Whether you want to create silky smooth water, stretch out the fast moving sky or create vibrant cinematic movements, an ND filter can help you change up everyday shots to create something more unique.
Words and Photography by Linus Bergman
For my first 5 years of photography I shot with nothing but ND filters. I was stuck in the “long exposure fine art” community. I wanted to capture the dreaminess of life – by smoothing out a raw Icelandic waterfall or getting rid of the thousands of tourist boats in a mighty landscape like the infamous Guilin River in China. I loved this way of seeing life that only a neutral density filter could help to create.
Sometimes I even shot with multiple ND filters stacked on top of each other, cutting out so much light that I could shoot with extremely long shutter speeds. One image could take up to one hour to shoot (with an ND10+ND10+ND5). Reflecting back on that time, I realise that’s how I learned composition. Putting the camera on a tripod and often choosing only one image to take home from a grand landscape made me very meticulous in my approach. It was time consuming and frustrating at times (when images didn’t turn out how I wanted) but it’s also something that I now, later on in my photography career, draw much advantage from.
“It was a learning curve for me trying to capture that cinematic feeling that was stuck in my head.”
After retiring the filters and letting photography and life grow on to other things it wasn’t until earlier this year when the urge to try something else, to shake the sleeping self and play around with the uniqueness of capturing motion, that I reunited with the neutral density filter again.
After a few weeks of spending time with Urth’s ND2-400 filter I noticed that using the ND to create motion is in some ways similar to the feeling of shooting analog – you never know exactly what you’re bringing home. Although I had experience shooting with shutter speeds like 1 minute and longer, I had actually never tried shooting speeds like 1/15 of second or 1/80. It was a learning curve for me trying to capture that cinematic feeling that was stuck in my head. Fortunately for me I have good friends that would run around in the Scandinavian cold for me to practice on in search of a decent shot.
Here’s what I learned about shooting with an ND:
TAKE A TRIPOD
If shooting with longer shutter speeds, I would strongly suggest using a tripod! When shooting a landscape where you want everything in focus, a tripod is key!
USE A JOURNAL & PEN
For those who, like me prefer the analog way, experiment and write down the shutter speeds you use to find out what you like best. What is the difference between 1/10s to 1 sec? How will it affect the thing you’re trying to create? Try different strengths of ND filters and practice on calculating the ideal shutter speed. Write up your own time table to rely on.
Getting to know an ND filter takes time. If you’re shooting extremely long exposures like 60 minutes, bring a book or just enjoy the nature around you.
“It helped renew that creative spark.”
So, when to use an ND filter?
During my travels I noticed that slower shutter speeds can be a good addition when creating a story. It can help get versatility in a vast series of images. It’s also a good thing to have in the bag if you’re like me and sometimes want to shoot on a bright blue day.
For me the most useful thing with getting back into using ND filters was: it helped renew that creative spark. The unknown is what gets me going. Even though creativity is something that I believe is a muscle that you surely can exercise and make bigger, it can be extra helpful and inspiring to experiment with new equipment. Urth’s ND2-400 filter has helped me out of a creative slump.