Long Exposure Photography: Neutral Density Filters

Long Exposure Photography: Neutral Density Filters

General How-To

Long Exposure Photography: Neutral Density Filters

One problem encountered when experimenting with long exposure photography is having too much light. You can’t get the aesthetic effect of those long shutter speeds without over-exposing the image. If it’s relatively dark – like dawn or dusk – that’s not much of a problem. But what if you want to express the illusion of time when it’s bright and sunny? Neutral density filters are the answer.

Neutral density (ND) filters reduce the amount of light entering the camera, allowing for longer exposure times than would be possible without them. The key is that they reduce light uniformly, so contrast and dynamic range are not affected – unlike a graduated neutral density (GND) filter. The primary purpose of ND filters is blocking light from reaching the image sensor.

ND filters are nothing more than darkened glass placed in front of the lens to absorb a percentage of the incoming light. They are available in different “strengths” usually designated by either the number of stops it slows down the exposure or in terms of optical density strength (see the ND filter strength conversion table below). A 3-stop or 0.9 density ND is ideal for waterfalls in bright sunlight, slowing the exposure to a second or so, depending on the f-stop and ISO used. A strong 10-stop or 3.0 ND filter can blur clouds over several minutes, even on a bright sunny day.

Neutral Density Filters Strength

Neutral Density Filters

The image below, Iguazu Falls on the border of Brazil and Argentina, would not have been possible without the help of a neutral density filter. Here is the exposure data from this image: 4.0 seconds, f/22, ISO 100, 6-stop ND filter. The correct exposure data without the ND filter would have been the same except for the shutter speed, which would have been 1/15 of a second (6 stops faster). As you can see, I am already at the smallest f-stop (f/22) and the lowest ISO (100) possible for my camera and lens.

There’s nothing else I can do in camera to slow things down to achieve the desired effect. Without the ND filter, the correct exposure would have been 1/8 second so a 4-second exposure would have badly overexposed the image. There is simply no way to create the smooth, silky water I desired under those bright, sunny skies without the ND filter absorbing some of the light that was reaching my camera’s sensor. Unless, of course, I wished to wait for less intense light once the sun went down or a cloud passed overhead. But then there’s that pretty little rainbow I would have missed.

So you see, neutral density filters may not exactly be essential, but they will certainly help achieve longer exposures and help you get shots that you wouldn’t have taken otherwise.

Circular or Square Neutral Density Filters?

When it comes to neutral density filters, you have two choices: circular screw-in filters or square/rectangle slide filters. Each have their advantages and disadvantages.

Circular ND filters screw into the front element of your lens. Since you probably have several different lenses, each with a different size front element, you should also own a set of step-up rings for each lens rather than buying a separate filter for each size. Get one ND filter for the lens with the largest front element diameter (77mm for example) and step-up rings for the smaller sizes (52mm or 67mm, just to name a few).

The circular screw-in filters are convenient to carry around and store in your camera bag. They are also more durable and difficult to break. But stacking filters for more ND strength or adding a polarizer can darken or vignette the image corners. Singh-Ray makes a circular screw-in Vari-ND that allows you to adjust the strength of the filter’s density (1 to 8 stops as mentioned earlier) as well as a model with a built-in polarizing filter. But I have found these filters difficult to use and the filters are so thick that they vignette when used with wide-angle lenses.

Neutral Density Filters

Kase 100mm filter holder with Kase 100mm 3-stop ND filter.

Square or Rectangle filters (above) are glass or resin slides that fit onto the front of your lens with an adapter ring and filter holder. These filter systems come in different sizes. They usually do not vignette with wide-angle lenses, even when with filters stacked together. They are much more cumbersome to carry around and store in your camera bag, however, when compared to the circular variety. You should always weigh the options of both and decide which is best for you.

What Do I Use?

Over the course of my professional photography career, I have tried just about every type of neutral density filter on the market and I’ve settled on the filters made by Kase Filters (All links below to Amazon).

Kase Wolverine Shockproof 100mm ND8 3-Stop Neutral Density Filter
Kase Wolverine Shockproof 100mm ND64 6-Stop Neutral Density Filter
Kase Wolverine Shockproof 100mm  ND1000 10-Stop Neutral Density Filter
Kase Wolverine Shockproof 100mm ND64000 16-Stop Neutral Density Filter

Beyond The Lens Podcast

Beyond The Lens Podcast

Beyond The Lens

Beyond The Lens Podcast

Beyond the Lens Podcast

Beyond The Lens Podcast

This photography podcast takes you beyond the lens, exploring the arts, travel, conservation, entrepreneurship, creative culture, and more through deep-dive interviews with some of the world’s most influential and inspiring people.

Host Richard Bernabe is a renowned photographer, intrepid world traveller, explorer, author, and champion of wildlife and endangered species. He’s been hailed as one of the “Top 30 Influential Photographers on the Web” by the Huffington Post and Influence Digest’s “20 Photographers Changing the World Through Social Media.” He has travelled to more than 60 countries, capturing photographs and writing for clients including National Geographic, CNN, The New York Times and the BBC.

Beyond the Lens is published bi-weekly on the Official Beyond The Lens Website and podcast publishing platforms all over the world.

Subscribe to Beyond The Lens on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Castbox, or anywhere you listen to podcasts. Also listen on the official Beyond The Lens Website.

Richard Bernabe Online Photography Classes

Richard Bernabe Online Photography Classes


Richard Bernabe Online Photography Classes

Photography Class

Join me as I unravel the mysteries of visual aesthetics with my latest KelbyOne class, Photography and the Principles of Art and Design. In the late 19th century, artists sought to formalize what was then known about art and design to better understand why some art was pleasing to the eye and some was not. As photographers, understanding these core principles of art can help us to see differently, improve our craft, and create order from chaos. In this class, I break down each of the principles with photographic examples, diagrams, and careful explanations to help you create art that is even more pleasing to the eye. You can get more information on the class here.

For the past several years, I’ve been working to create premium online photography classes with KelbyOne, a worldwide leader in photography education and Photoshop/Lightroom instruction. In 2016, we released Master Compositional Class for Landscape Photographers which was filmed along the picturesque Blue Ridge Parkway of North Carolina. That was followed by Landscape Photography Preplanning Post-Processing in 2017, which helped photographers connect the decisions they make in the field with the techniques they will use later in the digital darkroom.

These photography classes are masterfully filmed, produced, and edited by the video team at KelbyOne. In addition to being informative and educational, these classes are ecstatically beautiful as well (if you don’t consider that I am in the frame most of the time). Become a member of KelbyOne and learn from top photography pros. My classes are listed below.

Master Compositional Class for Landscape Photographers

This class takes you on a photographic road tour through the spectacular Blue Ridge Parkway of North Carolina while you learn how to master an array of compositional tools for creating more dynamic landscape photographs. I will share my thought processes on various composition principles and concepts while showing you how to create more compelling landscape images – from sunrise, sunset, waterfalls, and grand landscapes. View this class here: Master Composition Class for Landscape Photographers.

Landscape Photography Preplanning and Post-Processing

This class demonstrates how the photographic decisions you make in the field will impact the tools and techniques you can use in the digital darkroom later. I will show how you can bring your field work together with your post processing, so that you are capturing photographs that allow you to get the most out of your workflow. Each lesson on a specific capture technique is paired with a lesson on how to process those photographs using Lightroom and Photoshop. View this class here: Landscape Photography Preplanning and Post-Processing.

How To Photograph Stunning Autumn Color

How To Photograph Stunning Autumn Color

General How-To

How To Photograph Stunning Autumn Color

Autumn Color

Five Essential Photography Tips for Autumn Color

Autumn color season is one of the most eagerly anticipated times of the year for restless nature photographers. The brilliant red, orange, and yellow foliage is like a jarring wake up call for all the creative energy atrophied by the listless and drab dog days of late summer (August through mid- September has always been my least favorite time of year). And since these photos aren’t going to just take themselves, here are 5 essential tips to help you make the most of the autumn color season.


A polarizing filter removes glare from almost any non-metallic surface, which includes autumn leaves. Leaves have a waxy coating and they produce glare when viewed from certain angles. A polarizing filter makes fall color look more colorful and saturated but in reality, it’s only allowing you to see the color that’s already there. Wet leaves create even more glare so during rainy conditions, a polarizing filter is nearly essential.

When working near water, a polarizing filter will also remove glare and refections from the water’s surface and surounding west rocks. It will cut glare from water vapor and particulates in the air as well, making blue skies darker and richer in color. The direction of maximum polarization occurs at 90-degree angles from the sun, while no polarization occurs when shooting directly at or away from the sun. Therefore, no polarizer is necessary when photographing sunrises or sunsets.

Get a screw-in polarizing filter for your lens with the largest front element size, then step-up rings for those smaller lenses. Step-up rings are much more cost effective than a polarizer for each lens. Some recommended polarizing filters (links to Amazon).

B+W 77mm XS-Pro HTC Kaesemann Circular Polarizer with Multi-Resistant Nano Coating ($$$)

Hoya 77mm HRT Circular PL Polarizer UV Multi-Coated Glass Filter ($$)

Lee Filters Circular Polarizer – Glass 100x100mm For Lee filter holder system.

autumn color

Use Backlight

The leaves of autumn foliage are translucent, which means sunlight is allowed to partially pass through them when viewed or photographed from the opposite side. The foliage seems to glow and radiate the boldest colors when this happens. Seek out as many of these lighting opportunities as possible for stunning, luminous color.

This will work anytime there is direct sunlight. Even when most photographers retire during the “idle light” of midday, you can always aim the lens skyward as the canopy of yellows and reds glow against the complementary crisp blue sky. Stop the lens down to f/22 for a sun star to add additional interest.

Keys to Using Backlighting

  • Aim the camera toward the sun (duh!)
  • Be aware of ghosting or flare when shooting into the sun. Your lens hood might help, although probably not if shooting directly into the sun, so consider using your hand, a hat, a book, anything that can block the sun’s rays from striking the front element of the lens.
  • Avoid underexposure. Your camera’s meter will probably want to underexpose the scene under most backlighting conditions. Consider adding a stop or two of exposure to keep the image from being too dark. Better yet, consult the histogram and “exposure to the right.”
  • Look to add a sunstar for additional interest and a strong focal point of the image – if it needs one. A sunstar is created by using lens diffraction when a small aperture is used. A small aperture is associated with large f-stop numbers so a setting of f/22 usually does the trick. Best results are when you partially obscure the sun behind a tree branch or mountain, leaving only some of the sun’s rays peeking through. Let diffraction do the rest.
  • Try to employ complementary colors by shooting skyward on a sunny, blue-sky day. The warm tones in the backlit foliage fully complement the blues in the sky.

Use Telephoto Lenses to Isolate

You should look to use a short telephoto lens (70-200mm or even 100-400mm) to isolate patterns of autumn color, interconnected shapes, and textures within the larger landscape. A forest of trees, colorful or not, can be a confusing maze of visual chaos. But by isolating smaller vignettes with a telephoto lens, you can help bring some order to that chaos.

Telephoto isolation in landscape photography is the fine art of exclusion, stripping away any extraneous visual elements to reveal only the most essential and important parts of the scene. This is particularly true when shooting autumn color.

In the example above with a focal length of 85mm, I reveal to the viewer only a small section of a larger waterfall and scene, splitting the image into three equal sections: the autumn color, the falling water, and the distinctive glacial blue of the river.

Some short telephoto lenses to consider (links to Amazon):

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom Lens
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L IS USM Lens
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR
Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens

Autumn Color

Look Down

When exploring autumn color scenes in the trees and hillsides, don’t forget to look down at the ground at the “leaf litter” scattered along the forest floor, river rocks, trails, etc. This is particularly true in late autumn, my favorite part of the season when a lot of the leaves have already fallen, some of the trees are completely bare or still holding on to a few leaves, and there no longer is any green hanging around.

There are often many tiny scenes within the autumn leaves themselves found in the patterns of veins and variations in color found in a single fallen autumn leaf. A versatile macro lens of about 100mm is a useful tool for these types of images, like this image shown above. Links below to Amazon.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro Lens
Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED Vibration Reduction Fixed Lens
Sony SEL90M28G FE 90mm f/2.8-22 Macro G OSS Standard-Prime Lens

Autumn Color

Look For Reflections

On any sunny autumn day, find a body of water that is in the shade but also near some brightly illuminated autumn color, such as a grove of colorful trees or hillside. Here is where you will find a great opportunity to photograph fall reflections. If the water is still enough, you can capture some literal refections that create a mirror image of the primary subject. If the water is choppy from the wind or is moving, like you would find in a river or stream, you can make abstract reflections or colored water with longer exposures. The above image is an example of the latter, with a 10-second exposure being used to smooth out the water’s surface.

These type of refection images almost always need some help in the form of one or more visual anchors in addition to reflection. A rock or rocks, a log, or a duck are just some examples to look for when making autumn color photos of reflections. In order to get exposures of 10 seconds of longer during the middle of the day, you will need a strong neutral density filter of 6 to 10 stops in filter strength. I use the Lee Big Stopper (10 stops) and Little Stopper (6 stops) for these situations. Links to these and some other options below on Amazon.

Lee Filters 100 x 100mm Big Stopper 3.0 Neutral Density Filter, 10-Stop
Lee Filters 77mm Big Stopper Kit – Lee Filters 4×4 Big Stopper (10-stop ND Filter), Lee Filters Foundation Kit and 77mm Wide Angle Ring with 2filter cleaning kit
Lee Filters 100 x 100mm Little Stopper 1.8 Neutral Density Filter, 6-Stop
Tiffen 77mm Variable Neutral Density Filter

A Last Piece of Advice

Bookmark this page for next year.

Essential Autumn Color Links

U.S. Fall Color Map by Weather.com https://weather.com/maps/fall-foliage
Fall Foliage Prediction Map for the U.S https://smokymountains.com/fall-foliage-map/
Peak Fall Foliage Map by Stormfax http://www.stormfax.com/foliagemap.htm
Peak Fall Foliage Map for New England https://newengland.com/seasons/fall/foliage/peak-fall-foliage-map/
Your Ultimate Guide to the Smoky Mountains Fall Colors http://www.visitmysmokies.com/blog/gatlinburg/attractions-gatlinburg/ultimate-guide-smoky-mountains-fall-colors/
15 National Parks for Fall Color (Wilderness.org) http://wilderness.org/15-national-parks-fall-color
The 10 Best Places to See Fall Foliage in Canada https://www.tripsavvy.com/places-to-see-fall-foliage-in-canada-1481743
Best Times To See fall Foliage Across Canada with Interactive Map http://www.winnipegsun.com/2013/10/02/best-times-to-see-fall-foliage-across-canada

Essential Composition: Frames

Essential Composition: Frames


Essential Composition: Frames


Using frames is an effective compositional technique in photography and art that provides a powerful way of emphasizing the primary subject or most essential visual element in the photo. Framing immediately directs attention to and leads the eye to the subject or anything else you feel is important in the image. This is the “frame within a frame” that you’ve probably heard so much about in composition books. The image border is a frame too. Frames are another way of helping manipulate and guide how your audience looks at your image.

Look for frames in architectural elements such as doorways or arches, natural elements such as tree branches and natural arches, or variations in light and dark to effectively frame your subject.

“Spring Garden” Magnolia Plantation, Charleston, South Carolina USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 24-105mm @ 58mm, 1/20 second @ f/13, ISO 500.

In the image above, the arching tree branches not only provide a frame for the walkway and “V” shape created by the azaleas and receding tree trunks, but it also gives some needed balance to the image by counterpoising some visual weight the colorful flowering shrubs in bottom part of the photo (learn more about Achieving Photographic Balance in a previous blog post).

You can learn more about using frames, as well as many other compositional concepts in my e-book, Creative Composition: Image Design Masterclass.