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UfD: Neutral Density Filters

Back in the days of film there were so many filters. It would do your head in working out which ones you needed, why you needed them and when you needed to use them. There were red filters, blue filters, yellow filters, diffuse filters, soft focusing filters, polarizing and neutral density filters. There was a wide choice and they were all used for different things.

beaumaris-bay-pier-sunrise-melbourne

Taken with the ND Grad Reverse Filter

Thankfully in these new cameras your white balance looks after the need for many of those filters and we don’t need to have any where near as many.

There are still filters that we use and I’m sure will continue using for a very long time. The following are a group that seem to be gaining in popularity, though it could just be because I am noticing them more.

Neutral Density Filters

I really wanted to talk to you today about Neutral Density Filters or ND Filters, as they are more commonly known by. I am fairly new to using them, but I’m learning fast and the possibilities of when and how to use them seem endless.

ND filters are designed to block light entering your lens and camera. It is meant to be a neutral colour and not affect the colour of your images, but they all seem to have some sort of colour cast, though the good brands only do it slightly.

These filters can either be screw into the end of your lenses or you can buy square or rectangle filters that will fit into a holder that you attach to the end of your lens. I’ve always used the latter type, I like that you only have to buy different adaptor rings for different lenses, rather than new filters. All the images in this post are done with those.

ND Standard Filters

ndstandard

These are filters that are completely greyed out, you can see from the image above, and the darker they are the more light they block out.

You use these filters when you are somewhere and you want to get a slightly slower shutter speed. It might be early or late and you are losing the light, but you still can’t get a slow enough shutter speed to get the smooth water look. Maybe you are at a waterfall and it is fairly protected, and not well lit, but you can’t quite get that marshmallow effect, if you use one of these it could turn a Shutter Speed of 1/3 of a second to three or four seconds.  That could be all you need to get the image you are after.

Another thing you can do with these filters is stack them. You can use more than one together and it will give you more time, however you need to be careful because if the filters have any colour cast it will be exaggerated when you do this.

ND Graduated Hard Filters

ndgradhard

I am very new to using these and have recently just got my own set from Formatt Hitech.  I’ve used them a couple of times now, and not for how they are meant to be used.

The filter is a ND graduated filter hard, which means the neutral density part is on half or a little more than half, and the rest is clear.  The hard means it is an abrupt change from the clear to the grey.  You can see this in the image of the filters above.

You would use them when you are trying to take photos of something where part of the image is too bright, for example you want to photography a landscape, but the sky is very bright, even though there are clouds in it. You would use a ND graduated filter with the clear bit at the bottom and the neutral bit at the top.  This will help darken the sky and bring out the clouds and get a good exposure for the foreground.

The hard filters are good where there is a definite line,  like a horizon line , for the hard filter line and change between the neutral density and the clear filter.

ND Graduated Soft Filters

ndgradsoft

The soft ND graduated filters are similar to the hard, except the different between the clear and the neutral part is more gradual, so the change is more subtle.  It can be harder to see it through the camera.

You would use these filters when there aren’t any clear definitions between the bright areas and the dark areas.  I would use one of these if I were somewhere like a waterfall and the fall is down a gully or something, but there is bright light at the top, but it is coming through a crevice, so the hard filter won’t work, but the soft will help block some of that light, but not give you a hard line definition between the filter and clear part.

ND Graduated Reverse Filters

ndgradreverse

This is a fairly new filter to me. I only heard about it very recently when I was looking at the Formatt Hitech website.  This is very similar to the other graduated filters, except this time instead of it being darker at the top it is darker in the middle.  It is a good filter for doing sunsets and sunrises.  You can put the darker part where the sunrise is, it will mean that you will get a more even exposure over the whole image. We have all had trouble getting sunrises or sunsets where the colours get washed out.

This filter helps you get a much better exposure. I like it a lot.  I got the 0.6 filter, and I think I should have gotten the 0.9 one. It will be one of my next ones.

Long Exposure ND Filter

firecrest16

This is a very new filter for me, but one I love a great deal.  They are very dark and it is almost impossible to see through them.  They all come in different stops, and you can get different filters that do different stops.  I have a 9 stop, a 10 stop and my latest the Firecrest 16 is a 16 stops filter.

So what do they all mean, let’s see if I can explain, if we set the camera up so we had an aperture of f11, a shutter speed of 1/250th and an ISO of 100 then you would get the following times.

  • 9 stop – 2 seconds
  • 10 stop – 4 seconds
  • 13 stop – 30 seconds
  • 16 stop – 4 minutes and 22 seconds

I used an app on my phone to work out the times.  If you want to get those photos where the clouds are all blurred, then you really need to have one of these. Any of these will get you that effect, it is all up to price and how much you want to pay.  I have three of them, and would like to add the Firecrest 13 to my kit at some point as well.  I have used them mainly for the clouds and the water effect, but I have some plans for experimenting more with them, but you will have to wait to see those.

In the End

They are great to have in your kit.  I would recommend going out and buying them all, but that would be quite expensive.  I started with a ND standard filter, it was a ND8 and I had it for a while before I start seeing work done with the other filters that gave you more of a longer exposure.

When it comes to brands there are a few that I would recommend, Formatt Hitech definitely and I have quite a few of them, and love them.  Lee filters are also good and my 10 stop is the Lee Big Stopper.  I have some Cokin filters too which I also think are quite good, my ND Soft grads are Cokin and I have a ND8, which is one of the standard ones that I use a lot.  I’ve heard many people talk about Singh-Ray filters, I don’t have any, and you can’t buy them in Australia I believe.  I’ve looked at getting some, but with our exchange rate they are really way too expensive for me.

I am going to put a gallery together for you now, I think I have photos taken with most of the filters above, I will add captions so you can see, oh I don’t really have any taken with the ND grad hard yet, I haven’t had them long enough.

I would also like to thank Formatt Hitech for allowing me to use the images of their filters from their website.

71 Comments
  1. Reminds me of the old days – one carried a camera bag and a filters bag. 🙂

    June 5, 2015
    • All those filters, I still have lots of them, don’t really know what to do with them now. 🙂

      June 5, 2015
  2. Great information! I had no idea there were so many different filters or even how you would use them. Also, thanks for the tip on stacking them. The possibilities are endless!

    June 5, 2015
    • There are, one of every occasion, well, almost, you’re welcome, if I can help that’s great. Thank you.

      June 5, 2015
  3. Thanks Leanne, informative and very timely for me – I’ve recently invested in a nine-stop ND filter but haven’t put it through its paces yet. Good tip about the exposure app, definitely a handy accessory.

    June 5, 2015
    • Oh yes, the exposure app is fantastic, takes a lot of the guess work out, I use Exposure Calculator, quite good, well the best one I’ve found for Android. Have fun with your 9 stop filter.

      June 5, 2015
      • I’ve got the very same app. Works a treat. I was going to try some cloudscapes with the many tower blocks around here. Look forward to seeing more of your results, Leanne.

        June 5, 2015
      • That sounds great Mike, I’m hoping to do some similar things this weekend. Good luck.

        June 5, 2015
  4. Beautiful! I love the sky rushing to meet the sea in the last. ND filters are tricky- I haven’t mastered them yet.

    June 5, 2015
    • They can be, but I think a lot of photography things are, what are you having trouble with Cybele? Thank you, I like your description.

      June 5, 2015
      • oh sometimes I get dark edges! So I really have to be careful! But I also need glasses lol!

        June 5, 2015
      • Haha, I have glasses, though they don’t always help. If you are getting dark edges the filters might be too small for you lens, or too thick.

        June 5, 2015
      • thanks Leanne!!

        June 6, 2015
      • 😀

        June 6, 2015
  5. thanks for sharing your experiences with these filters, I will definitely pick one up to test :-).

    June 5, 2015
    • You’re welcome, I really enjoy using them, the trick for me now is to still take photos without them. 🙂

      June 5, 2015
  6. Fantastic post, great shots, Leanne and thank you for sharing your camera knowledge and know-how. Definitely got the ‘filter bug’ now!

    June 5, 2015
    • Thank you and you are welcome, it seems to be a bug that is very catching.

      June 5, 2015
  7. These are beautiful photos leanne! I’ve got a neutral density filter, I’ve yet to experiment a bit more with it but they’re fun to use and I love the result they give.

    June 5, 2015
    • Thank you Sabrina, They are fun and I agree, you can get some great results. I’m still experimenting, which is half the fun I think.

      June 5, 2015
  8. I used to have a lot of cokin filters. They were more the fun filters. I loved the fact that you could do a little of the editing before you shot the image. Especially when all the post processing was in the darkroom. Now I tend to use the preset filters on my camera.

    June 5, 2015
    • When I was using film Cokin seemed to be the best filters to use. I think they are pretty good, perhaps they don’t have the reputation of Formatt Hitech or Lee, but they are great filters for beginners to start with. The problem for me now is more that they don’t do the ones for longer exposures, which is something I want to do more of, so I’ve had to find other brands, but I am really enjoying using the Formatt-Hitech ones.

      June 5, 2015
  9. Les #

    Thank you for this information. The ND Filter is one that I have in my gear bag and use it on occasion. I use my Polarizing Filter more than anything. Have just gotten started on learning my Hoya R72 Infrared Filter. It’s a whole new world with this.

    June 5, 2015
    • I am the opposite to you Les, I like my ND filters more than my polarizer, I get frustrated with the polarizer and I find the skies can look too saturated, good if you want to do black and white, but that’s about it for me. Though I keep thinking I should try it in the city for taking photos in shop windows. I’ve never used a infrared filter, I can imagine how different it would all be.

      June 5, 2015
  10. Thanks Leanne, I have try a few before but couldn’t bother to use them. I will have to try again to see the different effect.

    June 5, 2015
    • They do take a bit of effort, but something it is so worth it. I find once I have it on I just want to keep trying things and taking photos with them. You’re welcome.

      June 5, 2015
      • Thanks Leanne and will try my hand on some of it. As I find it is a burden to carry all these stuffs when trekking as it is too heavy even with a good photography bag.
        I will want to invest the filter which able to screw onto the lens so that will be much easier for me.
        Thanks for sharing this filters post it is an eye opening for new things to learn and invest.

        June 5, 2015
      • I usually know when I was to do some photography with the filters, so I only take one or two lenses with me. I try to limit how much stuff I take.
        Others like those filters, not something I like, but that’s me.
        You’re welcome, glad I could give you some new information.

        June 5, 2015
      • yea, this is a good information on what to invest and learn from my hobby of photography.

        June 6, 2015
      • That’s great Cattan.

        June 6, 2015
  11. very educational and helpful, I can see how Filters create that soft blurred look that is so lovely! I’m actually taking notes so I don’t forget lol

    June 5, 2015
    • The post will always be here Debi and feel free to ask any questions. I like the effect it gives you. I like that blurred cloud look as well.

      June 5, 2015
      • thanks Leanne for that kind offer! 🙂 When I see blurred soft edges, I relax and feel instantly at peace, so I know artistically, its my ‘home zone’ in painting or photo.

        June 5, 2015
      • Sounds like you should get some of the filters then Debi, they are really good to use and I love the effects 🙂

        June 5, 2015
  12. Fantastic explanation for each lens, thank you

    June 5, 2015
  13. I just got my first set of ND filters, for Mother’s Day. This post couldn’t have come at a better time. Thanks for the info Leanne. 🙂

    June 5, 2015
    • That’s wonderful to hear Tracey, I hope it helps you to work out when to use them. Thank you and you’re welcome. 🙂

      June 5, 2015
  14. Leanne: Thanks for this eye opener on ND filters as used today. So many changes have developed with digital photography, it’s good to see this non-post processing technique alive and well, certainly not mutually exclusive, however. This reminds me of my earlier photography days… and ND filters. I recently posted a piece about a total solar eclipse as my then girlfriend, (now wife,) witnessed in 1970. See: http://wp.me/p37YEI-1t3 The ND filter was essential to capture the non total (partial) phases, taped on to the front of a 10x finder scope, and removed quickly at the moment of totality. The set-up was pretty laughable, but the filter did the triclk. M 🙂

    June 5, 2015
    • It is, they are still used in the same way that they always have. I have never seen a total solar eclipse, we only get partial ones here, but I wouldn’t have thought of using the ND filter for it. Thanks for the tip. 🙂

      June 5, 2015
  15. I have boxes of old filters I never use. I use very few filters now.

    I don’t use UV filters any more because they increase flare, especially for live music or backlit shots. I might use them though in a desert environment with driving grit but I don’t think I’ve been in that situation yet.

    I seldom use polarisers, just to enhance or remove reflections on water.

    I have 10-stop and 6-stop ND filters that I use occasionally. However I don’t use graduated filters, preferring HDR or graduated filters in post production to a hard or soft straight edge.

    June 5, 2015
    • I don’t have boxes of them, but I do have quite a few.
      I don’t use them either, I remember reading somewhere that unless you pay top dollar they can affect your images, so I use the lens hood to protect my lens.
      I’m with you on the polarisers, I have one, but hardly use it, I think it can saturate the sky too much, fine for monochrome, but not for colour.
      I am liking the graduated ones, I don’t like doing HDR too much anymore, I prefer manually doing it these days. Thanks Murray.

      June 5, 2015
  16. Great post Leanne and I now understand about the reverse ND! beautiful set of images! I have the Lee 0.9 and 0.6 hard Grad and a 0.9 soft & the Big Stopper which I seem to use most in combo with 0.6 hard grad. But I am at the early stage of using these, so still learning and experimenting!

    June 5, 2015
    • That’s great Chris, glad I could explain it. Thanks Chris. I think I use the longer exposure ones the most too. I feel a bit the same, they are fun to use and to see what you can do with them.

      June 5, 2015
  17. fantastic post leanne and beautiful images…..Thanks muchly I love thst smooth look on water : ))

    June 5, 2015
    • Thank you Trees, you’re very welcome.

      June 5, 2015
  18. I enjoy playing with filters too. The problem with a ND graduated filter is if there’s something on the horizon: for example if there’s tall building or trees, then these won’t get the correct exposure. So, in those cases it’s better to leave the filter alone and rather darken parts in the post processing.

    The filters I have is the type that you screw onto the lens. A good tip when it comes to those type of filters is that you fasten them tightly and then loosen them by turning them a half round back again. That way you won’t ruin the screw threads on your lens if you’re unlucky and drop your camera. The filter might be smashed, but you can still connect a new filter to your lens.

    Except for the typical water shots (when I almost always use a filter), I also like using my filters in the daytime in able to get long exposures – like in this shot: https://cardinalguzman.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/taking-it-easy/

    June 5, 2015
    • That’s a point, I think it depends on how bright the sky is too. I’ve been playing around with them, they can be fun, seeing what I can get.

      Thanks for the tip, I’m sure others will find that handy Cardinal. I don’t really have any filters like that.

      I want to do some shots like that too, I have some plans, might start trying some things this weekend. Thanks Cardinal.

      June 5, 2015
  19. Excellent summary, Leanne. Thanks!

    June 5, 2015
    • Thanks Robin, I was worried it would sound like I didn’t know what I was talking about.

      June 6, 2015
  20. Beautiful scenes, made even more beautiful by the use of the filters. ND filters are something I’m new with too, and I intend to invest time and effort into learning how to use them effectively, so your blog post was a nice read.

    June 6, 2015
    • Thank you Nikhil, I think it is worth the time and effort, the effects are so amazing. I love using them and seeing what I can do with them. That’s great, glad it was a good read, thanks again.

      June 6, 2015
  21. The best explanation I’ve gotten yet. A couple of my newest cameras have a built-in ND filter “effect.” I haven’t tried it yet, but I think I will. See if it works as advertised.

    June 6, 2015
    • That’s great Marilyn, glad it was easy to understand. Yes, see what they are like, could be interesting. Thank you.

      June 6, 2015
  22. Still the only filter to carry besides a CPL!

    June 6, 2015
    • Which one though, there are quite a few.

      June 6, 2015
  23. d #

    Very useful info for beginners like me. Thank you for sharing.

    June 6, 2015
    • That’s great to hear d, you’re welcome and thank you.

      June 7, 2015
  24. Well said… Leanne Cole great Photography… soooo awesome.. Leanne Keep your passion awake… keep it up…

    June 7, 2015
  25. Wow ….its too awesome ..you are really inspiring photographer

    June 8, 2015
  26. Hi, can you please recommend a size for the square filters? The solution with adapter ring, do you recommend 100mm or less?

    June 9, 2015
    • It really depends on your lenses. If all you lenses have filter rings that are less than about 67mm then you could go the 85mm lenses, but if you have ones that are larger then you should go 100mm. If you don’t have any of the larger ones, but am planning on getting them, then get the 100mm. You buy the adaptor ring to suit the end of your lens, so if you lens cap is a 67mm then you buy a 67mm adaptor ring. My lens is 77mm, so I had to get the 100mm, and I got the 77mm adaptor ring. I hope that helps.

      June 9, 2015

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