How to Master Using Neutral Density Filters
Creating long exposure photos is one of the best ways to turn an otherwise “okay” photo into one that totally wows. By introducing blurred movement – clouds, water, passing cars, or people – you create an image that has much more visual appeal and a little bit of whimsy, too. But mastering the art of using neutral density filters isn’t as simple as slapping a filter on your lens. Instead, bear the following tips in mind for the best results.
Use a Tripod
Since using a neutral density filter is all about enabling you to use slower shutter speeds, you definitely need to support the camera with a sturdy tripod. Even if the shutter speed is relatively fast, like 1/30 seconds, the likelihood that camera shake will occur due to the tiny movements of your hands as the shutter is open is quite good. So, to get the sharpest results, get your camera set up on a good, solid tripod, ensuring that the legs are locked and the tripod’s feet are on stable ground. If your tripod has a center column hook, hang your camera bag or another heavy item from it, that way it will help weigh the tripod down and give it extra stability.
Furthermore, if your tripod has an integrated bubble level, use it to make sure that the horizon is perfectly straight. Wonky horizons will ruin your photos!
Shoot in RAW
There’s no reason why you shouldn’t shoot your long exposure photos in RAW format. RAW files retain all the detail that the sensor collects, thereby giving you much more data to work with in post-processing. That’ll come in handy when you edit your photos and want to work on highlights, shadows, colors, contrast, and other elements of the image. That’s especially true of long exposure photos that often need a little touch-up here and there to maximize the ethereal look that the blurred motion gives the shot.
Try shooting at a lower perspective to incorporate more foreground into the shot. This is especially beneficial for making the primary subject in your long exposure image look larger and more powerful in the frame.
Incorporate Static Elements
What’s so great about long exposures is that the indicated movement of the blurry elements helps create an image that has tons of life. You can amplify that feeling, though, by incorporating static elements to give the shot visual tension. In the image above, for example, the rocks in the river provide that tension – they’re perfectly in focus in the midst of the beautifully blurred waters of the river.
The same goes when photographing other long exposure subjects…
If photographing passing cars, include things like buildings or a bridge in the background. If photographing a landscape with blurry clouds, be sure to have something like a mountain peak or other immovable element in the shot as well. Creating that visual tension between moving and static objects makes for a much more interesting photo!
Don’t Use Cheap ND Filters
While it can be tempting to get on Amazon and order the cheapest neutral density filter that you can find, you’ll definitely get what you pay for. Cheap ND filters can cause all sorts of problems, from color casts in the images you take to light leaks, ghosting, flare, and other aberrations that detract from the quality of your shots. Instead, spend a little more money and invest in a good ND filter that actually has the chops to do what it’s supposed to do.
A great option that’s budget-friendly is the Marumi line of neutral density filters.
These filters (like the ND8 shown above) have an AR multicoating that helps reduce surface reflections, that way the scene comes through beautifully without the distraction of intense reflections. The outer rim of the filter glass is also blackened, which is a great feature because it helps reduce ghosting and flare, which as noted above, is a common problem with neutral density filters. What’s more, Marumi has outfitted their neutral density filters with an ultra-thin frame that vastly reduces vignetting, which is a major problem for lesser filters.
You’ll also appreciate the fact that the filter frame has a satin finish that reduces reflections off the frame. In other words, the Marumi line of ND filters – which come in various strengths including ND8, ND16, ND32, and ND64 – has everything you need in terms of the features and functionality for long exposure photography while also being budget-friendly.
That means that you can take better-quality long exposure photos without busting your budget.
What’s not to like about that?!