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One area most people don’t often experiment with is the purposeful use of long exposure times during the day. Night shots, streaking lights and star trails, are common and typically fairly easy compared to their daytime counterparts. For one thing, there’s so much light! Stopping down apertures and lowering ISOs only goes so far. The best most cameras can muster during the day is 1/10th of a second, maybe. To start adding dramatic effects to day time shots, neutral density filters can be employed.
A neutral density (ND) filter is akin to putting sunglasses on your camera, except that these sunglasses are neutral in color (although not all ND filters are made the same and some can cause a color cast). The filters are typically graded by how many stops of light they block out, such as 1 stop, 4 stops or even 9 stops. Beyond filters that are set at a particular density, variable neutral density (VND) filters can offer a wide range of effects. But not without some give and take.
I was lent a Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo filter to find some of these limits and like most products, it has its pros and cons. This filter is listed to range from 2 2/3 stops to 8 stops in density.
First, the filter comes in two sizes; regular and slim. Regular is 17mm thick and Thin is 14mm. That little bit of thickness can make a large difference in full frame cameras and wide angle lenses, which I will cover in a moment. The filters are only available for 77mm barrels, which can be a limiting factor for some (although filter thread reducers are available to make a 77mm fit on a 62mm lens, for instance). It comes in a nice leather pouch for safe keeping.
Second, this particular filter was built with a landscape photographer in mind. The filter has two rings that rotate. The outer most ring seen in the photo above (click to enlarge) is used to set the amount of density desired; from Minimum to Maximum. The bottom ring also rotates free of the upper ring and controls a circular polarizer, negating the need to add on a second filter (which would constantly need adjusting every time a bit of density was adjusted).
The advantage here is the ability to give more or less blur to the water, depending on your personal preferences. While the waterfall itself does not change drastically (the brightness of which is being aided by a gradient filter in Lightroom), the water in the foreground does feel different from shot to shot. Having this ability to adjust shutter speeds via the filter can be a useful tool in changing the nuance of a bright photo.
The first photo is without polarization and the second photo is with.
These really are the biggest advantages of using a VND filter with a polarizer. The ability to blur movement in broad or partial day light can be a boon to creative photographers. And the ability to control the amount of blur, while possibly keeping the aperture wide open, can lead to some interesting shots. Here are some other examples.
While the filter does allow for some interesting effects, it has its downside.
The Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo is a fun filter to use and, when given specific application, can yield some shots most can not achieve without it. My time testing the filter was too short as I would have liked to get into more varied situations (it also would have been helpful if it was more sunny in Seattle this year!). Right now the price tag has me holding back from pulling the trigger on a purchase. Yet with trips to Nepal, Bhutan, India and Peru this fall I am itching to snag one, knowing it will surely help me bring back lively photos.
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