Learn To Take Better Photos Using Neutral Density Filters

Neutral Density Filters are likely the first type of filter you ever purchased and are probably still your favorite go-to camera accessory. The tricky piece about these filters is learning how to shoot with them properly. Using them to manipulate light and transform your photos into something completely surreal.


What Are Neutral Density(ND) Filters?

Instead of giving you a technical explanation of what an ND filter is or does, let me put it to you like this. Imagine an ND filter as sunglasses for your lens. They are dark pieces of glass(made of resin or plastic in some cases)that restrict the amount of light hitting your sensor. Since it cuts down the light, it allows you to alter your settings to shoot long exposures in brighter times of day; creating amazing in-camera effects. Depending on the “heaviness” of your filter, it will cut down more or less light giving you certain looks but I will get into that later.

There are 2 kinds of ND filters for photographers: 4×4 ND’s and Circular ND’s. There is no major difference between them besides how they mount on your lens. A 4×4 filter mounts onto your lens via a filter tray, with an adapter for your lens; while a circular ND just screws onto the front element of your lens. I personally use 4×4 ND’s and I will share why that is at the end of this article.

When Should You Use ND Filters?

ND filters are most commonly used in landscape photography. Using heavy ND filters, landscape photographers can further push the dreamlike look of the area they are shooting. Allowing them to shoot exposures of several minutes, making the clouds blur and capture a scene impossible to the human eye. If you love the look of long exposures like blurred water, streaking clouds, and misty oceans, then you absolutely should buy an ND filter. At the very minimum, I would suggest a 6 Stop ND to achieve those types of looks.

Lighter ND filtration can often be found amongst portrait photographers who want to maintain that milky look of a wide aperture, even in the mid-day sun. If that sounds like you, try to look at something lighter than a 4 stop ND.

Fun fact: A polarizer is another filter a ton of people have in their kits, but did you know it also cuts 1 stop of light? Making it the equivalent of a .3 ND.


But How Much ND Do You Need?

I won’t get into brands specifically in this post so I am just going to stick to the “heaviness” of the ND. ND filters are not literally heavy by any means, but how dark they are is often referred to as their “heaviness”. ND filters are rated in STOPS. Stops are a camera term describing how much light is entering the camera sensor.

Often times you will see ND filters described as “1 STOP ND” or a “.3 ND” for example. Although described differently, both the 1 stop ND and .3 ND would be the exact same. Below is a little cheat sheet to better understand what all those ND filter packages are trying to tell you:

A stop measures how much light is entering the camera’s sensor. I know it seems like a pretty broad explanation but let’s break it down in regards to ND filters.

If we have a 0.3 ND filter on our camera, we know it will darken our image by 1 stop. So if you were shooting at a shutter speed of 1/100 with no ND, you can now get the same exposure at a shutter speed of 1/50 with the .3 ND. Are you confused yet?

The easiest way that stops were ever explained to me is like this. 1 stop of ND will half your shutter speed. 2 stops will half your shutter speed twice. So for example:

If we are shooting with a shutter speed of 1/200 and added 2 STOP ND, that would mean our shutter speed could be changed to 1/50.

If we are shooting with a shutter speed of 1/80 and added a 6 STOP ND, that would mean our shutter speed could be changed to 1 Second.

How to Calculate Shutter Speed For Your ND Filters

The big question many people have when they first start using ND filters, is how do you know what shutter speed to use? Luckily there is this relatively simple calculation you can do in your head, or on your phone’s calculator.

Like I mentioned before, I am halving my shutter speed, times the heaviness of my ND. For the 6 stop example above, it goes like this: 1/80 ÷ 2 = 1/40 ÷ 2 = 1/20 ÷ 2 = 1/10 ÷ 2 = 1/5 ÷ 2 = .5 secs ÷ 2 = 1 SECOND 

I halved my shutter speed 6 times to get my equivalent shutter speed while using a 6 stop ND filter. Divide shutter speed times X (ND strength) for an accurate shutter with any ND.

Similarly, the 2 stop example goes like this: 1/200 ÷ 2 = 1/100 ÷ 2 = 1/50


Get A Remote Shutter Release

A remote shutter release is a little device that overrides your shutter to allow you to shoot exposures as long necessary; far beyond the 30 second limit on most cameras in Manual mode. With a shutter release, you could literally take a 72-hour exposure in bulb mode if you REALLY wanted.

remote shutter pic.jpg

These are super useful with ND filters of 10 Stops of greater because then you can utilize the filters to their full potential. Setting up for exposures of 30 seconds or greater to create some really cool effects in-camera. The best part of all: it’s only around $50 for a really great shutter release.


Conclusion/What Filters Do I use?

Although there are tons of different brands and types of ND filters, I have found myself using Lee Filters; particularly the Big Stopper ND(10 stop ND). Paired with my .9 ND Soft Graduated Filter, it makes for an incredible duo for all my long exposure needs.

This filter combo brings me into why I prefer to use 4×4 ND’s over circular. It really comes down to 1 reason, being able to stack filters. With 1 tray, I can use both my ND filter and Soft Grad filter for some really cool effects, while keeping my sky nicely exposed.

If I were to use a circular ND, I may not be able to also use a circular soft grad ND, if the filters aren’t threaded on both sides. I would also not be able to adjust the position of my grad filter if it were circular since it sits in a fixed position.

Ultimately ND filters are a really great piece of gear to have in your bag. They can transform the uninteresting into something totally surreal and eye-catching. If you’re on the fence about it, I assure you, you won’t regret your purchase!

If you have any questions about certain ND filters feel free to ask in the comments below!

As always, be sure to share this post with anyone you think might find this useful!

Happy Shooting!


Article By

Brendan Williams

Hey, I'm Brendan! I'm a professional photographer and photo retoucher who has spent the majority of his career shooting or retouching outdoor lifestyle and social media campaigns for brands like G-Adventures, xoxo Bella, P&G, Fitbit, Chevy, Tourism California, and more. These days I primarily focus my efforts on this site, creating guides and tutorials that I wish I had earlier in my career. Each week I publish new tutorials on Photography, Photoshop, Lightroom, and Canva to help you unlock new skills and bring your creativity to new levels! Everything you learn here is backed by real experience, so you can finally skip the fluff and focus only on what matters.

Continue Reading:

How To Invert Colors In Photoshop

Learn how to quickly invert the colors of an image or a layer mask in Photoshop along with tips to selectively invert your colors instead!

How To Invert A Selection In Photoshop

Learn the importance of learning to invert a selection in Photoshop with the help of simple keyboard shortcuts and several other methods.

How To Use The Gradient Tool In Photoshop

Learn the ins and outs of how to use the gradient tool in Photoshop with useful tips to help make the most of this impressive tool!

Adobe Lightroom System Requirements For Mac & PC

Here's a breakdown of the system requirements for Adobe Lightroom Classic and Lightroom CC to make sure it will run smoothly on your computer.

How To Add A Watermark In Lightroom Classic & CC

Learn how to add a text or graphic watermark to a photo in Lightroom Classic and Lightroom CC to protect your photos from theft.

How To Use Dehaze In Lightroom

Learn how to use dehaze in Lightroom along with five different ways you can use the dehaze tool to improve your images in Lightroom.

35+ Best Fonts For Logos In Canva

Here's a list of the best fonts for logos in Canva to help give you inspiration in your next logo design!

How To Create Curved Text In Canva

Learn how to quickly create curved text in Canva desktop and mobile with just a few clicks to spruce up any design!

35 Best Fonts For Teachers In Canva

Discover the best fonts for teachers in Canva to help with your next worksheet or presentation for your class!

The 9 Best SD Cards For Sony

Discover the best SD cards for Sony to find the most reliable and best valued memory cards for your photo and video needs.

The Best Canon Lens For Low Light (10 Top Picks)

Get a complete view of the best Canon lenses for low light photography and video along with tips to make the right buying decision.

Affinity Photo VS Photoshop – Which Should You Choose?

Let's take a deep look at the similarities and differences between Affinity Photo and Photoshop to see which program you should pick.