Do you love landscape photography but wonder how to improve your photos? ND filters or photo stacking may be the answer.
A typical landscape photograph may look like this: a body of water (sea, lake, river) in the foreground with mountains / rocks in the background. Add in blue hour with a cracking sunrise or sunset and you should be set to take an amazing photograph. But why do your photos not look like the pro’s?
You may say they’ve got a better camera and this may be true, but unless you’re looking at large prints then most modern dSLRs and mirroless cameras are up to the task. So why are their photos better? Assuming you know about the exposure triangle and composition then it may be how they are using ND filters or photo stacking to maximize the information they capture in the photograph.
Good landscape photographers can typically be split into two groups.
- Photographers who like their photos to be 99% completed straight out of the camera with minimal post processing.
- Photographers who take multiple photographs of the same scene (bracket) with different exposures and then spend more time blending them in post processing.
So you may ask why use ND filters or photo stacking?
- To control exposure through out the whole scene: When you’re taking landscape photographs around sunrise and sunset you’ll typically have a bright background with a dark foreground. Graduate ND filters and photo stacking / bracketing are two tools that allow you to expose for both the foreground and the background, which is typically two to three stops different in the blue hour. So you may be capturing the same scene but you’re either exposing for the foreground with a blown out sky, or exposing for the sky and getting a really dark foreground. You can correct some of this in post-processing but you’re limited to the amount of information your camera captures in both the darkest and lightest areas of the image.
- To manipulate water: Not only do you need to exposure your image for both the foreground and background but you also need to consider the impact of water in the image. Altering your shutter speed can have a dramatic effect on how the water appears in your image. This can be really important if there is some unwanted wind and you want to flatten out a lake, or if you want to produce a cotton candy effect in a river or waterfall.
By now you should be beginning to understand that ND filters and / or photo stacking are two of the most important tools that allow a landscape photographer to maximize the scene in front of them. So if you don’t have ND filters and you want to improve your landscape photography then it may be time to invest in some. Note: You will need to have a sturdy tripod if you intend to use ND filters as they will increase your exposure time meaning its difficult to handhold.
Which ND filters should you buy?
Referring back to the two types of landscape photographers. You need to understand which type of photographer you are as if you don’t have ND filters its going to influence whether you want to invest in circular or square filters.
- If you enjoy post processing and either already photo stack / bracket or want to learn, then you could invest in either the circular or square filters. Circular filters are more minimalist and easier to travel with / take up less space.
- If you want your photos to be almost perfect straight out of the camera with minimal post processing then you’re going to need graduated ND filters. You will need to invest in a square filter system. The reason you need to invest in a square filter system is that graduated ND filters only come in the square variety as you need to adjust the filter to the horizon, something you can’t do on a circular filter. Square filter systems are more cumbersome if you’re trying to keep your photography kit minimal / light but they are essential if you want to achieve great landscape photographs straight out of the camera.
ND filters are an investment so take some time to consider which system best suits your needs.