Photography Tips: What is a Neutral Density (ND) Filter?

_by_Laurence Norah

In my ongoing series of photography tips, today I want to answer a question that many of you have – namely, what is a Neutral Density Filter?

If this isn’t a question you had, and you have no idea what I’m talking about, fear not. I’m going to break it down simply for you.

Let’s start off by answering the question – what is a filter?

Laurence on the beach_by_Laurence Norah

 

What is a Filter In Photography?

A filter is a product, usually made of glass, but sometimes made of resin or other material, which is designed to have some impact on the light hitting your camera’s sensor. For example, a UV filter is designed to filter out UV light – a throwback from film days, as modern camera sensors tend to have built-in UV filters. A polarizing filter filters out polarized light, good for cutting down on reflections and making blue skies pop.

The majority of filters attach to the front of your camera’s lens, and directly affect the light as it passes through them and enter the lens. Some cameras, particularly newer advanced compact cameras, come with a built in neutral density filter, for example the Fujifilm X100T and the Sony RX100 V.

We’ll be primarily looking at the attachable filters that can be attached and detached onto the front of your camera lens in this post, although the effect of a built-in Neutral Density Filter is the same as the one you attach to the front of your lens.

 

What does a Neutral Density Filter do?

A Neutral Density Filter reduces the amount of light that passes through it and therefore, the amount of light that ends up on the camera’s sensor. It is essentially a darkened piece of glass (or resin) that is designed not to change anything other than the quantity of light that passes through it. Other factors such as the color of the light or polarization of the light should not be affected.

This allows for creative effects such as using a wider aperture (for depth of field effects) or a longer shutter speed (for time-based effects) than would not be possible otherwise. They are most useful in bright conditions where there is a lot of available light.

Here’s an example of two similar shots, they are both good shots, but obviously different. the first without an ND filter:

Loch Ard Scotland_by_Laurence Norah

The second with a ND filter:

Loch Ard Scotland_by_Laurence Norah-2

As you can see, the longer exposure of the second shot has resulted in the water movement in the lake smoothing out, and the clouds blurring across the sky.

More on when to use a Neutral Density Filter in the next section.

There are different types of Neutral Density Filter, and they offer different strengths, depending on how much light you want to block. This is measured using different terms, but the most commonly used term is the number of “stops” of light the filter blocks.

Commonly used filters are 3 stop filters, 6 stop filters, and 10 stop filters.

To explain, a stop is basically a measurement of the amount of light. If you increment by 1 stop, you are doubling (or halving) the amount of light. So for example, if you go from a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second to 1/125th of a second (twice as long), you are doubling the amount of light. That is what we photographers refer to as a “stop”.

A three stop filter would let you go from a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second to 1/30th of a second.

A six stop filter would let you go from a shutter speed of  1/250th of a second to 1/4 of a second.

A ten stop filter would let you go from a shutter speed of  1/250th of a second to 4 seconds.

 

When Should I Use A Neutral Density Filter?

A Neutral Density Filter is perfect for use in landscape photography, especially when you want to achieve long-exposure effects such as a milky effect in the water, or to show the movement of clouds in the sky.

Like many things, this is best explained with an example. Here’s the first one:

Vernal falls Yosemite_by_Laurence Norah

Water, and particularly waterfalls, are perfect examples of when you would want to use a Neutral Density Filter. Moving water creates a really nice effect when you use low shutter speeds (1/15th of a second and longer).

Unfortunately, achieving low shutter speeds in the day time, especially with all that water reflecting the light, is basically impossible. Even if you close the aperture to as small a hole as possible, and use an ISO 100 setting, in most cases you’ll struggle to shoot a shutter speeds slower than 1/30th of a second.

Thankfully, with a neutral density filter, we can cut down on the light and shoot for longer shutter speeds without having to resort to crazy-high apertures. Shooting at apertures above f/16 is generally not recommended as an effect called diffraction can reduce the quality, notably the sharpness, of our images.

In the waterfall shot above for example, I shot with a 10 stop filter, meaning I could use a four second shutter speed. Without that 10 stop filter, the shutter speed would have been 1/250th of a second, which would have given the image a totally different look. Now let’s look at another example:

Sunset costa brava_by_Laurence Norah

This sunset on the beach in Costa Brava was taken using a 10 Stop Neutral Density Filter. This allowed me to use a shutter speed of 120 seconds. If I’d not been using a Neutral Density Filter, that shutter speed would be been 1/8th of a second.

 

What Do I Need to Look for When Buying A Neutral Density Filter?

There are a number of different features to look for when buying a Neutral Density Filter.

Filter Attachment. There are two main options for how a  filter attaches to a camera. They can either screw directly onto the lens (screw-in), or they’ll slot into a mount on your lens (slot-in). Each filter type has its own pros and cons.

Screw-in filters can be easier to put on and remove, but as different lenses have different thread sizes, if you have a number of lenses, you’ll need different size filters for all of them.

Slot-in filters allow you to more easily stack filters, and as they attach to the lens body, once you have bought the mount, you can use the filters across lenses. In addition, individual filters are generally less expensive than individual screw-in filters, after the initial investment in the mounting system. The initial attachment of the mount can take longer than with a screw-in filter, but once set up, filters are quite easy to drop in.

Filter Type. Neutral Density filters come in a number of types. The two most common are standard, and graduated.

A standard neutral density filter just reduces the light coming into the camera across the whole image. A graduated filter, which is darker in a part of the filter, allowing you to reduce the brightness in a part of the image, but not all of it – particularly useful for high-contrast scenes with a lot of light in the sky.

Filter Size: If you’re buying a screw-in filter, you need to make sure it is the same size as the screw thread on your lens.This will be a number measured in mm, and may even be written on the lens. If not, your manufacturer will be able to provide it. A common size for dSLR cameras is 77mm – so you would need a 77mm ND filter to fit onto a 77mm size lens.

Strength: As previously mentioned, ND filters come in different strengths, with some of the common strengths being 3, 6 and 10 stop filters. Some systems allow you to stack filters, for example if you stack a 10 stop and a 6 stop filter, you’d end up with a 16 stop filter.

It’s also worth mentioning at this point that you can also purchase variable ND filters, which allow you to adjust the strength of the ND filter, usually between a range of say 2 and 10 stops. This sounds ideal, and certainly has the advantage that you need less filters. However, these filters are usually more expensive and can cause issues such as  strange cross-hatch patterns and vignetting in images due to their thickness. 

Color-shift: The last thing to be aware of when buying an ND filter is that whilst the goal is to reduce the amount of light entering the camera without effecting the look of the image (hence “neutral”), some filters can cause a color cast – particularly at the higher stops, or if you stack them. This can usually be corrected in post-processing, but it is something to be aware of – check online reviews before purchasing to see if this is a common issue with the filter you are interested in.

Sa Tuna Beach Costa Brava_by_Laurence Norah

 

Do I Need Anything Else With My Neutral Density Filter?

There are two accessories that I would suggest you need when picking up a Neutral Density Filter. These are:

A Tripod. A tripod is a critical accessory for using a Neutral Density filter. One of the main reasons to use an ND filter is to cut down the light and increase the exposure time – something that will result in shutter speeds that are too low to hand hold your camera. To solve this problem, you’re going to need a tripod. Don’t worry, I have a whole post on the reasons you need a tripod, and advice on picking the best tripod for you.

ND Calculator App. This is more of a nice thing to have than a necessity, but it sure can be handy in the field when you realise that figuring out the math for those long exposures is a bit tricky. An ND calculator app lets you enter in values for your shutter speed, aperture and ISO, and then choose an ND filter strength. It will then show you the appropriate new values for your shutter speed based on that strength, taking the guesswork out of your exposure calculation.

This means you can set up a shot without the ND filter, check the camera’s exposure settings, pop the filter on, and then use the app to calculate the correct settings.

Recommended Neutral Density Filters

Now, down to some recommendations. These are a mix of my favourites, and brands I know fellow photographers swear by. There are a lot out there though, so be sure to get the right pick for you. My advice would be to get a 10 stop filter and work from there – my 10 stop filter from Haida is the one I use the most often.

1 – Haida Slim Filter Kit

Haida_Filter

We’ve been using the Haida 77m slim filter kit for years, and I love them. They’re super portable, you can stack them, and they have minimal color casting. They’re also great value, particularly in kit form.

 

2 – Formatt-Hitech Filter System

Formatt_Hitech_Filter_System

My friend and awesome photographer Dave of ThePlanetD uses and swears by this filter system. I’ve been out shooting with him a number of times, and loved the results he’s got using these filters. If you want to go down the slot-in road, these are a good place to start.

 

3 – Lee Filter Kit

Lee_Filter_Kit

Stepping up somewhat in price, Lee are amongst the best known names when it comes to filters. Their “Big Stopper” 10 Stop ND filter is the go-to filter of choice for a great many photographers, and for good reason. These are high quality filters that should last for a good long time.

 

4 – B+W ND Filters

B%252BW_ND_Filter_

I’ve used B+W polarizing and UV filters across my lenses for many years now, and have always been impressed by the build quality and durability. Again, a premium option, but a good one.

 

Further Travel Photography Reading and Resources

Well, that sums up my guide to Neutral Density Filters. I hope you found it useful – don’t forget to fire any questions at me in the comments. I’ve also put together a number of other photography related guides and resources that you might find useful. These are:

And we’re done! Thanks for reading – if you’ve got any comments, feedback or suggestions, just let me know in the comments below.

Hey! I'm running a contest to win one of my travel photography courses, plus a $250USD prize! Check it out and enter here.




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