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I studied film in college and work for a photo app full-time, so I like to think I know what I’m talking about when it comes to DSLR photography. Admittedly, having recently just gotten back into taking my own photos, I may have forgotten just how much there is to consider. Specifically, beyond what camera, lens, aperture and tripod to use, I quickly remembered the importance of the oft-ignored filter. For instance, there I was, out on a pier in San Francisco, wondering why I couldn’t get the shot I wanted of the Bay Bridge’s Bay Lights. Flustered, I scrounged through my camera backpack desperately trying to find something – anything – that could help me get a better looking shot. And then I found it: my Neutral Density filter.

Neutral Density (ND) filters limit the amount of light that makes it into your sensor. Think of them like sunglasses for your lens. ND filters come in varying strengths, but they all work the same way. They’re especially helpful in two very distinct situations: when you want a specific aperture and creating smooth shots of clouds and water. Say you want a shallow depth of field during the day, but opening your aperture to f1.4 or f2.8 means you can’t get the shutter speed you want. Whip out that ND filter. By reducing the amount of light entering your camera, you can shoot in whatever aperture you’d like. Below, you can see the same shot (ISO 100, 1/25 sec, f2.8) taken without and with a ND filter:

We’ve all seen those shots that transform water or clouds into silky sheets. Most of the time, that’s being done with the help of a ND filter – mystery solved. For instance, when I was pointing my camera at the very bright Bay Lights, I was annoyed that I couldn’t get a long enough shutter speed for the water to look as dreamy as I wanted. It was nighttime, but that wasn’t enough. With the help of a ND filter, I more than doubled my exposure length and created this pretty cool shot below, if I do say so myself:

This is a 15-second exposure with a 0.9 ND filter. A 0.9 ND filter reduces the amount of light by three stops.

When you head out to take shots with your own ND filter, be sure you take note of the following:

  • Auto focus with no filter. Once your image is focused, switch your lens to manual, throw the filter on and take your shot! With very dark ND filters, focusing can become a real hassle.
  • Tripods are usually a must. Some less intense ND filters may not require one if you can position your camera on stable ground, but generally, any time you have a longer shutter, a tripod is your BFF.
  • Don’t hesitate to stack ND filters. Stacking filters is generally frowned upon in the photo community, but it can reduce a huge amount of light and help you create very cool looking long exposures.
  • Blur people out of the background of your shot. During the day, you can create a long exposure on a busy street to remove the people from your frame. Put a model (who’s good at standing still) in the middle of your shot and you’ll look like quite the professional. Here’s a quick snapshot to illustrate what I mean:

Get out there and start shooting!

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