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How to use ND filter for Long Exposure Photography

Last weekend sunrise outing was a huge success with more than 40 participants showed up, thank you for coming! 😀

During the outing, there were participants who wanted to know more about the filters. Because of that, I’m writing this blog post to explain further how to use ND filters.

Let’s start with the WHY.

Why should we use ND filters?

If you are interested in creating something uncommon and not be able to see by our naked eyes, you should try out Long Exposure Photography.

By having Shutter Speed going longer than 1 second, we able to “blur out” any moving object to produce the following effect.

Create a smooth flat surface of the sea.

Capture the motion of moving clouds.

Capture light trails from moving vehicle.

Capture the motion of the wave.

Under the long exposure, with a bit of creativity, you can create different effects other than the above-listed example. I also saw other photographers capture the motion of moving crowds, which is very cool!

Long exposure effect is cool, but you can only do it under a dim light condition, after the sunset or maybe in the night. If you tend to go for 30 seconds of Shutter Speed in the noon, you will get, a pure white photo, due to highly overexposed the photo. Unless using an ND filter.

An ND filter is a piece of coated black glass that used to reduce the amount of light goes into your camera’s sensor, like sunglasses.

Sample ND filter photo from Nisi website.

With the ND filter, you will have no problem to go for 2 or 4 minutes of Shutter Speed in the noon.

Using ND filters

After understanding what you can do with the ND filters, let’s talk about how to use them. 😀

1. Compose the photo

First, you are going to start taking the photo like your normal shooting, setting up your gears and most importantly, finding the right COMPOSITION.

COMPOSITION is always one of the key elements to creating a GOOD photo. So, spend some times here to find the best composition for your photo.

2. Set ISO, Aperture & Shutter Speed

Second, you decide the camera settings. Start from ISO, Aperture and then using the Shutter Speed to find the right exposure for the photo.

If you not so sure how to decide the camera settings, you can check out my blog post “Camera Setting For Landscape Photography” here.

One thing you need to take note is that when using filters, you may also capture more DUST on your photo than without the filters. This is because of the dirty spots or tiny scratches on the filters. The more filters you stack, the more dust you are going to get.

To reduce the dust, I would suggest using Aperture somewhere between f/6.3 to f/8, giving you great sharpness with good depth of field, and LESS DUST.

Just bear in mind to avoid having any foreground subject too close to you, which may require f/11 or f/16 for a wider depth of field, and that would capture more dust.

3. Set the focus

Third, set your camera FOCUS. Make sure focusing at ⅓ distance from the bottom to achieve infinity focus to keep everything in the frame sharp. Also, use MANUAL FOCUS, so that you won’t have to refocus again after attaching an ND filter. You may not be able to see anything via your camera viewfinder/live view through the filter.

4. Attach an ND filter

Fourth, attach an ND filter. Depend on the lighting condition, and what you are looking for, there are different ND filter with different density to cut down the lights from 1 stop exposure to 20 stop exposure, wow! Here’s my suggestion in a simplified way, in case you don’t know which ND filter to use. ND8 (0.9) – 3 StopGood for seascape. To slow down the Shutter Speed to 1 or a few seconds, to capture the flow of the wave.ND64 (1.8) – 6 StopUse for creating smooth, silky water effect and also capturing the motion of moving clouds.ND1000 (3.0) – 10 StopSame as ND64 but use this filter when the sky is getting brighter, and ND64 is not good enough to cut down the light for you to use the Shutter Speed that you want.ND320000 (4.5) – 15 StopGood for doing long exposure photography during the day time. With this, you can use Shutter Speed up to 2 minutes and longer even with the sun is high in the sky.

Buying tips, if you have a tight budget constraint, get only the ND1000.

However, I would suggest getting at least both ND64 + ND1000 to able to be more flexible in your shooting. You can even use both ND64 and ND1000 to have a total of 16 stops reduction in exposure, instead of having an ND320000 filter. (Assuming using a square filter system)

If possible, get all three ND8, ND64 and ND1000 filters. That would be the ideal choice, giving you the highest flexibility to take the photo in different lighting condition for the long exposure effect.

To understand more about filters, I suggest you check out my previous post here.

5. Adjust the Shutter Speed

Fifth, once you slot in an ND filter into your filter holder, you need to finetune your camera setting, using a slower shutter to get the right exposure. To make your life easy (instead of cracking your head to calculate the correct shutter speed), you can refer the below Shutter Speed conversion chart.

Alternatively, you can download the Long Exposure Calculator App to find out the correct Shutter Speed.

6. Take a test shot

Sixth, take a test shot. It is always essential to take a test shot, review and then apply any necessary adjustment so that you able to get the result that you want. You may need to change the ND filter to another darker filter for a longer Shutter Speed, or maybe stack another ND filters.

Always look at the photo and ask yourself, is this good enough? What else can you do to make it perfect?

That’s all on how to use ND filter for Long Exposure photography, it is pretty straightforward, right? 😉 If you have some Long Exposure shot and would like with share with me, you can post your photo in our Facebook Group HERE.


If you want to download the high-resolution version of the cheat sheet, you can get it here.

One more thing…

If you are interested in learning more on using ND filters and also doing Black and White Photography, you can check out my LONG EXPOSURE BLACK & WHITE WORKSHOP. 🙂

See you in the next post!

Please feel free to share this post if you enjoy reading it! :)

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