variable neutral density filter tips

Collected Tips On Using And Getting The Most Out Of A Variable Neutral Density Filter

It seems that I shoot a lot outdoors and rarely am I out there at the absolute best times of day. More often than not I end up coming home with images of washed out skies, hazy views, and flat colors.

I have ordered two new items for my kit that I hope will help me solve those issues.  I’ve ordered a variable neutral density filter and a circular polarizing filter. While I wait for those new little lovelies to find their way into my hands I thought I’d do a little reading up on their use.

Here are a few tips that I have collected so far about using and getting the most out of a variable neutral density filter.

First of all what is a variable neutral density filter?

Filter – well I think we all know what a filter is. In this case it is a common circular type filter that attaches to the end of the lens.

Neutral Density – means it is a filter designed to block some of the light from getting into the camera. (A bit like a pair of sunglasses for your lens.)

Variable – means that it can change. You can control the darkness of the filter by twisting one part of it in either direction.

Why would you want to block light from getting into the camera?

Let’s say it’s a very bright sunny summery day; blocking some of the light from getting into your camera will allow you to use a slower shutter speed to show movement such as rushing water, or fast moving clouds, or speeding bike riders. You can achieve the good kind of motion blur. Without blocking some of the light you’re just going to get a very over exposed image.

Blocking some of that light will help you to gain more control over your depth of field.  With less light you can use a wider aperture and separate your subject from the busy background. Using a wider variable neutral density filter tipsaperture with all that bright light would again give you an over exposed image.

And now for those tips on how to use your variable neutral density filter.

To show motion in the moving water:

  1. Find your spot and set up for the composition you want. Because of the slower shutter speeds that you will  be using you’ll want your camera on the tripod. Those slow shutter speeds are going to let in a lot of light; your VND filter is going to block some of that and allow you to shoot with those slower speeds while that sunlight shines off the water.
  2. I imagine you have a fairly good idea of the settings you would use for this shot without the filter on. Start there and adjust your shutter speed to achieve the effect you are after; that misty look.  I think it will take a little trial and error to get started with this kind of effect. You’ll need to balance the darkness of the filter with the speed of the shutter.

To capture a colorful flower on a bright sunny day:

  1. Open your aperture to blur the background and you’ll see your image become very bright. Those deep rich colors in the flower just aren’t what they should be.
  2. Adjust that VND filter to block some of the light and open up that aperture anyway! Just like wearing your favorite sunglasses. Now that bloom looks much better.

Portraits on a sunny day? Dinner on a brightly lit picnic table?

Use the same idea as the flower image. Adjust your VND filter to block some of the light so that you can open that aperture and get the nicely blurred background.

Showing motion in a busy market place or riders zipping by in a bike race?

Think moving water and adjust your VND filter to block the light allowing you to slow down that shutter speed. Again use your tripod!

I think you get the idea. Blocking some of that bright summer light or even bright light reflecting from the winter snows will allow you to use those creative effects you would otherwise not be able to do.

I have seen several folks note that using the VND filter can mess with your camera’s auto white balance so you might need to change that off of auto and onto something more fitting like daylight. I think that’s going to take a little trial and error too as it seems to differ from lens to lens and camera to camera.

I have also seen just a few folks say that their camera’s auto focus gets thrown off when the filter is set at its darkest. In that case I think I’d try focusing manually; or allow your camera to auto focus then, switch the lens to manual focus so that it won’t try to re-focus later, then turn that filter to its darker setting and shoot. It just might work.

Tomorrow I’ll share what I have found so far about using a circular polarizing filter.


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