Perfect Density For the Perfect Day – ND Filters
Written by Rob Mynard
Photos by Rob Mynard and Misty Norman
The beach was deserted save for to two of them. It was a classic horseshoe bay with a beautiful volcanic rock formation thrusting into the sea. The sunlight danced off the waves and the wind played through her hair. He pulled her close, his piercing blue eyes fighting to catch hers, but her gaze was fixed on the breaking waves. “Such a perfect day,” He whispered “You couldn’t ask for anything more.” “Yeah… Perfect day” she repeated, but she knew what was missing… Her Canon 5Dsr, 16-35mm, a tripod, and her Lee ND filters…
Neutral Density (ND) filters are like David Caruso’s stylish Italian sunglasses but for your camera, equally at home on the warm sandy beaches of Miami or overlooking the Colosseum in Rome. Usually favoured by landscape photographers, the recent rise in High Speed Sync lighting options have bought them to the attention of portrait shooters. NDs come in a plethora of varieties but the two most common are Standard and Graduated.
Standard NDs are equally dark across the entire filter and reduce the amount of light entering your lens by a set amount – 1,2,3,6, 10, 15 stops… The main two uses for the standard ND are to reduce your Shutter Speed or lower your Aperture. For example an exposure that unfiltered would require a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second can be reduced to 1 second using a 6 stop ND filter or down to 15 seconds with the application of a 10 stop ND filter. This can be used to show the effect of time and movement in your image, turning a waterfall into a smooth curtain, the ferocious ocean into a misty lake, or cause a bustling tourist destination, such as Nigeria’s Lagos Seafood Festival, to appear devoid of people.
Alternatively keeping the shutter speed high and opening up your aperture can allow for shallow depth of field portraits in bright sunlight situations. Also useful for matching ambient background exposure with your cameras flash sync speed – usually a quite low 1/200-250th, for a more natural looking ‘fill’ light.
Graduated ND’s are a little more specific and so come in a larger variety but in essence they are darker at one end of the filter and “graduate” to clear at the other end. Rated in both stops of light filtered – 1, 2, 3 Stops – and how quickly the filter goes from it’s darkest to completely clear – Soft, Medium, Hard and Very Hard for the Lee Filter system. Graduated ND filters are used balance your exposure within a scene, usually between a bright sky and a dark ground, by placing the darker section of your filter across the brighter section of your image while allowing the darker parts to go unfiltered. The different gradations, Soft to Very Hard – a very large gradation to an almost solid line respectively – are chosen based on how well defined the transition between the differently exposed areas of your image are from undefined areas like woodlands or mist to very solid, straight separations, such as seascapes or the edges of buildings.
Metering With Your ND Grad Filters
Metering your shot for using ND Grad filters is pretty easy but can take a little longer than a simple shot; this easy method using your cameras built in meter will usually yield great results.
1 – Set your camera to manual, center weighted exposure and take a reading of the darker part of your image – usually your foreground.
2 – Take a reading from the bright section of your image – usually the sky – and determine the difference in stops between the two sections.
3 – Usually the “best” filter to compensate between the two would be one stop less than the difference. For example, if the difference between your sky and the ground is 3 stops you would use your 2 stop grad ND.
4 – Slide or screw your filter into position, taking care to line up your gradation with the transition of exposure in the scene, this should be viewable through your viewfinder in most situations.
5 – Set the correct exposure for the darker section of your image and snap away, happy in the knowledge of a job well done.
For iPhone users, Lee have also recently launched a new app via iTunes – the LEE stopper guide - a handy exposure guide for photographers using LEE Filters range of Stopper long exposure camera filters.
In addition, a lot of ND filters are designed to be stackable, so while you might use a 6 stop standard filter – like the Lee Little Stopper – to slow down your exposure and soften the ocean in your beach sunrise, you could then add a further 3 stop hard gradient ND placed along your horizon to balance your skies to your beach. The possibilities are endless – well certainly not endless, but there are a lot of possibilities…
At CameraPro we carry a wide range of Neutral Density filters from Lee Filters, B+W, Hoya and Kenko.
Call up our helpful staff or drop into one of our showrooms if you would like to discuss which filter system would suit you best.
Update: LEE is on special at 15% off until May 21st 2016 – check it out on our website.