Make the most of your neutral density filter

The neutral density filter is indispensable for landscape photographers.
By Bill Hatcher March 5, 2014 Reading Time: 3 Minutes

SOPHISTICATED SLR CAMERAS with their array of lenses can do many things, but there are still situations where a photo can only be improved using a cheap, old-fashioned filter. Improving the performance of a camera and lens is just what a Neutral Density (ND) filter will do.

The humble screw-on-the-front-of-your-lens ND filter may look like mere grey glass, but the filter is (not surprisingly) neutral, so it will not affect the colours in your photo. The filter will reduce the light entering the camera and the exposure for the photo.

With practice, NDs are a great creative tool. Just to clarify, the ND filter should not be confused with the graduated filter (also known as the split ND filter), which is another beast with entirely different applications.

ND filters are used to dial down daylight. And particularly around water, because NDs allow you to achieve insanely long shutter exposures for blurring and smoothing the motion of water. This is why the filter is indispensable for landscape photographers.

Also, the filter can enhance portraits or any subject you want to capture using your lens’s widest aperture. If you ever wanted to use f1.4 or f2.8 in bright sunlight, no problem.

Shooting wide open is what creates the blurry, shallow depth of field background to help isolate your sharply focused foreground.

Neutral density filter: a versatile tool

The versatility of the ND filter is why I use them. In a pinch you can use your polarising filter as an ND, but it’s not the best solution because it only reduces exposure by a couple of “stops” and it’s not neutral as it may change colours, skin tone and reflections in your photo.

What kind of NDs are out there? My lightest (least dark) ND reduces an exposure by minus 3-stops; this is called a 0.9 ND filter. My favourite ND is a minus 6-stop or a 1.8. I also have a minus 10-stop or a 3.0 ND filter. I only use the 3.0 for very long exposures – for example, in a one-minute exposure to transform crashing waves into a ghostly mist or for mid-day time-lapse video.

My ND filters are made by B+W, but Tiffen and Hoya also make excellent filters. What do they cost? As little as $10 for a no-brand, my B+W filters cost $100 each and the best variable ND filter, made by Singh-Ray, costs $400.

Behind the photo scene with a neutral density filter

The photo above is taken in the sub-alpine country of Barrington Tops NP in NSW. A friend and I had finished a three-day walk around Careys Peak and decided to spend our last morning exploring the headwaters of the Gloucester River.

My partner walked upstream and I went downstream to look for a way across. While teetering on stones in mid-crossing I looked upstream to see her carefully making her crossing. In seconds my camera was clicked onto my tripod and the camera positioned just above the waterline. I called for her to hold her position and was able to get a few frames off.

On my Nikon D800 I used a 24mm lens and the B+H 1.8 (minus 6-stop) ND filter. The shutter speed was six seconds at f13. I autofocused the scene through the ND filter, then switched the focus to manual before making the exposure. Usually with long exposures I use a cable release and the mirror lock-up feature to guarantee a sharp photo. But I couldn’t get to my cable release in my pack, so I used the camera’s timer release set to two seconds.

I asked my friend to stand very still for the long exposure, then I took one more photo to ensure I got a sharp photo.


Award-winning photographer Bill Hatcher has spent more than 25 years documenting adventure, science and exploration around the world. His stories in National Geographic, Outside, Australian Geographic, and Australian Geographic Adventure.