Thoughts about Neutral Density Filters for Photography

Chase falls in August

Cool waters

White water

A neutral density filter is a clear, colourless, filter that reduces the intensity of all wavelengths, or colours of light, equally. It is usually a colorless (gray) filter that reduces the amount of light entering the lens. A photographer can select exposure combinations that would otherwise produce overexposed pictures. Using a ND filter allows a photographer to achieve a very shallow depth of field, or motion blur.

I’ll begin by saying quality ND filters have always been expensive. During the days of film, the exposure you made was the exposure you got. And when one used colour film one didn’t get a second chance if there was a colour shift, usually a purple cast, with less expensive filters. Some cheap filters weren’t all that sharp either.

I thought about that when during a workshop the leader loaned me a couple Lee filters (over a hundred dollars each) to try on long exposures of the waterfall we were photographing. He indicated if I were to order through him I could get a discount.

I’d already spent a bundle on costs including travel and lodging, and owned ND filters that worked well so I passed on the deal and came home thinking about maybe a future purchase.

My memory of ND filter problems were from the time of film. Film has a permanence that data files created in our modern digital camera don’t have.

Colour balance in film means colour correction filters. Where as, with digital I mostly leave my camera on auto white balance, and fix any shift when I open my RAW files in Photoshop.

A photographer could somewhat help a soft image when shooting black and white film by increasing the contrast, but with colour it was permanent. Nowadays, we have a number of software possibilities that can almost (well, almost) fix a not-quite-in-focus image.

With all that in mind I thought that unless I was making very large prints that those cheap ND filters might be usable. So I ordered several very inexpensive, no-name ND filters thinking the $60.00 or so I spent might be foolish, but I’d have some fun and discard them if they didn’t work.

I bought them, put them away and forgot about them. Then this past week as I sat looking at the overcast sky after a much-needed shower in the parched hills around my home, I decided to give those filters a try. I grabbed my camera, tripod, and the bag of filters, talked my wife into coming, and drove to a local waterfall.

The Chase Creek falls weren’t the raging torrent of spring or early summer. This year’s long, hot, dry spell has had an effect and capturing an exciting waterfall wasn’t possible. I tried a couple different angles, scrambling around the rocks and down to a now sandy shore, and then a group of young people came to splash in the cold water so I moved downstream in the creek. I was getting bored anyway and didn’t mind giving up my spot to those kids and their blanket.

Returning home, I loaded my RAW files in the computer, easily corrected the white balance, added contrast and sharpened the image in Photoshop.

My conclusion is those inexpensive ND filters are great if one is willing to shoot in RAW and make post-production corrections. I think an out-of-the-camera JPG would be disappointing.

I expect there will be opinions by experienced photographers who read this. However, the images look pretty good on my calibrated 30-inch Mac display screen. I haven’t made any prints, but I expect 8×10’s might be just fine, and if just sharing images on-line I think inexpensive ND filters will be fine.

I look forward to any comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com

Photographing a Waterfall

The week had been a busy one for me. Unfortunately none of what occupied me had anything to do with photography.  It is said that life gets in the way of having fun.  So when I finally was able to chisel out some time for myself this last weekend I decided to travel the short distance up the road from my home to a stream with waterfall.  The falls are just off the Trans Canada Highway as it winds past Chase, BC.

I brought along my tripod, selected my versatile 18-200mm lens, a polarizing filter, and a neutral density filter just in case there was lots of bright light, and headed out. When I arrived at the creek and walked along the well-worn path beside the rock-strewn creek up to the waterfall I found there was open shade everywhere. It was just before noon, and the sun’s direction against the large flat rocks that lined the narrow canyon was providing lots of soft, reflective light on the cliffs, the water, and the pile of logs that surrounded the falls left over from the flooding of waterways that occurred in British Columbia this spring. I don’t think I could have asked for better light. There was very little of the harsh sunlight I had anticipated so I didn’t have to use the neutral density filter, and because of all the soft reflected light I didn’t have deep shadows to contend with either.

I climbed down the large rocks to the stream just below the falls, set up my tripod and started shooting. I like the soft look of water that a long shutterspeed creates so I began by putting the polarizer on the lens, which reduced the light by about two stops. Then I set the ISO to 100 and stopped the lens down to F/11. That gave me a shutterspeed of three seconds.

Photographing water is fun. I enjoy waterfalls, but rushing streams or rivers, plant covered ponds, and mountain lakes are just as enticing. I think it’s how the water sculpts everything that surrounds it.

Waterfalls usually demand a wide-angle lens and a tripod. A wide angle allows photographers to capture the landscape that contains a waterfall and the tripod means there won’t be camera shake. The lens doesn’t need to have a wide aperture because in landscape photography, and that include a landscape with a water feature like a waterfall, one should be stopping the aperture down to create as much depth of field as possible. The important thing, if one wants that glowing, soft looking water is a slow shutterspeed.  And when the shutter is slowed the aperture must be closed, and with a smaller aperture comes more depth of field. I will also mention that a cable release is a good idea to reduce camera shake, but I seem to always forget mine, and so I use the camera’s self-timer instead.

For those who live in the British Columbia there is no shortage of waterfalls that are easy to photograph, and for many like me the waterfalls are only minutes away. Small falls like the one I go to certainly don’t match some of the spectacular waterfalls from around the world, but even tiny falls make good pictures if the photographer gets creative enough. I even have a picture hanging on a wall in my home that shows a waterfall of only four feet high. I put my camera on one of those little pocket tripods and got a very wet knee, shoulder, and hair taking that picture, and remember laughing at the contortions I was assuming to keep from getting too wet in that cold water. Now that would have been a good picture. But, as I wrote, water is fun to photograph and getting wet on occasion is worth the final picture I suppose. Someday I might get the chance to travel around British Columbia, or North America to photograph some of the magnificent waterfalls, but until then I’ll just make the ten-minute drive up the road.

And I always appreciate your comments.

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com