ND lens filter up close: When should you use one?

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Find out when you would benefit from using an ND lens filter.

Most photographers appreciate the many virtues of the neutral density lens filter (or ND lens filter for short), as it’s an essential bit of kit that creates desirable effects that can’t be replicated by computer software in post-production editing. But, just when should you use an ND lens filter to take advantage of its many benefits in photography?

Before understanding when to use an ND lens filter, fully familiarise yourself with this filter first. Essentially, an ND lens filter reduces the amount of light that hits a camera’s sensor, allowing for even light distribution. It’s like a volume control for light, if you like. 

Reduced light levels on your lens allow you to slow down the shutter speed to achieve the correct exposure, use wider apertures or larger ISO speeds during bright daylight. By cancelling out harsh sunlight, you can take longer exposures and produce some really creative tricks to your photographic work. 

There are different strengths of ND lens filters to choose from, according to how much light they restrict. This is measured by the number of stops of light that get blocked.

An ND lens filter has its uses in any genre of photography. But, it really comes into its own when used for outdoor or landscape scenes.

ND Filter BokehIMAGE—@benleodavis

Essentially, an ND lens filter is useful for any shot taken in very bright sunlight. Cutting back light reaching your camera reduces depth of field and isolates an image from its background. This makes it appear sharper, without causing overexposure. Animal or bird images can be brought to the fore without any background interference when using this filter, for instance.

IMAGE—Nadhofa Walannae

If you take photos of running water, such as trickling streams, gushing waterfalls or the ocean being battered by waves, an ND lens filter is indispensable to achieve the perfect, ethereal shot. By using longer exposure times, this filter can capture silky, softened, smooth, foggy, dreamy or blurred effects from water. This adds drama and atmosphere to a scene, bringing it to life. It also helps to draw the viewer in, without any distracting overexposure. It’s perfect when introducing movement to a single part of your image, whilst keeping the rest of a scene static.

IMAGE—Terry Richmond

ND lens filters also earn their worth when used to capture sky scenes. This clever filter can enhance the appearance of clouds making them appear more dramatic, striking, streaky or moody, giving your scene an extra helping of visual interest.

IMAGE—Annie Spratt

Many landscape photographers shoot images of foliage and fields, and capturing the perfect scene can often prove tricky without the aid of an ND lens filter. With this nifty filter helping to block out light, a dull field of blowing grass can be transformed into an atmospheric blur, for example.

IMAGE—Alasdair Elmes

It’s often assumed that an ND lens filter only has a place for shooting sky, water or foliage. But, if you’re a cityscape photographer, you’ll also find this filter earns its place on your camera lens. In particular, scenes of moving vehicles, sports matches or crowds of people can be blurred or distorted to great effect. This helps to add atmosphere to images that may otherwise appear flat or static.

An extra long exposure with the aid of an ND lens filter can also allow you to take great shots of fireworks.

One thing to bear in mind when using an ND lens filter is that it won’t alter the colour or polarisation of your images, so if you want to manipulate these, you’d be wise to choose other types of filters that suit these specific purposes.

Often the best way to appreciate the uses of an ND lens filter is simply to get out on the field and experiment with it.

FEATURE IMAGE—Nadhofa Walannae

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