Learning about Neutral Density Filters and how you can use them to slow down the shutter speed was a big turning point in my landscape photography. I instantly fell in love with the soft and dream-like feeling I was able to achieve – it was like giving life to my not-so-interesting images.
I’ve learned a lot since that day, and while I don’t only do Long Exposure Photography anymore, it’s still an important part of my work and it’s something my students often like learning about. After all, it has the power to instantly transform an otherwise standard image into something more fascinating.
As with anything else, it takes a lot of practice to master a subject but I want to help you on the way by sharing some crucial tips that will make life just a little easier.
1. Prefocus when using Neutral Density Filters
There weren’t a whole lot of articles and tutorials to study when I started exploring with Neutral Density filters. This meant that it took a bit of struggle to find a solution to some of the mistakes I made. One of the things I simply couldn’t figure out was why all my images with a 10-stop filter were blurry…
After some back and forth I understood that it was because I used autofocus.
Remember that a 10-Stop ND Filter is essentially a piece of black glass. Try looking through it with your eyes when the sun is low on the sky and I’ll bet you can barely see anything. This is the case for the camera as well. Most cameras aren’t able to properly set the focus when dark ND Filters are used – just as they aren’t able to automatically focus at night.
The solution is to switch over to manual focus. I know this sounds tedious to some of you but here’s an easy workaround if you prefer autofocus:
- Mount the camera on a tripod and find your desired composition
- Focus roughly one third into the image (depends on the scene and desired look)
- Change to Manual Focus (read your owners manual to figure out how it’s done with your camera/lens)
- Place the Neutral Density filter in front of the lens
- Calculate the shutter speed and take the picture!
Since you switched to manual focus, the camera isn’t going to try to focus after you attach the ND filter; instead, it’s keeping the focus you set.
Note: Remember to repeat the process when you’re changing compositions and to switch back to autofocus when you’re done using the filters.
2. Avoid light leaks by covering the viewfinder
The biggest frustration I’ve ever had when working with long exposures was the mysterious purple glow that appeared in the center of my images.
It turned out that this is caused by light leaking through the viewfinder and the solution is quite simple: cover it up!
Some professional DSLR cameras have a built-in ‘curtain’ that you can close by flipping a small switch next to the viewfinder. If your camera doesn’t have this, I recommend using a piece of cardboard to place in front of the viewfinder.
It’s also possible to purchase covers custom made for your camera.
Now it should be said that these light leaks don’t always occur. It’s most common when:
- You’ve got a light source directly behind you (such as the sun or a streetlamp)
- You’re using a shutter speed of 1 minute or longer
I’d still make it a habit to cover the viewfinder whenever you’re using a shutter speed of 20 seconds or more.
3. Remote Shutter + Bulb Mode = Sharp Images
One of the biggest challenges you’re going to experience when experimenting with Neutral Density filters and slow shutter speeds are getting razor sharp images. There are many factors that can result in the images being unsharp; one of the most common is camera shake.
The maximum shutter speed of most DSLR cameras is 30 seconds. In order to use a shutter speed longer than this, you need to use a function called ‘Bulb’. In Bulb mode, the image is being captured for as long as the shutter button is pressed.
You can imagine (and try if you don’t believe me!) that manually pressing the shutter button for one or two minutes is going to cause a significant amount of vibration to the camera. What does that lead to? Blurry images.
A remote shutter is absolutely essential in this case. You can find a cheap version but I recommend a remote shutter that has:
- the possibility to ‘lockup’ the button
- an LCD display that shows time
Long Exposure Photography is a lot of fun and it’s a great way to improve your understanding of how the camera fundamentals (ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed) work together. Since we’re working with shutter speeds of up to several minutes there are many factors that might result in failure but the results can be mesmerizing.
The tips I’ve shared in this article gives the solution to some of the most common obstacles and I hope they will remove some frustration for you. If you’d like to learn everything you need to know in order to capture beautiful images using slow shutter speed, be sure to take a look at my eBook ‘The Ultimate Guide to Long Exposure Photography‘.