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Understanding neutral density filters

From: Foundations of Photography: Specialty Lenses

Video: Understanding neutral density filters

One of the most useful filters that you can use is one that doesn't actually alter the light that passes through your lens. A neutral density filter does nothing more than cut the amount of light that passes through it. An ND filter doesn't alter the light's qualities in any way. It doesn't change its color or diffuse it or anything like that, what they do is broaden your range of exposure options. For example, say I'm shooting some moving water in the daytime, and I'd like to use a slow shutter speed to create a blurry, silky look on the water.

Understanding neutral density filters

One of the most useful filters that you can use is one that doesn't actually alter the light that passes through your lens. A neutral density filter does nothing more than cut the amount of light that passes through it. An ND filter doesn't alter the light's qualities in any way. It doesn't change its color or diffuse it or anything like that, what they do is broaden your range of exposure options. For example, say I'm shooting some moving water in the daytime, and I'd like to use a slow shutter speed to create a blurry, silky look on the water.

If it's too bright out I might not be able to get a slow enough shutter speed to smear the water even if I slowdown my ISO as much as I can. With the Neutral Density filter I can cut a bunch of light out of my scene, which will allow me to use a longer shutter speed. Neutral density filters can also be used to buy yourself more aperture latitude. As you stop a lens down, you run the risk of softening your image because of something called diffraction. Many lenses get noticeably softer once you pass f/16. With a Neutral Density filter you can cut out some light and open your aperture back up to restore any sharpness lost to those diffraction artifacts.

ND filters come in different strengths, so you have some control over how much light you cut from your scene, and you can stack multiple ND filters to build up increasing amounts of darkening. In the old days, ND filters were measured and rated according to their optical density. A 0.3 ND filter would cut one stop of light, a 0.6 would cut two, a 0.9 three stops, and so on. Some vendors still rate their ND filters this way, but others have adopted an ND rating. An ND 2 filter, for example, cuts one stop of light making it equivalent to a 0.3 filter.

ND 4 cuts two stops making it equivalent to a 0.6, and so on. So when you're shopping for an ND filter, you'll see filters rated either way. Some vendors even use both ratings. This chart shows you the equivalent ND and optical density ratings. In general, it's good to have a range of ND densities. If you have some lighter ones and some heavier ones, you can stack them in different combinations to get different levels of light stoppage. If you're not sure exactly how much darker one stop is take a shot with your camera as metered, then dial in minus one stop of exposure compensation and shoot again.

This will show you how much darker the image would be if you had a one-stop neutral density filter on the front of your lens. In recent years, a new technology has come along, the Variable ND Filter. A Variable ND screws on to the front of your lens just like a normal filter, but it has this rotating element. And as I rotate it, I get more or less ND filtering. The image gets lighter or darker. This one gives me a range from 2-8 stops of ND. Now, what's great about the Variable ND is that it takes up much less space in your bag than a bunch of separate ND filters. That said, there are some caveats.

I find that with this particular ND I can't go too far to the extreme dark end without getting really bad variation in effect across my image. What's more, my camera doesn't meter properly through this filter. So to get good results, I do an initial shot and then manually adjust my metering until I get a better exposure. Now, here's the weird thing. If you work with a Nikon camera rather than a Canon you probably won't have this problem. The Nikon metering system more accurately handles the Variable ND. As convenient as a Variable ND is I'd still recommend sticking with traditional ND filters.

Yeah, they will take up more space and they are more of a hassle to work with, but they are more reliable. They yield cleaner results and might actually cost you less money especially if you don't need a full six-stop range. Here's another variation on the ND, the Graduated ND. So this filter has two stops of ND filtering at the top here, but the filtering ramps off to none by the middle of the frame. So with a Graduated ND I can even out an exposure when I'm shooting into something that's very bright at the top of the frame like a sunset.

With the Graduated ND I can expose for the foreground but still have detail on the sky. I won't blow out my nice sunset. Graduated ND's are tricky to recommend, not because they don't work but because they need very special conditions. If the ratio of dark to light that you want isn't the same as your filter, for example, if you want the dark to come down lower or end earlier, then you might not get all the darkening you need or might end up with a foreground that's too dark. What's more, if there's anything poking up from the bottom of the frame into the top, into this darker area like a tree or something, then that object will also be darkened.

Now, in the old days Graduated ND was the easiest way to get this type of effect, but nowadays you can easily create this effect in your image editor. That said, in the next movie you're going to see an ideal application for the Graduated ND filter. ND filters aren't everyday items, but for times when you want the kind of effect that they can yield, they are really your only options. So you might always want to keep at least a couple of them in your bag.

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This video is part of

Image for Foundations of Photography: Specialty Lenses
Foundations of Photography: Specialty Lenses

50 video lessons · 17540 viewers

Ben Long
Author

 
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  1. 4m 10s
    1. Welcome
      1m 46s
    2. Roadmap of the course
      2m 24s
  2. 3m 53s
    1. Words about focal length
      2m 6s
    2. Understanding camera position
      1m 47s
  3. 39m 19s
    1. What filters are for
    2. Shopping for filters
      3m 55s
    3. Understanding neutral density filters
      4m 53s
    4. Applying neutral density filters
      3m 55s
    5. Polarizing filters
      3m 4s
    6. Some shooting tips for working with a polarizing filter
      2m 32s
    7. Using infrared filters
      9m 15s
    8. Processing the infrared image
      6m 7s
    9. Handling stuck filters
      3m 1s
  4. 38m 37s
    1. Working with ultra-wide lenses
      7m 19s
    2. Using a wide-angle lens
      4m 43s
    3. Understanding fisheye lenses
      4m 2s
    4. Working with fisheye lenses
      3m 59s
    5. Understanding fisheye exposure
      3m 3s
    6. Taking fisheye further
      4m 16s
    7. Processing fisheye and wide-angle images
      7m 38s
    8. Correcting tone in fisheye images
      3m 37s
  5. 35m 37s
    1. Understanding super telephoto
      6m 21s
    2. Shooting distant subjects
      8m 26s
    3. Compressing the sense of depth
      7m 53s
    4. Working with shallow depth of field
      5m 35s
    5. Working with teleconverters
      2m 38s
    6. Editing telephoto images
      4m 44s
  6. 16m 47s
    1. Understanding macro basics
      2m 47s
    2. Shooting close
      4m 52s
    3. Shooting macro
      5m 20s
    4. Working with a point-and-shoot for macro
      1m 58s
    5. Using a two-lens strategy
      1m 50s
  7. 16m 39s
    1. Understanding tilt shift
      3m 37s
    2. Correcting perspective
      4m 29s
    3. Creating the toy effect
      4m 41s
    4. Deepening depth of field
      3m 52s
  8. 32m 39s
    1. Working with specialty lenses
      2m 43s
    2. Using the Lensbaby
      9m 13s
    3. Working with the Lensbaby Macro attachment
      3m 50s
    4. Shooting with a Holga attachment
      3m 4s
    5. Using an alternative mount lens
      2m 18s
    6. Using super-fast lenses
      1m 47s
    7. Correcting Lensbaby images
      9m 44s
  9. 39m 48s
    1. Correcting perspective
      10m 41s
    2. Creating the toy effect
      6m 31s
    3. Getting the lo-fi Holga look
      11m 17s
    4. Reproducing the effect of a Lensbaby
      8m 17s
    5. Cropping and enlarging images
      3m 2s
  10. 2m 47s
    1. Choosing whether to borrow or buy
      2m 0s
    2. Goodbye
      47s

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