If you think ND filters are ONLY for landscape photography, think again. Let me guide you through some other exciting ways to play with neutral density filters and the whole Manfrotto ND series.
If you “google” after ND filters, you’ll probably be misguided about their use. Most articles will suggest ND filters are used to allow long exposures, and used at day’s end, for those silky ocean photos everybody and their aunt create now. ND filters, in fact, can be used for much more, all throughout the day, to achieve different results. That’s what we’re going to explore in this article.
If you bought one or multiple ND filters after reading how important they are for landscape photography, and have put them aside after becoming tired of shooting silky ocean photos or silky cloudy skies, then this article may help you to revive your ND filter(s) from early retirement, reintroducing them in your photography for a whole series of other experiences that may well widen your views about their use… and about photography in general.
Before we continue, though, let’s look at ND or Neutral Density filters. As the name implies, they are neutral in colour, and come in different densities, allowing users to control the amount of light that reaches the sensor. NDs are available in two flavours: the integral ND, where each filter has the same density all over its surface, and Graduated Neutral Density which offers a darker area fading to the opposite side.
Both types of filters are common in landscape photography, although since the introduction of digital cameras and sophisticated editing software, the graduated neutral density filter – along with the non- neutral graduated, as it can come in different colours – has been left aside in many situations, as it is possible to reproduce some of its effects using software. There is no absolute consensus on this, with some authors swearing by the use in the field as the unique way to work, while others have completely stopped using GND or GD filters.
One common use for graduated filters is to darken the sky when there is a strong difference between it and a foreground area. It’s a viable solution, but it only works well when the area separating the two different exposures is a perfect line. Otherwise, you are faced with problems that many times ask for intensive post-production. It’s much easier, I believe, to take two images and work with layers to achieve a final result.
My position regarding the subject is simple: I’ve stopped using GNDs or graduated neutral density filters altogether a long time ago, although I believe they may still useful for some types of shoots. But as I do not need them for the photography I create, I prefer to either capture two photos or explore, if possible, the RAW file when editing images. This said, I keep using NDs because there is no other way to achieve the results they offer you. Or, some times, no other easy way.
I will still use NDs for long end of the day exposures as everybody else does, although my interest on that is minimal these days: I think the world already has enough photos of silky oceans taken at sunset. In fact, I rather go out in the middle of the day and keep those strong colours of noon, while introducing some movement in my image, simply because I can take my shutter speed to as much as nine stops down, if using a ND filter like the Manfrotto ND500, which reduces the light hitting the camera sensor by 9 stops. This means that at high-noon, for example, you can take your shutter-speed from 1/500 to a whole second. That’s the kind of “magic” that changes what happens within the frame in multiple ways.
It is usually this that catches people’s attention: the speed and how they can control it. It’s an interesting discovery, and one that people will gladly apply to landscape photography, as a means to introduce movement, which can be adapted to each author’s preferences. But adjusting the speed also means that another element of the exposure can be adjusted: the aperture. That’s something that should be taken into account if you like to control your Depth of Field.
Using ND filters to control DOF
Yes, often forgotten, a ND filter allows you to control Depth Of Field (or DOF), because with it you can solve one problem photographers have, many times, during the hours the sun is high in the sky: little control over the depth of field. In fact, as an example, if your starting exposure is something like 1/125 and f/16 at 100 ISO, you need to go all the way up to 1/8000 to open the lens at f/1.8. If you also want to use a slower shutter speed, for creative reasons, you’ve no way to achieve your results.
The image published above shows what can be achieved, although in a very different situation. This archaeological artifact was photographed inside a display cabinet, and to keep everything behind it out of focus, while playing with a long exposure – 30 seconds – for light-painting (something we will look at in a future article), a ND filter was used to create the conditions needed.
Video cameras already come with integrated ND filters, with values up to 6 stops of variation, exactly because video is usually shot at low shutter speed values, and there is not other way for cinematographers to get that “cinematic look” we love so much, with a main subject perfectly detailed and a diffused background. So, there you’ve it, ND filters are an essential tool for videography.
If you’re also interested in capturing video with your camera, a set of ND filters is an essential tool in your bag, so why not also use them for photography, opening new realms of experimentation? The application of ND filters in photography to control DOF follows the same principle as in video, with the difference that you have more flexibility in terms of shutter speeds used. In fact, with them you’ve absolute control over not only shutter speed, even in the middle of the day, but also when it comes to what is in focus and out of focus in your still images.
Using ND filters in flash photography
One good example of the unique use of ND filters comes with flash photography, and this has to do, to some extent, with the control over depth of field, although another reason also justifies the use of NDs: power.
In fact, when shooting outdoors with flash, photographers have, many times, to contend with the problems of flash sync. If you need to separate your main subject from the background, you’ll find it is hard to do so when your speed is limited to 1/250 or whatever your flash sync speed is (usually a number around 1/250, 1/200). The alternative is to use High Speed Sync, which allows the flash to work up to the highest shutter speed the camera offers. Being able to go up to 1/8000 to control DOF and your exposure is great… but means that your flash will probably not be able to offer the quantity of light needed then.
You see, the way a flash is able to work above its normal sync speed is by pulsing light continuously even before the shutter opens. While it works, the power of the unit is greatly reduced, meaning you’ll probably need more flashes to properly illuminate your subject. Besides, as the flash needs to use more energy, the charging time is longer, meaning you’ve to wait between flashes if you are using High Speed Sync, and your batteries will drain very quickly.
It’s here that the ND enters to create some magic. By using it, you can control your exposure completely: use the normal flash sync (1/250 or whatever your camera gives you), where you get the most power from your flash, and control depth of field through the neutral density of the filter used. Depending on the light, you may need a different density. I’ve found that the Manfrotto ND8, which reduces light by 3 stops, may become a star and a much needed element to have in your photo bag. The Manfrotto ND64, which takes 6 stops from the light going through it, is also to consider. In fact, the two references may well be the most useful for general photography, so I advise you to buy both, if total control over your exposure is something you have as a goal. Or go a little further and buy the third filter, ND500, if you want to be ready for all situations.
Using ND filters for solar eclipses
While there is some controversy about the use of ND filters for solar eclipses, as generally NDs do not filter the radiation from the Sun, the truth is that many photographers will use NDs, especially because they don’t shoot eclipses on a regular basis. If the subject interests you, “google” after it and you’ll find a lot of information available online, including references to the special solar filters available. This said, in a pinch ND filters will allow you to photograph a solar eclipse, as I had the opportunity to test during the recent total eclipse in the United States, which I photographed as a partial in Europe.
The eclipse allowed me to test the Manfrotto ND filters. Before you get excited, please take note of some important things to always keep in mind: you need at least two filters, ND500 and ND64, giving you a total of 15 stops, mounted on the front of your lens before you even think of pointing your camera at the Sun. Using the ND8 too, which will give you 18 stops of light reduction is not a bad idea, and I tried that while testing the filters. Another important thing to remember: never look directly at the Sun through the viewfinder, because it will damage your eyes. Don’t take risks!
With the two or three filters in place (and only then), use LiveView to control exposure and the framing. LiveView means you will not look directly at the Sun, but at the LCD, so you’re safe. But with LiveView the Sun is going directly into your camera, so only use it for brief moments, to compose and expose each shot. Better be safe than sorry. Either deactivate LiveView or simply place the lens cap or some other protection over the front element of the lens, between shots.
Because I photographed the partial eclipse from Europe, at the end of the day, I only used the ND500 and ND64 for my photos, after trying the three filters together. That was enough for my exposures – which, still, were around 1/500 f/8 at 100 ISO – something which tells you about the power of the light from the Sun. So, whatever you do, be aware that while it can be done, you always have to make sure you’re not creating a situation that will damage your eyes and/or camera.
Using ND filters to make things disappear
Neutral Density filters are great to make one magic trick, as they allow you to make things disappear from your photos. When photographing a monument, for example, and wanting to remove people or vehicles, a ND filter – or more – may be the solution, as it allows you to create one single image where the monument stands out.
While on a day shoot to photograph and old Roman bridge recently rebuilt, I applied the technique just to show you an example of what is possible to achieve. The two images published here are similar in terms of lighting, the difference being that the first one was made with a 5 second exposure and the second with a 30 second exposure. I moved along the framed area at about the same pace for both photos, and while on the first the camera registered me looking at the sign, on the second I am no longer visible. To keep the lighting similar between shots I added ND filters as needed, and that’s another good reason to not buy just one filter, but the whole collection.
The logic behind the process is simple: if everything that is not static keeps moving during exposure, your final image will not show the moving element. While there are techniques to do this with multiple images, in the computer, taken so the software can compute all moving elements out of the image, the ND long exposure is a viable solution, sometimes. And it works both during the day – well, depending on how much light there is – and at night.
An article published here at Manfrotto School of Xcellence previously, Ghosts from Last Summer – Exploring Light at High-Noon, explores the technique to create a body of work that can give readers ideas for other projects in the same vein, and that will keep your ND filters as something you always carry in your photo bag. I keep exploring the potential uses of ND filters, and have plans to share some ideas with participants in the next Scott Kelby’s Worldwide Photowalk I will lead, this October, and also integrate some of the techniques in my workshops and photo tours.
Adding filters for even longer exposures
I’ve used different brands of filters before, and I’ve had to live with the usual problems of filters that should be neutral but usually have a colour cast of some sort, from magenta to green or bluish. If a single filter shows a cast, then expect things to get worse when you start to mount filters together. While some of it may be adjusted in post, the truth is that I rather not have to, because it means I am not able to see, while in the field, the exact results I am after.
When I received Manfrotto’s filters for testing, I felt the urge to try them to see if there were colour casts. I found none deserving mention. Moreover, I found that I can mount the Manfrotto ND 64 and ND8 to achieve a total of 9 stops of exposure variation, and still there is no deviation from the no-filter exposure in terms of colour. While this means that light reaching the sensor travels through four surfaces instead of two – and the more glass you use, the less perfect the final image will be – I can report that I will not need to do any special post-processing to get rid of colour casts.
I later received the ND500 for testing, which offers 9 stops in one single filter, and that’s what I will use when I need to use high filtration values, but as I had three filters to experiment with, I went as far as using all of them to create some images. The 18 stops variation means that in most cases you’ll not even be able to use LiveView to get an indication of exposure, but then it is time to resort to old methods: using Bulb and some math to get an idea of the ideal combination of aperture and shutter speed. As some modern cameras also offer you a Bulb mode with included timer, it is much easier than I remember from film days.
The results I got with three filters stacked confirm that the Manfrotto NDs will not introduce any colour cast that destroys your image, and while I expect some vignetting and detail loss – after all light goes through six filter surfaces plus all the lens elements – the control over time that this series gives me is breathtaking. Yes, 18 stops maximum. That’s the reason why I suggest that if you want to play with NDs, you should invest in the whole collection. There is a lot of fun to be had with this type of accessories.