Neutral Density Filter Tutorial – Finding calm in the chaos

Water can be a beautiful and calming element. Think tranquil landscapes with flowing waterfalls, or beautiful piers surrounded by the crashing ocean. The problem is that when we photograph water we tend to see all of it’s imperfections rather than the beautiful movement it creates when it was right there in front of us. This comes in the form of complex ripples, splashes and water spray that can often clutter a scene and distract from the tranquility you set out to achieve in your image. To overcome this we use longer exposures (slower shutters) to allow the water to blur its self creating smooth silky water. Varying your shutter speed will give you different effects with shorter shutters (1-2 seconds) maintaining some of the streaky detail of the waters currents whilst longer exposures of 5-10+ seconds smoothing the water into more of a misty or smokey surface. This can equally be used in landscape and city scape photography to create movement in the clouds, leaving streaky patterns as the wind moves them through your scene.

Often when we see aspirational landscape and seascape images we get the impression that the conditions must have been just right or that photoshop was involved but in this tutorial I want to show you that it’s not all smoke and mirrors, it’s as simple as adding a filter to your lens.

No ND filter in Program Mode, camera chose 1/1250th of a second.

Lee Big Stopper ND filter with 1.3 sec shutter speed.

As mentioned these long exposure images are created using slow shutter speeds and with slow shutter speeds we are gathering light over a long period of time meaning often our images will be completely blown out to white if the sunlight is too bright.

Even if you close your aperture all the way down (f/22 or f/32) and lower your ISO to it’s lowest setting you are likely to only get a 1/2 or so exposure on a bright sunny day. This is where Neutral Density Filters (ND filters for short) are a landscape photographers best friend. They are called a neutral density filter because they are a consistent tint across the entire filter essentially acting like sunglasses for your lens. They come in many strengths (darknesses) but in 2 different shapes; circular ND filters screw on to your camera’s lens like a regular filter and slot-type ND filters drop into a bracket attached to your lens. My ND filter of choice for seascapes is the Lee Big Stopper (a slot-type) which provides 10 stops of darkening. This means that if my shutter speed was 1/125th of a second without the filter, when I apply it to the front of the lens I will now need an 8 second long exposure to get the same brightness.

That is all! For a quick-guide to achieving beautiful water images follow my quick guide below.

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Quick Guide
  • Set your camera on a sturdy tripod, if it is windy ensure that the wind isn’t causing vibrations.
  • Frame your image up
  • Place the ND filter onto your lens and turn off image stabilisation if you are using a DSLR (my experience is that Olympus mirrorless cameras are fine with the stabilisation on but traditional in-lens stabilisation affects your image when on a tripod)
  • Set your camera onto Shutter Priority Mode
  • Slow the shutter down this will take some trial and error depending on the water movement. I usually start at 2 seconds
  • Take your image
  • Adjust your exposure compensation up or down if the image is too bright or dark
  • Your images will likely lack some contrast and the colour will be a little bit blue as ND filters tend to have a slight colour cast. My suggestion is to shoot RAW so as you an correct the colour in Lightroom as well as adjust the contrast, highlights and shadows more easily.

For extra punch in your clouds be sure to check out my tutorial on Graduated Filters as these two techniques can be stacked and used together!

These long exposure effects are what we use to create minimalistic seascapes, streaky cloud landscapes and silky smooth waterfall images, creating a sense of organic movement whilst also smoothing out the chaos.