Often, amateur landscape photographers tend to have lots of issues trying to balance an exposure in a scene where there is a lot of difference in ambient lighting across the frame. Let’s say a sunset or a sunrise scene where the sky is extremely bright and the foreground is extremely dark. Exposing for one clips details in the other. Then there is the mid-afternoon harsh light. Ever thought about using long exposure under the mid-day sun? ND filters, allow you to do all of these and more. Let’s look at the many uses of ND filters.
Traditional landscape photography is all about shooting with sharp wide angle lenses paired with high resolution cameras with the whole setup placed on a tripod. A ND filter adds a completely different dimension to the whole thing, enhancing the quality of your photos and giving you a fresh new look to experiment with.
In a previous article I had written at length about the major types of filters out there. In that I covered the different types of ND filters as well. Thus, I will not be reiterating the whole thing here. In this article I shall, however, be focusing on uses of ND filters, more specifically in landscape photography.
Sunsets and Sunrise
The traditional sunset and sunrise photos, though they have been made with a sharp lens set to small aperture and shot from a tripod, tend to miss out on something conspicuous; and that is dynamic range. The human eye is capable of seeing a much higher dynamic range in a scene than even the best of cameras. Sunsets and sunrises are classic examples I can cite.
At both these times there is a considerable difference in brightness between the sky and the land. The human eye adjusts as it shifts across different areas of the image and the brain records it as one. The camera does not. At any given point it can only adjust (in other words meter) for the highlights or the shadows in the scene. It is impossible for it to capture the whole dynamic range in the scene. This is one of the major uses of ND filters.
To photograph a scene like this you need a ND filter, more specifically a graduated ND filter. A graduated ND filter has a light blocking edge that slowly gets transparent as you go to the other edge. It helps to block the sky while the foreground / water is left untouched. Resultantly, the final image has a far greater dynamic range than it would have otherwise. Plus, with the sky blocked, more details can be revealed.
In the above example we used a Graduated ND filter to hold back the sky while the foreground was exposed properly. With the sky and the foreground now balanced more details can thus be retained. But why stop there? Let’s do something even more interesting. Let’s introduce motion blur in the image. To do this we will need another ND filter – this time a solid one. The strength of the filter you need will depend on the time of the day, amount of ambient light and of course the effect that you need.
The solid ND filter will sit in tandem with the Graduated ND. For using both filters at the same time you will need a filter holder, which allows two or more filters to be used in tandem. Circular filters will not work like this. Cokin P series is a good example. With the solid ND filter in place now you can use a really long shutter speed. This will ensure a lot of motion blur.
If you are shooting sunsets or sunrise at the beach the movement of the water will appear like mist in the final image. Try to include rocks and other stationary features on the beach to add some interesting elements to the image.
Shoot any time of the day
I talked about harsh light and how a majority of photographers tend to avoid this time of the day. With an 8, 9 or even 10 stop ND filter, however, you can shoot at any time of the day and at any place (I’ll explain more in the next para). Never mind the harsh light of the mid-day sun. You can produce stunning imagery at times of the day other photographers avoid like the plague.
Uses of ND Filters in Removing People etc. from a Scene
There are many other fringe uses of ND filters, advantages that allow you to expand your creativity. One of them being you can make crowded places appear devoid of people. The trick is in setting a really long exposure. Of course the people around have to be moving all the time. People moving in an out of the frame will simply not stay in a place for long to be registered. This technique, however, will not work in all sitautions.