How to Use Neutral Density (ND) Filters

December 20, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Here is the original question from Jenny:

"Could you do something on long exposure? I went out yesterday with a 10 stop ND and tried it. My pictures were either too light even after stopping down the aperture and a low ISO. The other thing, even though on a sturdy tripod, most of them were too blurry. I was shooting in Manual and used the live view to focus. What gives?"

 

There are so many things that we try in photography that make us all think, “what gives?” I’m not sure what you were trying to photograph, but hopefully this will help!

 

What are ND Filters?

A neutral density – also known as a ND filter - is a filter with a dark appearance that is used to even out the exposure of different elements in your photo, such a bright sky and a dark foreground. Since the filter stops the light from reaching the camera sensor, it allows the photographer to leave the shutter open for a longer period of time than would be possible without the filter.

 

ND Filters come in different levels of density that are supposed to be the equivalent of stops. When looking for a filter, you will see that they have numbers with decimals and you’re not probably not really sure that that means. Here’s a quick reference guide to the numbers:

 

F-stop reduction

Density Rating (different depending on manufacturer)

1 stop

0.3

ND2

2 stop

0.6

ND4

3 stop

0.9

ND8

4 stop

1.2

ND16

5 stop

1.5

ND32

6 stop

1.8

ND64

7 stop

2.1

ND128

8 stop

2.4

ND256

9 stop

2.7

ND400

10 stop

3.0

ND1000

 

This chart is easily found on many websites, as well as charts that show you how the filters affect shutter speed.

 

How do they affect a photo?

Although they are dark when you look at them, they do not change the color of the photo. The main thing they do is block a large portion of the light that comes in through your lens from reaching your camera’s sensor. This allows you to leave the shutter open longer than you would normally be able to do.

How do you use them?

ND filters might sound complicated, but they are very easy to use! First thing you have to do is purchase a filter. If you’re not sure you want a 10-stop filter, another option is to get to smaller stop filters and you can stack them together. I purchased the 3 stop (0.9) and a 6 stop (1.8) that use separately, as well as stacking them together to have a 9 stop filter when needed.

Filters come in many different sizes for end of your lens. I recommend getting the 77mm since as you upgrade lenses, this will be the size of most glass in your bag. If your current lenses are not 77mm, you can purchase an inexpensive set up step-down rings that will allow you to use them on all of your lenses. This will help down the road instead of having to purchase additional filters. As with all things in photography, the more expensive filters will be better glass and are worth the investment. I personally use the B+W filters. I wasn’t happy to have to spend around $100 on a filter, but still having that same filter years later makes me happy I purchased this one instead of several cheaper ones.

 

What situations are they most useful in?

ND filters work magic in waterscapes where you want to give the water a smooth and silky feel. This also has the same effect on clouds. My favorite time to use them is for waterfalls!

Tips for success with ND filters

Since your shutter is open for a longer period of time, a sturdy tripod is essential. You’ll also want to make sure that you are on completely level ground so you don’t have to worry about your tripod moving accidentally on its own. It’s also a good idea to use a shutter release cable or remote release – the less contact you have with your camera the less chance of having camera shake affect your photo.

 

If you are using a 10 stop, focus your image and then put in manual mode so you don’t change. Once the filter is on you wont be able to see through viewfinder as the filter is very dark.

Hope this helps! I’m sure others of you have found other ways to use your ND filters… please leave a comment below to share your tips!


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