How to Use Neutral Density Filters to Make Better Landscape Photos


In an earlier article, I wrote that neutral density filters are the secret weapon of the landscape photographer. I couldn’t work without mine and I suspect most landscape photographers would say the same.

But why are they so useful? There are two reasons. One is that neutral density filters give you control over exposure, and the other is that they give you creative control over shutter speed.

Neutral density filters

Let’s take a closer look at these concepts.

What is a neutral density filter?

First, some definitions. A neutral density filter is one that blocks light. The result is that less light passes through the lens and reaches the camera’s sensor (or film).

There are several ways of measuring the strength of neutral density filters, but they are basically all different ways of stating how many stops of light the filter blocks. Typical strengths are one stop (0.3 or ND2), two stops (0.6 or ND4), three stops (0.9 or ND8), six stops (1.8 or ND64 )and ten stops (3.0 or ND1024). Some manufacturers even make neutral density filters that block 16 stops or more light, although these are more of a specialty item.

This photo shows a ten stop neutral density filter mounted on a lens. As you can see the filter is nearly opaque and you can’t see through it well.

Neutral density filters

Different kinds of ND filters

Neutral density filters block light evenly across the frame. Graduated neutral density filters, on the other hand, block light across just part of the frame. Half the filter is clear, and half is opaque, with a graduated area in-between (hence the name).

This photo shows a two stop Lee graduated neutral density filter in a square filter holder. The top half of the filter is dark (to block light) and the bottom is clear.

Neutral density filters

Graduated neutral density filters and the landscape

Graduated neutral density filters (often just called grads or GND filters) are used by landscape photographers to control exposure.

Imagine you are taking a landscape photo that includes the sky and the setting sun. In this scenario, the sky is much brighter than the foreground. If you expose correctly for the sky, the foreground goes dark. If expose correctly for the foreground, the sky is burnt out.

A graduated neutral density filter blocks light from the sky without affecting the foreground. If for example, the sky is three stops darker than the foreground then a three-stop graduated neutral density filter will help even out the difference between the two, allowing you to capture the scene in a single frame.

Here’s an example

For this first photo below I set the exposure by exposing to the right (on the histogram) so that there were no clipped highlights. The problem is that the bottom half of the photo is too dark. You can make it lighter  in Lightroom, but not without introducing noise.

Neutral density filters

I made another photo (below) and increased the exposure by two stops. The foreground is exposed properly but now the sky is burnt out. There is no way to bring back the lost highlight detail in Lightroom.

Neutral density filters

I made this last photo using a three-stop soft graduated neutral density filter. The filter allowed me to capture detail in both foreground and sky.

Neutral density filters

The advantage of using the filter is that it let me continue working as the light faded, taking longer exposures without having to bracket. The last photo of the evening had an exposure time of six minutes.

It also saves time in post-processing compared to using techniques like exposure blending or HDR in Lightroom. Before digital cameras (and processing), graduated neutral density filters were the only way that photographers had to balance out exposure between foreground and sky.

Disadvantages of graduated neutral density filters

Graduated neutral density filters do have some disadvantages.

The first is that they don’t work well with scenes broken by something that sticks up above the horizon (like a tree or mountain).

The photo below is a good example. The sky is a small part of the frame and it’s impossible to cover it with a graduated neutral density filter without making the rocks darker as well. The only solution was to take two different exposures, one for the foreground, the other for the sky, and blend them in post-processing.

Neutral density filters

Another disadvantage is that good quality graduated filters are expensive.

Despite this, some landscape photographers like to use them as it gives them choice. With graduated neutral density filters you can decide which technique is best suited for the scene you are photographing.

Neutral density filters and the landscape

Landscape photographers use neutral density filters for creative control over shutter speed.

Think about the exposure settings landscape photographers tend to use. You normally set ISO to the lowest setting and aperture to f/11 or f/16. This gives you maximum image quality (low ISO) and good depth-of-field (narrow aperture).

The shutter speed required to give the correct exposure will depend on the ambient light leves. In bright light, it might be around 1/125th of a second. In the fading light at the end of the day, it might be around 1/2 second.

But what if you want a longer shutter speed? This is where neutral density filters come in. They block light so that you can get longer shutter speeds. Longer exposures allow moving parts of the landscape (like clouds or water) to blur, which in turn creates mood and atmosphere.

The ultimate example of this is long exposure photography, where exposures of several minutes are used to blur the motion of the sea and clouds. Here’s an example. This photo was taken at ISO 200, at f/11 for 1/125th of a second.

Neutral density filters

With a neutral density filter, I was able to turn that into a shutter speed (exposure time) of 210 seconds. The photo is transformed.

Neutral density filters

The neutral density filters I use

One of the problems with neutral density filters is that there are so many to choose from. How do you know which ones to buy? Ultimately you have to decide how much you want to spend and then look at the options. But I can start by telling you which filters I own, why I bought them, and give you some tips for choosing filters.

Take note – filter size is a factor

But before I do that, I’d like to make the point that filters are very closely related to lens size. The bigger your lens, the bigger the filter required to cover the front element, and the more expensive it will be to buy. The difference can soon add up to hundreds of dollars. You have to bear in mind the filters you may want to buy later when you buy the lens itself.

My Neutral Density Filter Kit

My neutral density filter kit is the circular Formatt Hitech 72mm Firecrest Joel Tjintjelaar Signature Edition Long Exposure Kit #1. It contains three neutral density filters with strengths of three, six and ten stops respectively. You can also use two filters together to block nine, 13 or 16 stops of light. I bought the circular filters because they are less expensive than the square ones. (NOTE: if you plan to use your filters on multiple lenses, buy the size you need for the largest one, and get step-down rings to adapt the filters to fit the smaller ones – OR get the square drop-in kind instead.)

My Graduated Neutral Density Filter Kit

My graduated neutral density filter kit is the Lee Seven5 system, which I bought in a set that includes the filter holder, an adapter ring, and four graduated neutral density filters. The Lee Seven5 system is smaller (and less expensive) than Lee’s full size filters and is designed for mirrorless camera systems. This comes back to the point I made earlier about lens size.

I love these filters because they help me take photos like this.

Neutral density filters

I would love to hear from you what neutral density filters you use. Which ones did you choose and why did you buy them? What brands would you recommend to other photographers? Please let us know in the comments below.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about landscape photography then please check out my ebook The Black & White Landscape.

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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  • Marie

    Thank you for posting this article on ND filters – this is a huge help! If I may ask, in your photo of your 10stop filter, you used a circular, screw on filter, but for the graduated ND filters, you used the square attachable filters. Is there a distinction between the two? Are the square better for graduated ND, but the circular are fine for a 10 stop?

  • Hi Marie, that’s a great question.

    You should buy square Graduated ND filters so that you can move them up and down in the filter holder depending on where your horizon is.

    ND filters can be square or circular. I chose circular filters as they are cheaper.

  • Marie

    Ok, that makes perfect sense, thank you!

  • Oooh X-T1 with the 18mm! I have that exact kit, minus the filters. I don’t really use my 18mm much anymore though ever since I’ve chosen a little X70 as my everyday just-going-to-work-in-winter shooter. Also, great article! Do you sometimes use the ND filters for other types of photography, not just landscape? We don’t have much water or pretty landscapes around where I am, so I wouldn’t get one for that purpose, but I do find them interesting.

  • No, I just use the ND filters for landscape photography. But they may come in handy if you use a flash outdoors for portrait photography. This article explains why.

  • Makes sense, thank you for the article!

  • Donna J

    What timing – I bought my first ND filter today. I bought a variable filter that covers 3-9 stops depending on how much it is turned. Are these inferior to a single stop filter?
    Thanks for the great article!

  • Possibly, because it has two pieces of glass not one. But that won’t be any worse than stacking two ND filters together (which I do a lot) and I don’t think it will make any noticeable difference to image quality.

  • Marie

    Andrew’s professional opinion will be more valuable than mine, but my experience with a variable ND was horrible, and I was told after that unless you drop a huge amount of money on one, they are worthless. Mine gave off this large dark blue X in the middle of sll the photos I took. I will now just be purchasing a couple different single stop ND filters. Hopefully, your experience will be better than mine.

  • Mariana

    Is there a cheaper brand but still good you will recommend?

  • It depends on the strength of ND filter you want. If you need something like a ten stop filter there aren’t really any cheap options. You can go online and check prices and you’ll probably be able to find some Chinese made filters that are less expensive but the quality is an unknown factor until you try them out.

    If you’d like something like a two or three stop ND filter then these are much cheaper and more people make them. Check out brands like B&W and whatever else your local camera store or online retailer stocks.

    The weaker filters are not a bad place to start if you want to shoot long exposures in the evening. This is a good time to do so anyway as the dusk light is very beautiful. Ten stop ND filters are really for taking long exposure during the day. They are too strong to use at dusk.

    Hope that helps.

  • pete guaron

    Hi Andrew – great article, and a great introduction for anyone who hasn’t yet given NDs a try.

    I’m not into the notion of long exposure to make waterfalls or oceans or whatever turn creamy – I know it’s a tradition, but it has no appeal for me – I like my photos to show what I see, and I’d rather arrest things like water, than turn them into a custard. No probs if someone else has the opposite view – it’s simply a question of personal preferences.

    However that doesn’t rule out the use of NDs. And I love your ND filter kit. Hadn’t come across it in scouring the planet for suitable filters, but it reads as if it’s the ant’s pants & the bee’s pyjamas! 🙂

    With grads, I’ve gone for Formatt Hitech. If you’re doing heaps of stuff with grads, the systems like Lee are no doubt more suitable. For my limited usage, they’re mostly unwanted extra clutter, and my cam bag’s full enough with the stuff I use on a shoot. Of course that introduces an immediate & obvious limitation – the band where the dark & light areas flip can only be straightened or tilted, but no longer raised or lowered. But the gear we have these days is so much better than what was available a few short years back, that for my purposes I can work around that limitation by switching from a horizontal to a vertical format, and cropping during PP. And only needing the one filter.

    Which brings back the issue you touch on with your ND filter set – how much is enough? What density to choose? After trialing a couple of others on 70mm mounts, when I went to buy one with a 95mm mount, I opted for Formatt Hitech’s new IRND SE ND1.2 MC. Trusting soul that I am, I took the reviews at face value (some of the others reportedly had slight color casts, which I was anxious to avoid) and thanks to the Brexit vote in GB, I managed to hook one at a bargain price when the decision for the Brits to quit the EU sandbagged their foreign exchange rate. Happily for me, the damage struck just as I decided to purchase the filter – which was quite sufficiently expensive even so, and might have given the bank account cardiac arrest otherwise.

  • Arun V

    I intend to buy ND filter kit to use on Nikon DX camera with 18-55 kit & 55-200 lenses combo. which strength (ND2 / ND4 / ND8 etc..) to start with? my purposes are to shoot light trail, urban landscapes, waterfalls etc.

  • It all depends on what sort of shutter speed you think you might need. Waterfalls are best shot in the shade or on cloudy days and usually come out best with a shutter speed of around 1/4 to 1 second. You probably don’t need an ND filter to achieve those speeds, but a polarizer will come in handy for cutting reflections from rocks, leaves and water (and also blocks a stop or two of light).

    Light trails are shot at dusk or at night and again, you won’t need an ND filter to get the shutter speeds required.

    What kind of urban landscapes do you want to shoot? If you want to do long exposure photography on a cloudy day with shutter speeds of two minutes or longer you’ll need a ten stop ND filter. If you’re going to shoot at dusk or at night then you should have no problems getting shutter speeds of ten to thirty seconds without filters. If you want to extend them a bit more a three stop ND filter may be useful.

    Hope that helps.

  • Eno

    That was my experience with the variable ND filters too.

  • Tim Hills

    I made the mistake of purchasing a cheap (very cheap) set of ND and Grad ND filters. Not tried the grads yet and the only one I did try was the ND8, useless. The resulting image was practically unuseable. Hopefully the grads might actually be ok, but I guess its a case of you get what you pay for. In hindsight why did I think it was a good idea to put a cheap piece of plastic in front of my very expensive Canon ‘L’ Lens? Has anyone else had bad (or good) experiences with cheap filters?

  • born_2b_different

    You cranked it too much. You need to dial it back a bit.

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