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Why we use Neutral Density filters in photography

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

Landscape photography can be a challenging genre, but with the right tools and techniques, it can also be very rewarding. One of the most important tools in a photographers camera bag, are filters, specifically Neutral Density (ND) filters.

ND filters are designed to reduce the amount of light that enters the camera, and to do it without affecting the colours within the scene, which is useful in situations where the light is too bright for the camera to properly expose the image. ND filters come in different strengths, measured in stops, and typically range from 1 stop to 15 stops.

Using an ND filter will allow you to slow down the shutter speed and capture the movement of clouds, water or other moving elements in the scene while keeping the rest of the image sharp. This can create a sense of motion and add an interesting dynamic to the image. ND filters also can be useful in situations where you want to create a shallow depth of field in bright light conditions, by allowing you to use a wider aperture than the ambient light would normally allow, while still keeping the shutter speed low, great for a portrait in bright conditions for instance.

A special type of ND filter is known as the Big Stopper, which blocks 10 stops of light and allows for very long exposure times. Images created with a Big Stopper can look ethereal, especially when moving water or clouds are in the scene. Careful setting of the shutter speed is needed but there are lots of resources to help, such as the app from Lee Filters, which lets you select which filter you are using (Little Stopper - 6 stops, Big Stopper - 10 stops, Super Stopper - 15 stops) followed by the shutter speed for a standard exposure, and it will tell you what shutter speed is required to achieve the same exposure but with the filter attached.

Another popular type of ND filter is the Graduated Neutral Density filter (GND). These filters are similar to ND filters, but as the name suggest, they are graduated, meaning they go from dark to clear. GND filters are most often used in situations where the sky is much brighter than the foreground, which often means the camera cannot capture the detail in the shadows without blowing out (overexposing) the lightest parts of the scene. By using a GND filter, you can balance the exposure between the sky and the foreground, ensuring that both are properly exposed in the final image. Without the filter, multiple images would be needed, which are then later merged in post-processing.

The most popular ND Grads are the square/rectangular ones that can be moved up and down in the filter holder to apply the effect at just the right place in the scene. However, you can get them as round filters that screw to the front of the lens, but these are a little limited as the graduation line is fixed to the centre of the image.

At JRMGallery Workshops, I have a range of Lee100 filters for you to try when you attend one of my workshops, so feel free to let me know what filter thread your lenses have when booking onto a workshop, so that I can make sure I have a suitable adapter ring for you.

In conclusion, Neutral Density filters can be a valuable tool for landscape photography, allowing you to achieve a greater level of control over the exposure of the image and create photographs that are more interesting and visually appealing.

Remember, practice is key and don't be afraid to experiment with different combinations of filters to find what works best for you.

Happy shooting!


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