove the filter in that case!

  • Dashley

    I’m surprised that you didn’t mention using a polarizer to block some of the light coming into the camera, as most photographers have a polarizer; it’s what I use when I’m hiking around Oregon, shooting waterfalls.

  • walwit

    It is so appropriate you wrote “Fine art is created within accordance of your own vision” next to that picture.

  • Pat

    Do you need to have a neutral density timer

  • John Barbiaux

    Not really, without one it may take a few times to get the desired result. I shoot in RAW so I’ll have a little leeway when it comes to exposure.

  • John Barbiaux

    To each his or her own

  • John Barbiaux

    That can work too but not nearly as effective as a dedicated ND filter.

  • John Barbiaux

    Thank you!

  • Glen Cunningham

    Actually, it was right the first time. A smaller aperture is a smaller f-number. f/4 means ‘f divided by 4’ (the same as ‘one-fourth of f’) and f/16 means ‘f divided by 16’ (the same as ‘one-sixteenth of f’). Clearly 1/16 of f is smaller than 1/4 of f. It is very unfortunate that f-numbers are not explained to photographers, so there is constant confusion. I recommend we all stick to saying ‘smaller aperture’ or ‘larger aperture’ to avoid this confusion.

  • As

    I’m so stupid, I bought a variable ND filter that fits only my 35mm lens. Should have bought a wider one that doesn’t screw on the lens to be able to use with different lenses.

  • dara

    Portable, fast to set up, and steady the camera decently.
    a href=”http://jek.ir/tag/%DA%A9%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%B4%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%B3%DB%8C-%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%B4%D8%AF-%D8%A8%D8%AF%D9%88%D9%86-%DA%A9%D9%86%DA%A9%D9%88%D8%B1″ title=”???????? ???? ???? ?????”>???????? ???? ???? ????? – ??? ??? ???????? ????

  • darya

    I’ve noticed that too. If DPS are reading this then I’m using Chrome. It might have something to do with the last Chrome update.
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  • Darryl Lora

    Ahh Ron, great tip. thanks a heap! I have amputated most of my fingers on my ‘good’ hand and have real difficulty unscrewing the filters!

  • Lee Whalley

    I think of f-stops in terms of doughnuts, trouble is it makes me hungry lol!

  • Amir

    Thank you for this good article. In a part of this article you mentioned about lens diffraction and light disbursement. “When you shoot with the smallest aperture your lens allows, you may cause lens diffraction…”. I actually had this experience when i was trying to shoot a night cityscape using “bulb mode”. I wanted to keep my shutter open for a couple of minutes so I had to go for a very small aperture. The result was not as I expected. City lights were not star-like and sharp at all. Can you help me with this problem? From which f-stop number does this light disbursement happen so i make sure not exceed that f-stop number next time i shoot in bulb mode (if it can be formulated of course)?

  • theresa

    What mode should I use when using a graduated ND filter? Aperture priority, shutter priority or manual mode?

  • Clive

    You mention the screw in type, but almost all Pros, Semi Pros etc recommend the square slot type from Lee, Cokin etc and generally say you should avoid Screw in ND filters.

  • Clive

    You need to take light readings first from the brightest and darkest areas to get the tonal range, then you can work out which ND to use and the required exposure time, then go to manual mode. You can download exposure times for ND filters to speed things up.

  • Clive

    The lights will over expose even if the exposure is say half a second and will come out as blobs. You can take a separate exposure just for the lights and then blend in a editing program, if you have the patience. City scapes are best taken at dusk or dawn where exposure can be much shorter.

    Lenses are always best when you don’t use them at their smallest or largest Fstop

  • Clive

    or slow or fast f number

  • John Barbiaux

    Hi Cive! I’m a pro and I’m telling you it’s ok to use whatever gets the job done. I’ve used both and they each have their strengths and weaknesses. I can drop a screw on filter into my pocket and not worry about snapping it or carrying extra gear to affix the filter to my lens. The images I’ve taken with either filter type are indistinguishable (I use pro quality filters whether they are screw on or slot)…. The quality of the glass you put in front of your lens is more important than whether it’s screw or slot type.

  • Clive

    Thanks for the info. I think resin grads would be okay for me and maybe a screw in polar.

  • Tawheed

    what if my camera don’t allow to change Aperture? (on Lumia 1020)

  • Damien Bruck

    When using said ND filter for the photos above in the article how close are they to SOOC? How much post processing did you do or will have to do? I know each situation is probably different but just an idea. Thanks! Also if you choose to use the screw in type ND filter do you need to rotate it finding the best “look” like you would do with a circular polarizer?

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