Nikon D800, 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens @18mm, f/18, 4 seconds, ISO 50. Copyright Levi Sim.
Photography is an art which prolongs an instant for eternity.
For years I’ve been jealous of long exposure images made in the daytime. They usually show water or clouds that have become totally smoothed as they move through the long exposure and the contrast against static foreground elements has always fascinated me. I learned that these photographs could be made by using a neutral density filter (ND filter). The filter is transparent glass, but it’s darkened to allow less light into the camera, extending the exposure. I’ve had limited success using a polarizer as an ND filter, but it’s just not dark enough to let enough time pass.
Note: I’ve also seen lots of photographers who leave their polarizer attached all the time, making their exposures longer all the time…even when photographing kids indoors. I’d recommend removing your polarizer unless you’re using it on purpose.
You can buy ND filter at various strengths, and they are really common and can be had at many price points. The video industry has always used them–since they can’t change their shutter speed, it’s the only way to shoot at f/2.8 outside on a sunny day.
The thing is, I didn’t want to be limited to one setting of ND–what if it’s too dark? What if it’s not dark enough? Furthermore, if it’s a very dark filter, you can’t use autofocus. I wanted to use a variable ND filter that has adjustable degrees of darkness. But really good vari-ND filters are very expensive. Still, I know that the poor man pays twice, so I didn’t want to waste money a cheap one. But, since I don’t market my landscape work, it’s really hard to justify the expensive one.
Enter the “Neewer Fader Neutral Density Adjustable Variable Filter (ND2 to ND400)” (Amazon’s description, not mine). At under $20, it is so cheap that I figured I could experiment and see if this type of photography is something I really do want to invest in to buy the good one. My expectations for this filter were so low, but the images I’ve made with it have been really fun, and the result is that I think it’s a terrific filter–for the price.
I expected that my images may not be sharp and very low contrast. To my surprise, the images are so sharp that I can’t tell whether anything lacking is a result of the lens or the filter. All the images I’m showing you here were shot with Nikon’s most 28-300mm VR lens. I know that using this lens at minimum apertures (f/22, f/36) results in less sharpness, as is common with most zooms. However, I still needed to f/18 for a long exposure, and the images are sharp enough that I would be happy to print them 20×30 and display them. Evening viewing at 100% on my monitor they look really good.
If we pixel peep, there are issues, but not for normal people viewing them; the edges of the cormorant’s wings are razor sharp (wings open atop the rock). The contrast is also very good. By this, I mean that the images are not foggy or cloudy looking; dark areas remain dark.
Another concern I had was that the filter may be too thick so that I’d see the edges of the filter in the corners of the frame. Neewer beat this, however, by making the outer rings of the filter larger than the mount. Even at 28mm on a full frame camera there is no vignetting from the rings. Because the outer ring is large, however, my 77mm lens cap doesn’t fit. I think it a small price to pay, however, for no vignetting.
I was also concerned that there could be a color cast, altering the color of my images. This is common in mid range filters, like polarizers. This Neewer ND filter definitely has a color cast, but I kinda like it. It’s warms the image slightly, but I really don’t mind. Landscape photographers have often used a warming filter to make their images a little more inviting. In fact, I like the warming this filter gives. If I had paid over a hundred dollars for it, I’d be unsatisfied; as it is, my Scotch mind has made this into a feature.
Also, I set the camera to shoot in black and white when I’m making these images since that’s the planned output I have in mind. Still, the color version isn’t bad, either. This next one is the same framing without the filter attached:
Tips for Use
The filter has markings indicating how dark you’re making the image. These may or not be accurate, but they are consistent. I don’t know that a particular mark corresponds to a particular number of stops of darkness, but the same mark is always the same darkness. Using the camera’s light meter, I find an exposure that I like, comparing with the LCD screen and the histogram. Then, I increase the darkness and set the shutter speed so that the meter reads the same. Off course, using this filter absolutely requires a tripod.
A variable ND filter is basically two polarizing filters stacked together. You turn the filter ring and the image gets darker and darker. As you adjust it, however, you may see a particularly dark band across the sky. I usually don’t see it in the viewfinder, until I see it on the LCD, then I can notice it and make a small adjustment to remove it. Here’s an extreme example:
The only other thing to watch out for is a bit of a magenta ghost. It’s kind of a pink tint in the shadows. I find that a small adjustment to the filter also eliminates it. By adjustment, I mean turning the front ring of the filter slightly.
I’m having so much fun with this filter that I now know I like this kind of photography, and the $20 was worth the good time. If I were selling my landscapes, I might just go buy the top of the line filter…or not.
Your experience may vary, but for the low price, I think this filter is worth having just to spice up your photography and try something new.
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