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How to Use ND Filters Creatively to Make the Most of a Scene

Photography is the art of capturing light. In many instances, harnessing the light and properly exposing a scene means controlling it first. This is necessary for many landscape scenes where contrast is high. You have likely seen high contrast many times: a sunset with dark foreground elements, a church with deep shadows, or a moonrise over a snow-filled background. Each of these situations (and many others like it) will present a challenge for you to overcome.

One of the tools that you have at your disposal to alter the amount of light hitting your camera’s sensor is neutral density filters (ND). These dark gray pieces of glass come in many styles (graduated, 1-stop, 2-stop, 10-stop, etc.) and do not alter the color of your image but do restrict the amount of light.

How to Use Neutral Density Filters Creatively to Make the Most of a Scene

I stacked a Graduated ND filter and ND Stopper for this image to control the gray sky and flatten the water around the island with a long exposure.

They provide an opportunity to control your exposure or create long exposures that emphasize static elements. This article will focus on Graduated ND filters that are clear on one half and dark on the other, as well as ND stoppers which are completely dark.

You can find more info here on dPS for learning about the fundamentals of using in ND filters. The rest of this article will focus on a few creative ways that you can experiment with ND filter angles, grades, and techniques to create unique shots.

Stack ‘em

You can easily combine ND filters to control more light in the scene as filter holders usually have more than one slot for multiple filters. Having multiple slots is a huge advantage because it allows you to stack filters on top of each other to control the light.

Be sure to think about creative combinations of filters to give you the most out of a scene. For instance, you may want to shoot a really long exposure to flatten out the water in a sunset, or you may want to control very bright highlights such as the sun. The table below outlines some of the possibilities that stacking filters can provide you.

GRADUATED FILTERS Graduated ND filters can be stacked on top of each other to control light and feathering at the horizon. Try stacking a hard-edged grad with a soft-edged grad to control more light high in the scene and then feather into a lighter foreground. An ND stopper filter will evenly stop out the light in the scene. You still need to control the highlights! Add an ND grad to control highlights in the scene and bring up the foreground shadows.
ND STOPPER You can combine an ND stopper with a flipped ND grad (i.e, put the dark side of the grad on the bottom). This approach is non-conventional but could be used if your highlights are at the bottom of a scene. See the Flip ‘em section of this article for more. Stacking ND stoppers on top of each other can give you very long (>1 minute) exposures even in the brightest conditions. This is a great tool for you to use to extend creativity mid-day.
How to Use Neutral Density Filters Creatively to Make the Most of a Scene

For this image, the boats in the harbor were important to complement the sunrise overhead. I stacked a Graduated ND filter and ND Stopper to control the sunrise and raise the foreground shadows.

How to Use Neutral Density Filters Creatively to Make the Most of a Scene

Preserving foreground highlights and shooting sunbursts can be difficult because of the extremely high contrast. I double-stacked graduated filters for this shot to give me a firm control of the highlights (the sun) and maintain the snowy landscape in front.

How to Use Neutral Density Filters Creatively to Make the Most of a Scene

This image was captured on a cold night in Minnesota (about -25F). At those temperatures, the sky after sunset has a purple hue, which was exacerbated by the double-stacked graduate filters that I used to control the light of the moon and allow you to see its craters.

Rotate ‘em

ND filter holders rotate easily around the lens giving you flexibility in the angle you choose. ND graduated filters are often aligned to the horizon by the photographer. This makes great sense if you have a flat horizon, but what if a mountain range is sticking up in front of you? You can take a little bit of creative license and easily align the ND filters to the angle of the mountains. Examine your scene and think about how the orientation and filters could emphasize foreground elements or draw the viewer’s eye.

In the images of Nugget Falls (below) in Juneau, Alaska I shot one image with a graduated filter flipped with the dark side of the sky and one over the falls. Although I personally prefer the images with the brighter falls, you can see how the lighter sky draws your eye to the mountain and glacier beyond the falls.

How to Use Neutral Density Filters Creatively to Make the Most of a Scene

How to Use Neutral Density Filters Creatively to Make the Most of a Scene

Hold ‘em

Let’s face it, you are not going to have a filter holder for every lens in your kit. However, that does not mean you cannot use filters! You can also hand hold a filter in front of your lens in a pinch.

I recommend that you mount your camera on a tripod before trying to hand hold filters. It will make them the easier to handle and allow you to compose your scene before adding the filter.

How to Use Neutral Density Filters Creatively to Make the Most of a Scene

I was not carrying a filter holder for a 100mm lens, but handheld the filter on this shot to raise the foreground shadows. Sometimes you have to make due with what you have.

Practicing in the Field

As you begin to use and experiment with ND filters you are going to grow as a photographer. Keep creativity in mind to give your shots a distinguished and unique look. As I like to say, “pixels are cheap” so be sure to make lots of pixels as you experiment with your ND filters.

I would love to hear how you have extended your photography through creative uses of ND filters.

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Ian Johnson
Ian Johnson

is a photographer, scientist, writer, wildlife biologist, musician, and woodworker located in Hoonah, Alaska. Described as a Renaissance Man, he lives and breathes the challenges and opportunities that life in rural Alaska can present. You can find him subsisting-in and photographing Alaska simultaneously. Ian writes a personal blog and sells print products on his website here.

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