Long exposure photography is something that many photographers like to try at least once. Using a neutral density filter to extend exposure time can be a great way to expand your creativity when it comes to producing great images. This basic guide should give you a head start and provide you with the knowledge you will need to get started.

Things you will need

  • A camera and lens, hopefully this goes without saying.
  • A sturdy tripod is important and buying one of poor quality rather than save for a bit longer is false economy. Buy the best that you can afford and look at it as an investment. I use the Gitzo Systematic Series tripods. I like the Systematic range due to the centre column being absent. The lack of centre column means maximum stability and the ability to set the tripod up really close to the ground when needed. If I look after them these will last me for decades to come.
  • A sturdy tripod head is also important, especially when using heavier cameras and longer lenses. Setting up your shot only to have your camera keep moving due to a head that is not up the task is very frustrating. It was exactly this that finally made me bite the bullet and buy decent kit. I use a Kirk BH-1 and Kirk BH-3 Ball Head on each of my tripods. They are simple but solid and very well made.
  • A neutral density filter I recommend the square type filters that use an adapter and filter holder to fit to your lens such as those in the image below. Screw in filters will also work but do have limitations. I highly recommend the LEE 100mm Filter System due to its high quality and flexibility when it comes to using different cameras and lenses. I use a single selection of filters for my Fujifilm X-T2, Fujifilm GFX-50s and even my large format film camera. The only thing I need to change Is the adapter ring that fits to the front of my lens. ND filters are available in many different strengths. A 10 stop filter is a good place to start and will allow you to reduce exposure time enough to make a significant impact on your image.
  • A remote shutter release cableIf you don’t have a cable, use the cameras built in timer as this will help to eliminate any softness in your image caused my camera shake.

Optional extras

  • Graduated neutral density filters (For balancing exposure).
  • A circular polarising filter Can be used to reduce haze and control reflections.
  • 3 old CD’s (These can be placed under the tripod feet to stop the legs sinking when shooting on soft sand or mud).

Camera and lens settings

  • Single shot mode and all bracketing options turned off.
  • Focus set to manual and if your camera has the option then turn focus peaking on as this will help you to focus easily.
  • Any image stabilisation turned off as this can become confused when your camera is mounted on a tripod and cause it to make corrections that are not needed resulting in a soft image.
  • ISO needs to bet set at the lowest native setting and not in auto ISO. For example on the Fujifilm X-T2 this will be ISO 200.
  • Aperture is dependant on many things such as subject, what lens you are using and how much depth of field you require. For now lets assume we are using a wide angle lens and set the aperture at between f/8 and f/11. This should give you enough depth of field to ensure front to back sharpness.
  • Long exposure noise reduction set to off. You can choose to keep this turned on if you wish and allow the camera to apply noise correction. The only problem with this is that for every exposure you make, the camera will take the same amount of time to process the file and apply the noise correction. This could mean a long wait in between shots and possible missed opportunities. It’s easy enough to apply noise correction when post processing.
  • Shoot RAW if you want maximum flexibility when it comes to post processing your image. This, as with most other things is optional and if you don’t wish to spend time at the computer and are happy with the JPEG files that your camera produces, then shooting in JPEG is fine. It does limit you though and due to the colour casts that can produced by some neutral density filters, having the maximum flexibility and information contained within the RAW file is going to ensure that you get the absolute best results possible. Most cameras now have the option of shooting RAW+JPEG so if you are unfamiliar with processing RAW files choose this option and you will have a JPEG file you can share straight away and a RAW file that you can come back to at a later date.

Let’s get shooting!

So now that we have all the settings needed to make a long exposure lets put it into practice. My favourite place for long exposure photography is on the coast or anywhere that has water.

Long exposures can turn the roughest of seas calm and give seascapes an almost alien appearance.

 

Set the exposure

Set up your tripod carefully in a firm and level position and find a composition that you are happy with. Plug in your remote shutter release and dial in the correct exposure. We’ve already set the aperture and ISO as above so the only remaining part of the exposure triangle is the shutter speed. If you have a mirrorless camera such as the Fujifilm XT-2 this can be done with the ND filter in place but to ensure we nail focus and for the benefit of those not using a camera with this function leave it off for now. Keep an eye on your histogram as a good guide to correct exposure.

Balancing exposure

As mentioned in the ‘Optional Extras’ section above. If using a filter holder a Graduated Neutral density filter can be used to balance exposure at this point if the dynamic range of the scene exceeds that which the camera can record in a single exposure.

This is where using screw in filters can be limiting and the options would either be to bracket exposures and blend together in post processing or decide whether to sacrifice details in the shadows or highlights. If you decide to use a graduated filter then ensure to leave the place in your filter holder closest to your lens free for the ND filter. Doing this ensures that a light tight seal is made between the filter and filter holder.

Focus

Check again that you are in manual focus and focus your lens. Zooming in to ensure critical focus is a good idea. Taking your time now and ensuring everything is right will save disappointment when sat at the computer later.

Take a test shot

Before placing the neutral density filter in place, take a test shot. Be sure to use either a remote shutter release cable or the cameras built in self timer. This will eliminate camera shake that can be caused by pressing the shutter button. Ensure that exposure is correct and zoom in around the scene to check focus. Make any adjustments that are needed and repeat this step until you are happy.

Fit the ND filter

Make a note of the exposure time without the ND filter and then put the filter in place. I like to remove the filter holder from the lens to slide the ND filter into place. This ensures that I don’t accidentally mess up my composition by moving the camera and also means that I can check that it is fitted correctly with no gaps where I may get light leaks. If using a screw in filter then be careful not to move the camera or adjust focus accidentally.

Calculate the correct exposure

Calculating the long exposure is easy these days due to technology available to us. There are various applications that you can use and many filter manufacturers include a sheet showing adjusted exposure times. LEE filters have an app that allows you to select either their 6 Stop, 10 Stop or 15 Stop Filters that is excellent. For example if my un-filtered exposure time is 1/15th second my exposure time using a 10 Stop filter will be 1 minute. If you don’t have access to a device that supports the use of these applications I would recommend writing down or printing out corrected exposure times on a sheet of paper and keeping them in your camera bag. This is good practice anyway as phone battery’s do go flat at the most inconvenient of times.

Check again!

Make an exposure with the filter in place using the remote shutter release cable or built in self timer. Check the exposure is correct and that focus is accurate on the image you’ve just taken and make any final adjustments that are needed.

Practice

The more you use neutral density filters for long exposure photography the more familiar you will become with the effects that they produce. Taking into account the movement of clouds among other things that can add to your compositions. As with anything the more you practice the better you will get. Hopefully the information provided here will give you a head start and serve as a useful guide.

Matt

www.shootprocessrepeat.com