Ever since purchasing a circular polarizer filter several years ago, filters have played an important role in my photography. However, it wasn’t until 2012 that I bought my very first Neutral Density filter; which would have a greater impact on my photography than I ever imagined.
I still remember the first time I captured an image with an ND Filter placed in front of my lens. The image itself might not have been anything special but it did something to me. It opened my eyes to an entirely new world of photography, a new way to express my creativity.
Since that day, I’ve used a wide variety of filters and even though different scenarios benefit from specific filters, I’ve found a favorite.
What is a Neutral Density Filter?
Before getting into the different filters and which is my favorite, lets quickly look at what a Neutral Density Filter is.
Simply put, it’s a darkened piece of glass that you place in front of the lens in order to reduce the amount of light that reaches the sensor. There are different reasons you’d want to do this but the most common is to use a slow shutter speed for long exposure photography.
For a more in-depth and detailed explanation, I recommend reading our article Why Neutral Density Filters Will Improve Your Photography.
My Favorite Neutral Density Filter
Just like most others, the first ND filters I purchased were random, affordable brands found in regular electronic shops.
After much testing and watching my photography evolve, I finally invested in a well-known square filter system. I instantly fell in love with the 10-stop filter which reduces the amount of light reaching the sensor by 1000.
Using this dark filter during the Golden Hour allowed me to slow the shutter speed to several minutes. With the right conditions, that led to some pretty eye-catching images.
Years later, while I still enjoy long exposure photography, I prefer a shutter speed that’s not quite that slow…
That leads me to my current favorite ND Filter, the 6-Stop (ND64).
The Benefits of a 6-Stop ND Filter
While images with a slow shutter speed of several minutes can look stunning, I’ve found that for my personal style of photography I prefer a shutter speed which is slightly quicker.
However, I want one that’s still slow enough to register motion and “drag” clouds across the sky, hence the 6-Stop Filter.
Since the majority of my wide-angle landscape photography takes place during the Golden Hour when the sun is positioned low in the sky, a 6-Stop ND Filter typically allows me to use a shutter speed between 30 seconds and 1 minute.
That shutter speed is enough to blur motion and create an atmospheric, often dreamy, photograph.
Tips for Using a 6-Stop Filter
Photographing with filters is quite different than ‘regular’ quick shutter speed photography.
Those who are familiar with the techniques described in our best-selling long exposure photography eBook might already know these tips but they are crucial if you want to capture high-quality images with ND Filters.
A tripod is essential for long exposure photography. Capturing sharp handheld images with a shutter speed of 30 seconds or more is simply not possible.
Using a delayed shutter or a remote shutter (either of which will suffice to reduce/eliminate unwanted camera vibration) is also important in order to capture razor-sharp images.
The final tip for using an ND64 (6-Stop ND Filter) is to photograph scenes that have moving elements. There’s no need to use a 30-second exposure when there are no clouds and no moving elements in the picture – the image will look more or less the same as in a shorter exposure. However, when you have a river, ocean, clouds or other moving elements, it will make a big difference.
Which ND64 Filters to Purchase
During the last years, I’ve tested a variety of brands for both screw-in and square filter systems.
If you’re completely new to filters and you don’t yet know if it’s something you want to invest money in, I recommend choosing a screw-in filter. While the top-end versions aren’t cheap, you don’t need to purchase filter holders and other equipment in addition. Screw-in filters are also lightweight and easy to bring along for your travels.
The B+W ND64 is a high-quality and durable option. While it’s not the cheapest, it’s among the best screw-in filters you can get.
Square filter systems are popular amongst landscape photographers are the preferred option for many. There are dozens of brands competing for attention and many good possibilities out there.
The first 6-Stop square filter I purchased was the Lee Little Stopper and I have nothing bad to say about it. While their 10-Stop is known to have a strong blue color cast, it’s not a large issue with the 6-Stop.
Today, my go-to filters are NiSi and their 6-Stop is a great piece of glass, with no color cast at all.
Disclaimer: This is NOT a paid endorsement for any brands mentioned.