Long Exposures – Using ND Filters

The Neutral Density filter is a very handy filter to have in your camera bag. Although it doesn’t get used that often in our Travel Photography it certainly should be near the top of your list of “must-have” creative filters.

The GOBE ND512 has a 9-stop light reduction equal to an ND optical density of 2.7

The URTH ND1000 has a 10-stop light reduction equal to an ND optical density of 3.0

So, what is a Neutral Density Filter?

Neutral Density Filters (ND) reduces light from reaching your sensor/film. In essence, it is the same as putting a dark piece of glass in front of the lens. The filters can range anywhere from 1 stop to 20 stops reduction in light. Probably the most common strengths are the 6 stop and 10 stop filters but many photographers also favour the flexibility of a Variable ND Filter which will allow multiple strengths in the one filter. The filters can be referred to in 3 different ways. The list below refers to a 10 stop filter –

  1. By the amount of light reduction in stops eg 10 stops
  2. By the optical density of the filter eg 3.0
  3. By the filter factor eg. ND1000

Besides the amount of light they reduce in stops, these filters also can be referred to by the optical density of the filter eg. ND 3.0. This would reduce about 10 stops of light. To calculate the reduction of light of any Neutral Density Filter simply multiply the optical density by 10 then divide by 3 to obtain the f-stop reduction in light. For example, a 3.0 filter is 3.0 x 10 = 30 / 3 = 10 stops and a 0.9 filter is 0.9 x 10 = 9 /3 = 3 stops.

Most photographers use these filters to create a smooth water effect or to blur moving clouds in an image to give it mood and emotion although it also has other benefits.

In the middle of the day, you will sometimes find that the light levels when shooting are too bright to allow you to shoot at slow shutter speeds even when stopped down to the smallest aperture (usually F22) and the ISO is set to its lowest (usually 50 or 100). Although the shutter speed will be reduced dramatically it usually will not be enough to get the effect you want especially when shooting the following –

  • Waterfalls – where you want that dreamy blur look of the water cascading over the waterfall.
  • Seascapes – to create the misty look and soft flat look in seascape shots.
  • Clouds – for images that you want blurred/streaky clouds.
  • Reduce the visibility of moving objects  For example, removing people from shots in busy thoroughfares.

In many cases, the use of an ND filter will extend your exposure beyond what you can handhold so you obviously will need to use a tripod and a shutter remote. Also, most cameras only have minimum shutter speeds of 30sec which means you will need to shoot in BULB mode. One of the easiest ways to calculate the exposure beyond your cameras minimum shutter speed is to simply take a light reading before applying the ND Filter and calculate the exposure using a phone app (search for ND Calculator in the app store). You will need to only enter the strength of ND Filter you are using and it will give you an exposure in sec/min. Alternatively, you can always try to calculate manually in your head by the strength of the filter eg if your shutter speed without the filter is 1/60th then 10 stops would be 1/30th, 1/15th, 1/8th, 1/4, 1/2, 1sec, 2sec, 4sec, 8sec, 16sec. Your exposure after mounting the ND Filter would be 16sec.  After your first shot, you could also check the in-camera histogram to make sure you have a good exposure and adjust your shutter speed based on the result.

There are quite a few brands on the market but beware as you can get some weird effects with some brands and therefore we recommend that you stick with the well-known brands such as Hoya, B+W, Tiffen, Formatt-HiTech, Singh Ray, NiSi , *URTH (formerly Gobe), and Lee. If you live in Australia you can buy NiSi filters here. We haven’t noticed any colour cast on images taken with the ND512 filter, however, the B+W ND110 does have a slight red colour cast but this is easily corrected in post-processing.

*Use the coupon code ‘widescenes’ to receive a further 15% off all URTH products

The filters are also generally quite expensive so make sure that you keep it clean and scratch-free. Make sure you keep it in its original plastic container or in a soft filter holder. Also note that with the increased exposure time, every spec of dust on your sensor is amplified so you may need to do a bit of cleaning of the image in your post-processing.

The image above was taken in the Bay of Fires Conservation Area in Tasmania. As soon as we saw this image we knew it would be a great shot using the Hoya ND400 filter (9 stop). We took several images as the water wasn’t always extending as far into the foreground as we wanted. In Photoshop we simply opened the images we wanted to use as layers and using masks we painted through the water in the foreground to give it more blur and making it a better image.

If you love extremely long exposures for special effects then try a filter with 13, 15 or even 20 stops reduction in light. URTH Filters (formerly Gobe Filters) produces great filters that are suitable for long exposures and produce fantastic results (you’ll need a filter holder to use these). Visit their site here and add ‘widescenes‘ at checkout to receive 15% off all their products.

Photography Planner
Gobe ND10000 (13 Stop) 100mm Square ND Filter
Pauly Designed Streetwear
Gobe 13 stop

Coral Coast, Fiji Islands. Shot taken with the Gobe ND10000 13stop ND Filter

We have released a free E-book which includes a step-by-step guide to using these filters for long exposures and a handy printable pocket guide to using the filters.

If you have any questions or comments we would love to hear from you.

Please Note: We may receive commissions when you click links and make purchases. However, this does not impact our reviews or recommendations. We try our best to keep things fair and balanced, in order to help you make the best choice.  

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