Weather conditions aren’t always perfect when shooting landscape photography; let's be honest they are usually not ideal. One way to turn poor weather into something special is by using a 10-stop neutral density filter which allows you to take very long exposures during the day resulting in some unique images.
Weather is likely the most important factor when shooting landscape photography, yet we have absolutely no control over the conditions. To make things even more complicated, sometimes the worst weather can result in the best photos and great weather results in very lackluster photos. So how do we go about predicting the weather? The reality is, we don’t. Our best option is to be prepared for any condition and work towards finding something captivating in what is presented to us. Many tools exist for helping battle these varying conditions and one of the most important is the neutral density filter (ND).
There are many types of NDs that are used by landscape photographers: 3 stops, 6 stops, 9 stops, and even 16 stops (plus many more). I specifically want to focus on the 10-stop neutral density filter. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a singular ND filter that blocks exactly 10 stops of light. As long as you are blocking enough light to require a long shutter speed while still daylight outside, say 45-plus seconds, that is all that matters.
There are many applications and scenarios you would want an ND filter for, Elia Locardi discusses how to use them in “Photographing the World” all the time. I specifically want to focus on using NDs to create long shutter speeds for dramatic effects in the sky. I’d also like to be up front and honest that I don’t use my 10-stop ND very often as it requires certain conditions for results that I find pleasing, more on that later. So don’t feel like you absolutely need to have this if you are just starting out, unless of course you enjoy the results it gives.
Hiking to a spot for sunset and having overcast skies can completely ruin your shot. This is exactly what happened to me last night in the Dolomites of Italy. Thankfully I was able to salvage the night using my 10-stop ND by turning some fast moving overcast skies into something unique. Let’s start by looking at what our shot looked like without the filter.
You might be asking why I even took this shot. I’d love to say it’s for educational purposes but alas, it was just a boring shot I snapped while waiting for sunset. Believe it or not, I have catalogs full of boring shots, we all do right? This is completely unedited and straight from the camera as if it wasn’t boring enough already. As you can see the weather was pretty lackluster and certainly not what I was hoping for. Thankfully the conditions seemed great for shooting long exposures.
What conditions qualify as “great” when shooting with with such long exposure times? Personally I want the clouds to be moving away from my subject and towards my camera, creating a bit of a zoom feel. It is also ideal for the sky to be densely filled with clouds which is why overcast tends to work well. This doesn’t always happen and the best thing I can recommend is simply going out and shooting to see what looks best to you. Remember that our ultimate goal is to salvage the bad weather by adding drama to the sky which can be done in many ways.
Adding the ND
The first thing you’ll notice is how dark the image is, that is because I’m showing you my incorrect guess at exposure. Getting the correct exposure can be difficult even when using a calculator. Obviously by adding a 10-stop ND I should simply be able to increase my exposure by 10 stops however that might not give the results I want. I want the clouds to look wispy but not completely blurred. This is something you have to do by trial and error because the speed of the clouds determines how long you need your exposure to be. Something else you will notice is a slight purple tint in the image. This is typical from most high density ND filters. You can correct it a decent amount in post but sometimes I like the added color.
Another challenge when shooting with such high density NDs is finding your composition. Using a square/drop in filter system makes this a little easier because you can slide out the ND and reposition your camera easily. Using a circular ND requires you to find your composition before putting the filter on which is what I had to do here. I own both types but only had my circular ND with me at the time. Just keep in mind that you should lock in your composition on either system as it will save you valuable daylight.
Perfecting the Shot
Let’s take a look at a few exposures to show how I found the results I was looking for in my final shot. Note that my composition changes as I am shooting. This is contrary to what I recommended earlier. While I was shooting and trying to find out the best exposure settings, I was also looking for a better composition.
All of these are completely untouched, straight from the camera, and in chronological order from when I captured them. I omitted one image I completely botched the exposure on by accidentally increasing my aperture. Here are a few things of note when comparing the images:
- Comparing the first and second images, notice how doubling the exposure time effects the look of the clouds.
- You can see how your focal length effects the clouds in the 3rd and 4th images by changing from 24mm to 16mm. My thought process when shooting was to make sure the subject was pronounced, in this case Tre Cime (the three rock spires). Zooming out results in my subject being smaller but really showing the drama in the sky which I ended up preferring.
- Don't be afraid to boost your ISO when shooting with such a strong ND. My final image is the same as the 4th image here just with the ISO set from 250 to 400. It is always a goal to keep ISO as low as possible so don't go overboard.
- Don't forget your other photography knowledge. Just because your shooting something unique doesn't mean your composition should suffer like mine did in the beginning.
Maybe this photo isn't winning any awards but it certainly looks better than our initial image before adding the ND filter. That isn't saying much though, did you see that first image? I also kept the edit very light as I wanted the results to be accessible to everyone. No Photoshop was used, just a few sliders adjusted and one radial filter on the flowers. Typically I would spend much more time editing but wanted the final result as honest as possible. I also got a tiny bit lucky as I was shooting that a bit of light started poking through on the left hand side to add a bit of color into the clouds.
So what do you think, did using a 10-stop ND improve the results to your taste? If you have ever shot long sky exposures like this I'd love to see some of the results in the comments. If you have any questions don't be afraid to ask away.