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Neutral density filters (ND filters) are some of the most useful optical accessories for photographers. ND filters for landscape photography can be used for a wide variety of effects and techniques. Introducing ND filters for beginners will open up new ideas for creating beautiful images.
As a beginner’s guide to ND filters for photography we will examine what are ND filters, how do ND filters work, and include a brief ND filter buying guide.
We will also look at some of the best ways to use ND filters for landscape photography and the types of situations and images you can use them for making outstanding images.
What Are ND Filters
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ND filters are optical glass that go in front of the lens (or sometimes behind the lens) and add a colorless density to the light path. In other words, the glass is attenuating the light path without adding any color tint.
So the words neutral and density refer to adding density to the optical path of light with no hint of color, neutral and density. In photographer talk, we tend to refer to them as ND filters as a form of verbal shorthand.
ND filters can be single filters in a screw in mount like a protective UV filter or in large squares or rectangles that fit into a filter holder which can fit a variety of different lens sizes. One other style of ND filters are the specialty rear filter mounts for ultra wide angle lenses that have extremely curved front lens elements that preclude adding filters to the front of the lens.
Here is an example of a screw in lens filter that attaches directly to a lens.
This is the Haida Slim Pro II 10 stop ND 3.0 ND filter in 72mm size such as you might use on a Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4.0 S lens for the Nikon Z 5 Full Frame mirrorless camera.
How Do ND Filters Work
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Part of learning ND filters for beginners is knowing what the numbers mean. While we are thinking of the stops of exposure, such as 3 stops, 6 stops, or 10 stops, the filters will be marked with numbers labeling optical density that correspond to a logarithmic scale (like many equations in photography).
For instance, the numbers ND 0.3, ND 0.6, and ND 3.0 equal 1 stop, 2 stops, and 10 stops of density. As you get deeper into creative photography, you learn how photographic artists use the science and math of optics and light to accurately predict how making changes to any part of the photographic exposure methods will affect the final image.
Thankfully we don’t have to constantly be consciously thinking of math and science as we go through our photographic techniques and methods. For one, the equations are intuitive, predictable, and understandable. Secondly, much of the math is done for us with basic camera settings and with the amazing automatic systems in our cameras.
ND Filters for Landscape Photography
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Besides the variations of density in ND filters, the construction of them also has differences for how we want to use ND filters in our photography. For landscape photography, graduated neutral density (GND) filters are a useful type.
GND filters have neutral density on one side of the filter, no density on the other, and a transition area in between. The transition area may be very gradual (soft-edge) or rather small and quick (hard-edge). Both are useful for several types of scene lighting scenarios.
Here is an example of a soft edge, gradual transition GND filter that filters into a filter holder system.
This is what a hard edge, quick transition GND filter looks like. It is also the style that fits into a filter holder system.
By filter holder system, we’re referring to a holder for multiple filters that can be adopted to several different lens sizes and can hold multiple filters at the same time.
Pictured above is the Haida M10 Pro 100mm filter system with a circular polarizer included. A circular polarizer (C-POL) is another of the most useful lens filters for use in landscape photography. It adds its own ND filter light attenuation but also helps tame reflections and increase color saturation.
A filter holder system allows you to use these two fantastic filters at the same time. A landscape photography situation that is fairly common, sunset or sunrise over water, is a perfect example of gaining benefit from mounting a C-POL and a GND filter together.
Using ND Filters for Beginners
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So why do photographers use ND filters? There are several good reasons to use C-POL filters, GND filters, and ND filters for landscape photography. Changing exposure, taming dynamic range issues, and creating long exposure images are a few of the reasons to use ND filters.
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The Exposure Triangle tells us that ISO, shutter speeds, and lens apertures or f-stops are intertwined together in creating correct exposure for any given scene lighting values.
So, a scene’s lighting value may result in a combination of 1/500th of a second at f/16 with the ISO set at 400. You might recognize this as a great exposure calculation adaptation of the Sunny 16 Rule on a bright sunny day.
But what if you wanted to use a wider aperture to limit depth of field? Well, you could shorten the shutter speed to 1/8000th of a second which gives you f/4.0 for the lens aperture. And that’s pretty good, but what if the f-stop still gives you too much depth and you really want a very limited selective focus?
You could open up the lens aperture to f/2.0 but you’ve run out of shorter shutter speeds now, so the photo will end up overexposed. In order to achieve the wider lens aperture, you need to attenuate the light with a 2 stop or ND 0.3 filter. This adds enough density to let you change the exposure that extra bit without over exposing.
Taming Dynamic Range Issues
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Dynamic range in a photographic scene means how great is the difference from the darkest part of the scene to the brightest. The range of lighting in many scenes can be accurately captured by the digital sensor in our camera.
But sometimes the brightness level range exceeds what our sensor can cause. When this happens, we get little or no detail in either the highlights, or bright spots, or in the shadows, the darker parts.
In this situation, we use GND filters to add density to one part of the scene which balances the entire scene’s dynamic range of brightness to a level that our sensor can handle. This lets us capture detail in bright clouds as well as the darker part of our image such as the foliage in the foreground.
Sunsets and sunrises are probably the common uses for using graduated ND filters for beginners. There are many other situations that can benefit from GND filters, such as architectural photography, beach scenes, and mixed lighting indoors.
The filter holder systems make positioning the filter’s transition area an easy endeavor since we can rotate the filter and move it around inside the image area.
Creating Long Exposure Images
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Some of the most captivating landscape images involve moving water such as waves against a shore, a running stream, or a majestic waterfall. In order to get the longer shutter speeds necessary to blur the motion enough, we need a pretty long shutter speed or exposure time.
With ND filters, we can add enough exposure time, from about 2 stops, which quadruples the time, to 10 stops. If we adjust the ISO and close down the lens aperture along with adding a 10 stop ND filter, we can get shutter speeds measured in full seconds, maybe even minutes, instead of the tiny fractions of a second we’re used to.
Create Beautiful Images with ND Filters
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As you learn more about ND filters for beginners, you’ll find many uses for them, increasing your joy of using the science and math of optics and exposure to create beautiful art. The best part of learning photography techniques is how simple it can be to create our art once we learn the basics.