Long Exposures are a fun way to mix up your photography style. Neutral Density filters allow you to slow down exposures and can produce mesmerizing photos. In the image below I used a Lee Filters Big Stopper to slow my exposure down to 30 seconds. This completely smoothed out the water and created an ethereal look.
For my normal threaded lenses I use the Lee Filters 100mm system. It does an okay job, but it does have some flaws. Notably, the filters have a heavy blue cast and the filter holder tends to have problems with light leaks. It's also quite expensive if you want the complete system.
Here are some links to the various Filters, Step-up Rings, and Adapters I covered in this video:
I use a combination of Haida 150mm filters and Progrey 150mm filters on my Nikon 14-24mm lens. The 14-24, like other extreme wide angle lenses, does not have a standard filter thread. A special system is needed to use filters on these lenses. Depending on what your budget is, and what features you want, Haida and Progrey are both excellent options! The Haida is great for those who don't have $1,000 to spend on another filter system, while the Progrey is the best high-end filter holder on the market right now. I recently reviewed both systems in-depth. You can read the Haida review here, and the Progrey review here.
Neutral Density filters are basically dark pieces of glass you can put on the front of your lens. They come in different "stops" (how dark the glass is.) A 10 stop filter will be very dark glass, while a 4 Stop will be fairly light. When choosing your Neutral Density Filters you have the option of Circular or Rectangular filters. There are pros and cons to each system.
I mainly use rectangular filters, so I am most familiar with that setup. In my experience, rectangular filters are great when you have shots pre-planned and have plenty of time to take the photo. I hate when I have to rush to capture the sunset / sunrise and have a very limited time window, especially since setting up my filters takes a few minutes. This delay can cause you to miss the best lighting. With rectangular filters you have to stop, pull out the adapter ring and any step-up rings, screw them onto your lens, clip the filter holder onto the ring, unpack your filter(s) and slide them into the holder. This process usually takes me at least 2 minutes.
Contrast that with a circular filter setup. All you have to do is screw the ND / Polarizer filter onto the front of your lens. Very quick, very easy. You can also stack 2 filters together, however image quality may be negatively impacted. You should always attach the ND filter first, then the Polarizer so you can rotate the Polarizer properly. Stacking circular filters can cause vignetting and a loss of sharpness though. If you plan to stack multiple filters, you should consider going with a rectangular filter system. However, if you only plan to use one filter at a time, then a circular filter is likely your best bet.
Lee Filters makes two very popular Neutral Density filters, the Little Stopper (6 stops) and Big Stopper (10 stops). This is the system I use. There are plenty of other Filter options to choose from, including: Vu Filters, Hoya, Nisi, Haida, B+W, ICE, and Formatt-Hitech. Recently, Lee Filters released a new line of ND filters, the ProGlass IRND, which they claim are the highest quality ND filters available. If the filters are as color-neutral and accurate as they say, this could be a fantastic new option!
The Little Stopper is perfect for shooting waves during the daytime. It blurs them just enough to create intriguing images.
Using the Little Stopper to show the wave motion
The Big Stopper is great when you really want to slow an image down. The Big Stopper alone can allow for a 20 second exposure on an overcast day. If you're feeling really adventurous, you can combine two Neutral Density Filters for an even longer exposure. Stacking a Little and Big Stopper would result in a 16 Stop filter, which can take 8+ minutes to properly expose in broad daylight!
A 60 second exposure, created with the Big Stopper
This may be very confusing if you have no experience with filters yet. Be sure to watch my Filter Setup video at the top of the page, which will help to explain this process.
First, determine what your largest Filter Thread size is on all of your lenses. The Nikon 24-70 has a 77mm Filter Thread, while the Tamron 24-70 has a 82mm thread. Look at the inside of your lens cap, or the lens body itself, to find the Filter Thread size. It will look something like this: ⌀ 67.
The Sigma 35mm Art has a 67mm Filter Thread
Let's say you have three lenses. One has a 77mm thread, the other a 67mm thread and one with a 52mm thread. If you plan to use circular filters, you should buy one that matches your largest filter thread, in this case: 77mm. You can then buy a 67-77mm and a 52-77mm Step-Up Ring. You should be able to find these Step-Up Rings for less than $10 on B&H. Simply screw the step-up ring onto your lens first, then screw on the actual filter into the step-up ring.
If you are using rectangular filters, this is a bit different. Since you will need an adapter ring and filter holder set, you must choose the appropriate adapter ring size. I use a 77mm adapter ring, which fits on my Nikon 24-70 perfectly. I can use those cheap step-up rings in order to use that 77mm adapter ring on most of my other lenses as well. For example, with my Sigma 35mm Art I just use a 67-77mm Step-Up Ring. I thread that onto my lens, then attach the adapter ring onto the Step-Up Ring.
Remember though, if you end up buying a lens with a larger Filter Thread in the future, you will need to purchase a new adapter ring (rectangular filters) or a completely new filter (circular). After I bought all my filters, I picked up a Tamron 150-600mm, which has a filter size of 95mm. Therefore, I had to buy a new 95mm adapter ring from Lee Filters.
There are also Step-Down rings, which allow you to use a 52mm circular filter on a 77mm lens. These are much less common though, and they could have undesirable vignetting.
Lee Filters tend to have a blue tint, which needs fixed in Post Processing. Click here to see the color cast caused by the Big Stopper and Little Stopper. This can be relatively easy to correct if you shoot in RAW, but it can be a pain if you shoot in JPEG. Therefore, be sure to change your camera's White Balance before taking photos. For more information on easily removing the color cast, read this blog post.
Sometimes the colors become so messed up you need to do some heavy Photoshop work. Check out this Color Correction tutorial by Photoshop Guru Jimmy McIntyre. Depending on which filters you are using, you may have a different color cast to deal with.
Below are two images. The image on the left is straight out of the camera, without any filters. The image on the right is straight out of the camera, with the Big Stopper and Little Stopper stacked together. Both were shot using Auto White Balance. As you can see, there is a significant amount of vignetting and blue color-cast to the image. This is relatively easily corrected in Photoshop and Adobe Camera RAW.
No Filter 4 minute long exposure. Big Stopper + Little Stopper for 16 Stops
Once you receive your ND filters, you should test them to see how bad the color cast is. You also need to test how dense the filters actually are. First, take a photo of a plain white wall or something similar. Make sure your camera is on a manual White Balance (basically anything other than Auto). Then take a test photo of the wall without a filter. Next, slide / screw the filter on. Change your Shutter Speed to compensate for the ND filter and take another photo. This will show the color cast. Watch the video below for more information.
Fix your ND filter's color cast
Long Exposure Noise Reduction is critical to creating a beautiful Long Exposure image. When a sensor is capturing light for over a minute it can get very hot. If you are shooting in a warm, humid environment, your sensor will also take longer to cool down. This heat will show up in the picture in the form of "hot pixels", tiny multi-colored dots all over the image. To help cool the sensor, try to limit your Live View usage. Live View will quickly heat up your sensor, since it has to send all of that information to your playback screen in real-time. Saving large files to the SD / CF card will also increase the sensor's temperature. If you are taking any photos longer than 30 seconds, you should enable Long Exposure Noise Reduction. You can find this option in the Photo Shooting Menu on Nikon cameras. Some Nikon models also have Long Exposure Noise Reduction in the quick menu. (Press the i button)
When LENR is turned on, the camera takes 2 exposures. The first is the normal photo. Immediately after the normal photo is taken, another exposure of equal length is taken, this time without any light reaching the sensor. This creates a Dark Frame that the camera uses to automatically detect any hot pixels and remove them. After the camera identifies the hot pixels and removes them, it saves the final output as one image. Basically, all LENR does from a user standpoint is double the shutter speed. So if you take a 30 second long photo, you will need to wait 1 minute before you can take another shot. As the camera is taking the Dark Frame, you will see 'Job nr' flashing on your camera. Once 'Job nr' disappears, you can take your next photo.
The camera is now taking the Dark Frame
Here is a heavily cropped image that shows just how awful Hot Pixels can become. This is why Long Exposure Noise Reduction is absolutely necessary! If you do forget to turn on LENR, you can still salvage the image in Photoshop using the Dust and Scratches filter. To learn more about this process, check out my YouTube video tutorial.
Light Leaks are another problem you will likely encounter when doing Long Exposures. Light Leaks occur when light gets into the lens or camera during the exposure. This can occur at the filter holder, the lens itself, or the camera's viewfinder. Most light leaks occur at the Filter / Filter Holder area though. To be clear, if your long exposures are 30 seconds or less, you probably won't see light leaks. However, if you plan to do long exposures over 30 seconds, the possibility of light leaks is greatly increased. In the image below, the light leaks were caused by light sneaking in on the sides of my filter holder. There's nothing worse than spending 16 minutes to create a photo only to have your image ruined by light leakage.
16 Minutes wasted because of Light Leakage
First, make sure your filters are properly fitted. If you have circular filters, ensure they are screwed in all the way. If you use rectangular filters, make sure they are completely covering the front of the lens.
Next, cover the camera body and lens. It is crucial to cover the camera's viewfinder. Nikon camera's normally come with a little plastic clip that will cover it. (you will have to take off the normal cover first). On higher-end models (D500, D810, D5), there is a little switch next to the Viewfinder. This will close off the viewfinder.
If it is not windy out, I will put a jacket over the camera and lens. If it is windy, I use my hat to cover the camera body and part of the lens. I also use black tape to cover the corners of the Filter Holder, since light seems to get through there. Then, I will stand right over the camera so that my shadow blocks the light from falling on my gear. Be careful not to shoot into the sun, as the sunlight will likely leak in around the filters.
I should stress that it is very important to keep your entire camera setup in shadow for the duration of the exposure, otherwise you risk wasting 8+ minutes for one ruined photo.
I've also found that a shirt can work really well for covering the camera. I slide the camera inside the shirt and out through one of the sleeves, this allows me to clamp the camera to the tripod. A car can also be a great sun-shade, if you are able to shoot right next to it.
A polarizing filter makes a great addition to a filter setup. The polarizer is used to remove distracting reflections from water, and helps remove glare from rocks, leaves, windows and many other objects. A polarizer can be especially useful when photographing landscapes and waterfalls.
Notice how the sky is much darker, the blue haze in the distant mountains is gone, the clouds appear more white and the surface of the water looks different.
A circular polarizer is actually two filters attached together. The first filter does not move, the second filter is rotated around. As you rotate the second filter you will see the scene go from unpolarized to polarized. In the video below, you can see the difference the polarizer makes as I rotate it around:
Polarizers do not work well with Wide Angle lenses (wider than ~28mm) when photographing landscapes, as they have uneven coverage. This will cause a certain portion of the sky to be much darker than the rest depending on how you rotate the polarizer. Or, in the case of photographing water, there will be reflections on some of the water. In the photo below you can see how the polarizer darkened the center of the sky, but not the edges. This was taken at 24mm.
In order to make the most of the polarizer, you should point the camera 90 degrees away from the sun. In order to illustrate this, create an L with your hand, with your thumb pointed upwards and your index finger pointed straight ahead. When you are out in the field, use your finger to point at the sun. You can now rotate your wrist around in a circle, while still pointing at the sun. The direction your thumb is pointing will have the best polarization effects.
Surprisingly, even dry rocks can reflect a lot of sunlight. As you can see in the photos below, the polarizer really brings out the colors in the landscape.
I use the Lee Filters Landscape Polarizer, which works great! You simply attach the 105mm Ring to the front of your Filter Holder and then screw the polarizer in. I really like this setup because I can use the polarizer by itself, or in combination with my Little and/or Big Stopper. It also has a slight warm cast, which helps reduce the blue cast from the ND filters.
Keep in mind, you don't always want to use a polarizer. Sometimes you really want to have a nice reflection.
My favorite place to use Filters is in the Bahamas. You can get so many amazing effects by using ND filters! My favorite ND to use is definitely the Little Stopper, which is the 6 stop ND. I find that 6 Stop ND's allow just enough light reduction to create some really fun images. I love shooting with a 1/2 - 1 second Shutter Speed and showcasing the movement of the waves.
1/2 exposure with the Little Stopper
1/4 second exposure with the Little Stopper 1/2 second exposure with the Little Stopper
Using the Big Stopper (10 stop ND) can also be fun, especially as you wait to see how the image will turn out. These exposures are usually around 30 seconds and they really smooth the water out.
25 second exposure with the Big Stopper
The weather in the mountains can drastically change the effect your ND filters have. In the photo below, taken at Yosemite National Park, the heavy clouds and fog created an ethereal look. I used the Big Stopper for a 15 second exposure. This was just enough time to slightly blur the clouds and soften the fog as it rolled through the valley.
Sometimes I use my Little Stopper and Big Stopper together in order to get 16 Stops. The tricky part is properly exposing the photo. If you have a bright sunny day, with a few clouds, then the following settings should get you proper exposure with 16 Stops.
It helps to shoot in RAW. This will allow you to recover detail in the highlights, if they get overexposed. If the photo is underexposed, you can brighten the Exposure in Post-Processing without much quality loss. If you want to dive into an ISO rabbithole, look into ISO Invariance. If your camera is ISO Invariant, you could recover a heavily underexposed photo if need be, or intentionally underexpose the photo in order to save the highlights from being blown-out.
If possible, keep the sun behind the camera. If the sun is directly overhead, in front, or at a 90 degree angle to the camera there is a much higher chance of Light Leaks.
I love using my ND filters with my Tamron 150-600mm! The telephoto lens allows me to isolate the mountains, while the ND filters can create a surreal effect with the clouds.
The image below was taken using 17 Stops for an 8 minute exposure. As you can see, the clouds have plenty of time to stretch out across the sky.
I'll leave you with one last look at the Grand Tetons. The photo below was captured using a Big Stopper, which slowed the exposure down to 25 seconds. The big cumulus clouds just started to blur together at that Shutter Speed.
Grand Teton National Park
Filters can also be used to create beautiful Waterfall photos. Polarizers can remove harsh glare from the water's surface and bring out the beautiful colors, while ND filters can smooth out the water completely.
Avalanche CreekLong Exposure photo of Avalanche Creek in Glacier National Park
For the comparison below I used a Big Stopper. This slowed my exposure down to 30 seconds and created a beautiful effect!
Sometimes even a polarizer is enough to slow the Shutter Speed effectively. The photo below was a 1/4 second exposure, just long enough to blur the waterfall. I recommend using a shutter speed between 1/4 sec and 1 second for the best results.
The easiest way to determine your Shutter Speed is to use the free Lee Exposure App. Here's a link to the Google Play version. First, select your ND filter strength. Then rotate the dial until it matches your current Shutter Speed, without any filters. The App will tell you the appropriate Shutter Speed over on the right. Remember, if your ND filters are actually more dense than listed, you will have to factor that into the calculation. Alternatively, you can determine your Shutter Speed manually, using my Stop Guide.
I recently created a guide to understanding Stops and how they effect Long Exposure Photography. I've included a free Stop Guide Chart that you can download to your smartphone. This will allow you to easily determine your appropriate Shutter Speed in the field, regardless of how many Stops your ND filter(s) are. Click here to visit that Tutorial.
Understanding how to select the correct shutter speed can be a bit confusing at first.
Set your camera to Aperture Priority mode and choose your Aperture value (f/8 usually works well). The camera will now automatically adjust the Shutter Speed. When you add a Neutral Density filter or Polarizer the camera should automatically adjust the Shutter Speed for a proper exposure. (I've noticed that sometimes the camera does not get the proper Shutter Speed unless I turn on Live View; so if your photos are under / over exposed, try using Live View)
My Nikon D750 is normally able to calculate the proper Shutter Speed when I use a 6 Stop ND filter on Aperture Priority Mode. However, when using a 10 Stop ND filter, the camera tends to miscalculate the correct Shutter Speed. Therefore, I need to use Manual Mode when shooting with my Big Stopper. If your exposure is longer than 30 seconds, you will need to use Bulb Mode and manually time the photo.
Most filters should come with an Exposure chart that will list normal Shutter Speeds and the equivalent shutter speed when using the ND Filter. Or you can download my own Exposure Guide, which lists all the common 1 Stop intervals for Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO. Head over to my Stop Guide tutorial to learn more.
The filter you purchase may not be exactly the correct density. If you buy the Lee Filters Big Stopper, a 10 Stop Filter, it may actually be 10 and 2/3 stops. This will alter your shutter speed and you need to correct for it. After using my Lee Filters for over two years, I finally decided to test the real ND strength. I will show you how in this blog post.
Keep in mind, if you are doing long exposures under 30 seconds, this isn't really necessary. The camera should give you the correct shutter speed in Aperture Priority mode. However, if you spent over $100 on your ND filters and plan to do exposures longer than 30 seconds, I'd highly recommend testing the density of all your filters.
I recommend bringing the following items every time you head out to take a Long Exposure.
After practicing my Long Exposure photography in Colorado I came up with a set of steps I follow each time. Following these steps should help you to capture a perfect Long Exposure every time.
If the image was too dark, or you know the Shutter Speed needs to be longer than 30 seconds, keep following the steps below.
Sometimes your Shutter Speed may be too fast even though you added an ND filter, there are a few ways to slow it down. First, you can try to lower your ISO, some cameras can go below ISO 100. Next, you will need to start stopping down your aperture. I usually shoot between f/5.6 - f/11, unless I absolutely need to get a longer Shutter Speed. You generally don't want to shoot above f/16 because of Diffraction, which will make your image less sharp. More importantly, any dust on your sensor will show up in the image and look awful; it's also a pain to remove in post-processing. If you have any dust or water droplets on you filters, these will also become visible above f/8.
Don't forget to cover that camera! Light Leaks are the worst!
To learn even more about creating long exposures, check out this incredibly comprehensive guide by Joel Tjintjelaar.
Check out this amazing blend of Long Exposures and Timelapse Photography
Some Youtube Tutorials for Color Correction, compiled by Jimmy McIntrye
Download my Long Exposure Photography Checklist