A neutral density (ND) filter is one of the most versatile accessories you can have in your camera bag. They may be small, but ND filters open up a range of creative options for photographers.
If you need some inspiration on where to use your neutral density filter, keep reading. In this article, I’ll share with you some of my favorite places to use ND filters for long exposure photography.
What is an ND filter, and why would I want to use one?
A neutral density or ND filter is a piece of glass that sits in front of your lens and reduces the amount of light that reaches the sensor.
If you’ve never used an ND filter before, you might be wondering why you’d want to do this; let me explain.
Many long exposure photography beginners shoot at night. Here, a shutter speed of a few seconds or more is necessary for an accurate exposure of the scene, and any movement captured in the image is magically transformed into a thing of beauty. If your camera is steady on a tripod, buildings remain in sharp focus, but the movement of car headlights or rushing water is captured as interesting streaks in the image:
Capturing this kind of effect can only be done after dark, right?
With an ND filter, you can take stunning long exposures during the day.
You see, if you don’t use an ND filter, a long exposure in bright daylight conditions would result in an overexposed image. But with an ND filter reducing the amount of light that reaches the sensor, you need to use a much slower shutter speed to photograph the scene. This allows you to capture movement.
There are so many amazing places where you can use an ND filter to take stunning long exposure photos. I’ve listed some of my favorites below, starting with:
Waterfalls are the place many photographers try out their ND filters for the first time.
They’re certainly a fantastic location for you to start; flowing water is transformed into a silky-soft cascade, which gives images a real wow factor.
Just watch out for mist and water spray and make sure it doesn’t cover your filter and lens!
The intensity of a waterfall can depend on recent rainfall. But the good news is that, no matter how large or small the waterfall is, it’ll look amazing when shot with an ND filter.
2. Rivers and harbors
Rivers and harbors are fantastic places to capture movement and lights along with the flow of water.
During daylight hours, it’s possible to capture the movement of boats along the water. And as the sun goes down and the city lights come on, ferries and boats create colorful light trails that can bring an image to life.
I love this image of a ferry on Sydney Harbour:
Thanks to my ND filter, I was able to use a shutter speed of around 1s, giving the ferry a nice, colorful blur (while buildings behind it remain in sharp focus).
3. Ocean pools
Saltwater ocean pools dot the Australian coastline, with most of them found in the state of New South Wales. The pools are very popular with locals and tourists alike and can get very busy each morning. But the good thing about these iconic locations is that you have another body of water to photograph alongside the sea.
This image was taken early one morning in Yamba, New South Wales:
I framed the pool in the foreground with the sea and the cliffs in the background. As I was taking a series of long exposures with a 10-stop ND filter, a swimmer jumped out of the pool right in front of me, creating a ghostly figure in the foreground of the frame.
The image below was taken at 6 AM (when it was already very bright). I was attracted to the scene by the reflections in the flooded area next to the pool, which contrasted nicely with the pool’s ethereal-looking water and the waves of the ocean on the far left.
Traffic trails are typically one of the first things photographers shoot when they start taking long exposure images. Well after the sun has sunk below the horizon, a shutter speed of between 5 and 15 seconds is often needed to create a properly exposed shot, resulting in a colorful blur of traffic trails.
But if you have an ND filter, there’s no need to wait until after dark.
This is a composite of images I took with my ND2 filter at a subway station in Taipei, Taiwan:
I knew I needed an exposure of a few seconds to make the most of the traffic and the subway train in the image. But it was too bright, and my exposure times were barely a second. Adding an ND filter allowed me to capture this scene as I had envisioned, and the final file is a composite of some of those long-exposure images.
Funfairs and carnivals are fantastic places for photography. There are so many opportunities: people, rides, food, and animals, to name just a few.
And when the sun goes down, don’t head home – set up your tripod for some long exposure images.
That’s exactly what I did for this image of a sideshow alley at Brisbane’s Royal Queensland show four years ago. The photo has been shared on Instagram every year since – sometimes with my permission, sometimes without. With an ND2 filter, I was able to take exposures that were twice as long as usual.
6. Unique natural attractions
Okay, so I’m cheating a little with this last image by combining two places I’ve already mentioned: a waterfall and the sea.
This stunning location (below) is the village of Gásadalur in the Faroe Islands. Unfortunately, there are not many places in the world where you can see such an incredible sight, though there are probably many unique natural locations near where you live.
Gásadalur was number one on my list of places to photograph when I visited the Faroe Islands in 2017. Blessed with sunny weather on my first day, I headed to the coast just outside the village to take this shot. I wasn’t disappointed.
6 places to use ND filters: final thoughts
Neutral density filters are quite possibly the handiest accessory photographers can keep in their camera bags. They have many uses, but the most common is to take photos with a slow shutter speed.
This makes ND filters a must-have for long exposure photography during daylight hours; you can use them to blur subjects that would otherwise be frozen.
It’s always fun to get out your tripod and ND filter and experiment!
Now over to you:
What are your favorite places to use ND filters for long exposure photography? Share your thoughts (and long exposure images) in the comments below!