Ten years with my ND filter, do you need one?
When we start in photography, just like any other art form, it’s fun to explore and experiment with different modifiers, lights, and gear to help us try and sort out our artistic style. I started shooting seriously in 2000 but waited until 2013 to buy my first ND filter. Now that we are ten years in, what brand of ND did I buy, what level was it and how is it holding up? Perhaps even more interesting, do I still use it and was it worth the price? Note: this is not an affiliate review, I’ll note the brans I use but will not include links – you can look them up yourself, as they are widely available at Amazon, B&H and Adorama. These are just the filters I use in my imaging.
What is an ND filter, and do you need one?
A neutral density filter (ND) is best explained as sunglasses for your lens, they help you to control the amount of light entering your lens. The filters come in a variety of densities (darknesses) from one to 10 including variable, represented by stops of light. A good way to think about the varieties would be, with a three stop ND filter, you can expect to lose about three stops of light (depending on your conditions). Restricting the light entering your lens can allow you to shoot with slower shutter speeds or wider apertures. These filters are widely used in cinema and photography both. With an ND attached to your lens, you can expect to remove glare from water, shoot with a wider aperture for better bokeh in brighter conditions, and of course slow your shutter speed allowing that creamy smooth effect we have all seen from moving water.
An ND filter is often considered one of those must have pieces of photography equipment, but just like with everything in photography, whether you need one really depends on what you shoot. If you do a lot of video with your camera, then yes, I would consider a set of good quality ND filters indispensable. Likewise, if you shoot landscapes, a variable ND filter can darken those pesky skies right up for you and give your non golden hour images better contrast and richer colors.
Here are a few recent shots, The first one, from Lake Marie in Wyoming is a midday shot with a ten stop ND filter. I cropped this image, but otherwise I didn’t need to adjust saturation, highlights, or shadows to gain proper contrast. I love it when a shot comes out of camera looking like this, and it was shot midday.
The second shot comes from Rocky Mountain National Park at Dream Lake. Now, this is not my favorite image from that hike by any stretch, but it was shot with a three stop neutral density filter, which I rotated just enough to reduce the glare on the water in the foreground while leaving the reflection for context at the back of the lake.
This third example is from a lake just outside of Marble Colorado. This image was shot with the same lens as the one above. This was taken just before sunset, and on this trip, I had forgotten my ND filter. In this case, I was happy with the reflection in the water, so it wasn’t a big deal that I didn’t have the filter. I removed a piece of trash in the foreground, but otherwise this one was also right out of camera with little adjustments needed.
What is the sweet spot for ND filters?
I have done quite a bit of experimenting over the years, and for my landscape work, I use a variable 3 stop filter the most. The three stops allow you to spin the outside ring and change the amount of filtering by 1 to three stops. For my video work, and for golden (and blue) hour shots with moving water, I tend to use a 3 stop non-variable ND filter. Anything late morning to later afternoon, I tend to lean toward a ten stop, which will often allow me to shoot at a 25 second shutter speed.
What brand do you use?
I’m a strong believer in buying quality filters, whether ND, UV or CTO/CTB, and I don’t see a reason to spend thousands of dollars on a lens only to put a piece of plastic in front of it, hindering the output of the glass. I have tried the pro level Tiffen, Hoya and many more but my go-to remains B+W, especially for higher stop ND and UV filters. Yes, there is an age-old argument about the necessity of a UV filter, but I find they not only reduce glare, but also protect the front element of my lens. I’m a klutz and have broken my fair share of UV filters while hiking in the early morning hours and banging my camera into something. When it comes to higher number (6 to 10 stop) ND filters, many filters tend to leave you with a green or blue color cast. This is especially common in the lower-cost ND filters on the market. Color casts can be easily removed in photoshop, but I prefer to keep as much quality as I can at the point of capture.
How has my ND held up after ten years?
Other than a couple of scratches on the ring of the filter, for the most part my B+W filters have held up perfectly and the only time I have had to replace them was when I broke one by dropping it or bumping it into something.
When you are getting started in photography, buying gear is a necessary evil, and there is always a balancing act when it comes to quality versus a tool to experiment or play with. I remember buying my first Tamron zoom lens for my Canon Rebel, the aperture was not fixed and changed from 5.6 to 8 over the course of the zoom lens range. I didn’t know any better, I just knew I needed a zoom lens. Luckily, I was able to later sell that lens to put money toward a pro lens that has a constant aperture value throughout the zoom range. With other equipment I was not so lucky. Starting out in studio lighting, I needed a wireless trigger for the strobes in class but wasn’t willing to pony up the cash for Pocketwizard units. The cheap triggers missed a lot of shots and were generally a piece of junk. I upgraded to Pocketwizards and never looked back. Even today, more than a decade later those Pocketwizard triggers are still great for triggering my spare camera body remotely.
Don’t bother buying stuff that is trendy and cheesy
The most important bit of advice I can offer when considering a new gadget or style of shooting for your photography hobby is to not bother with the trendy or silly gadget stuff. Smoke bombs, lens balls, hair flipping in the ocean, and neon lights for light painting are all just silly and will end up going the way of HDR. Sure, they will still have their place, and there will be people using them, but really, do we need to see another upside-down landscape shot through a lens ball, or model flipping her hair out of the tropical ocean water?
There are whole industries that rely on the creation and production of cheesy gadgets photographers think they need to buy. The reality is that these gadgets do little to offer you an avenue for a unique look at photography. These gadgets usually end up taking up space in your bag and let you waste location time to rehash what others have already done. Trends in every industry will come and go, try and look at something like a lens ball, selective color or smoke bomb for what they are, gimmicks.
When it comes to ND filters, I almost always have my variable ND filter, and my ten stop with me when heading out on a hike to someplace like Rocky Mountain National Park. I consider the three stop variable as a must-have and use it to bring out interest and contrast in the skies of my images. The ten stop is nice to have but not a must-have. The same effect could be gained at a waterfall with a variable three stop filter, so if I had to choose one for photography not videography, I would go with the three stop variable. While it is a special case tool, a quality ten stop ND filter can yield some pretty amazing results even when shooting midday.
Do you use ND filters in your work? Do you have one but are unsure how to use it? I’d love to gauge the interest for an article on ND or other filters and their role during a shoot. Drop me a line and let me know. Also, follow me on Twitter and Instagram. I’ll happily follow you back!
Now get out there and make some great photos!
“Ted’s journey into the landscape of the human body is a marvelous celebration of all that is physical, sensual and diverse
” – FSTOPPERS
About the author
Ted Tahquechi is a Denver Colorado based professional landscape and travel photographer, disability travel influencer and is almost completely blind. You can see more of Ted’s photography at: http://www.tahquechi.com/
Ted operates Blind Travels, a travel blog designed specifically to empower blind and visually impaired travelers. https://www.blindtravels.com/
Ted’s body-positive Landscapes of the Body project has been shown all over the world, learn more about this intriguing collection of photographic work at: https://www.bodyscapes.photography/
Questions or comments? Feel free to email Ted at: firstname.lastname@example.org