Many aspiring landscape photographers face a roadblock when it comes to long exposures and filters. It may sound overwhelming and technical, but the following tips should clear the way for you.
Landscape photography is one of the most enticing types of photography. It is always easy for people to spark their curiosity about the craft, and images can be impactful on a global scale from people from different cultures and from different walks of life. However, once curiosity is fueled, landscape photography techniques can be intimidating to many.
As someone who has been talking and sharing about landscape photography for several years, I have seen that both novice and casual photographers usually ask technical questions about landscape photography. More than that, many of them express frustration or hesitation because they are afraid of the technical aspects of it. The majority of those I’ve spoken to face a snag when it comes to filters. Here are some simple tips that should help anyone who struggles to understand filters and help shorten the learning curve.
1. Remember the basics: What do filters do?
Filters should only do one thing, and if you don’t know what it is, shooting with filters might be a shot in the dark for you. ND and GND filters limit light from entering the sensor. Different filters have different degrees of light reduction to them, but the mechanism is pretty much the same. With this, the first rule to remember (with a few exceptions) is that ND filters are generally not used when there isn’t enough light to begin with.
The point of using ND filters for landscape photography is to extend exposures. It’s safe to say that during the day it’s nearly impossible to take long exposures outdoors, and even on a dim day, your exposure may not be as long as you’d like. Filters allow you to increase this practical range. The usefulness of using filters is technically a byproduct of their actual effect. Limiting the entry of light into the sensor allows you to be able to compensate with settings to achieve the same brightness, and of course the intended parameter to be set is the shutter speed. But why should you do the long exposure in the first place?
2. Focus on movement
Motion is the reason we aim for long exposures, apart from the obvious reason to take long exposures in the dark to get enough brightness. Moving elements in a frame can help improve composition provided it is used with the right artistic goal in mind. Moving objects within the frame can display textures that complement and enhance the contrast in your shot. They can also create patterns through motion blur that wouldn’t be visible with a relatively short and quick exposure.
Long exposure is never a requirement for landscape photography, and doing it unnecessarily when there are no action elements in the scene wastes a lot of time and effort. The scene can be beautiful even without any moving elements in the frame and can be captured in a fraction of a second. Understanding the basic reasons for doing long exposures should help you discern when to use technology correctly and when to use filters.
3. Start simple
Using filters to perform the imagined shot can seem complicated. What better way to tackle it than starting simple? Mastering the use of filters requires complete mastery of exposure. In general, landscape photography is challenging due to the differences in brightness between what is on the ground and the sky in the background. In order for you to be able to take further steps towards using exposure techniques to aesthetically improve your photos, it is important that you learn how to overcome the problem in its “weakest” form.
You’ve probably heard “blue hour” from many landscape photographers. The reason I prefer shooting during this time is that it is the time when the light in the sky is closer to what is on the ground. The easiest way to work around any brightness imbalance is to shoot at the right time, such as striking when the iron is hot. Once you get used to achieving these balanced exposures, the moments before and after blue hour (before sunset and after sunrise) can be good times to practice adapting to changes in light with filters.
4. A systematic approach to mastery
There are many ways to learn to use filters and master long exposure techniques. Some people take the path of trial and error and learn from experience. However, as in anything that involves a scientific process, a systematic approach provides further assurance in the long run.
The tricky part with using filters is deciding which filters to use to achieve the effect you have in mind. This includes estimating the intended duration of your exposure. This means that you not only extend your exposure time but set it to the appropriate length that gives you the effect you want. Filters come in different forms. In general, ND filters come in 3, 6, 10, 12, 15 and 20 stops. Using each one allows you to extend your exposure in proportion to the number of stops you apply. By definition, a “stop” on an ND filter cuts incoming light in half. This means that the 3-degree ND filter splits the light in half 3 times total, resulting in 1/8 of the original light in a fixed period. If you reverse this formula, it means that if you have a basic exposure, you can simply multiply the shutter speed by multiple times equal to the number of stops of the ND filter you are using. If your primary exposure is ½ of a second, that means you multiply it 3 times and the resulting shutter speed with a 3-stop ND filter is ½ x 2 x 2 x 2, which gives you some room to do 4 second exposures.
Getting to know this account allows you to have a better estimate in the future. It is not necessary to do the numbers every time, but being guided by them helps to improve the process. Alternatively, various smartphone apps offer computational tools for this. Some examples are Photopills and the MIOPS mobile app. Either way, getting to know how the formula works will give you a better understanding of the entire process.
5. There is no perfect recipe for good photos
This is a universal fact and not just one of landscape photography. Many photographers can be obsessed when it comes to settings. People share information about their exposure settings, when most of it, in fact, has nothing to do with the other person. Unless the entire lighting environment can be replicated, copy settings will not be useful. This is more so in landscape photography because the light can change in an outdoor setting in a matter of seconds. Even in the same location, facing the same direction, and using the same gear will not lead to the same result.
This also applies to filters. Our use of filters is determined by the light available on the site and the moving elements in the frame. Both variables can be radically different in just a matter of seconds. In other words, this also means that filter sets are not strict recipes. Many novice landscape photographers think they should have every variant of the ND and GND filters just in case. However, it is important to have a variety of filters that can give you the results you intend to get. It’s not a bad thing to be fully prepared for all kinds of filters if you can afford them, however, too many options can slow you down.
Landscape photography can be intimidating. The great opinions, the physical work involved, as well as the technical factors that come into play make it seem challenging. However, like any other creative process, mastery takes time, and while you gradually understand the process as you master it, the enjoyment of creativity and physical adventure beats the odds.