June 21, 2011

Creating your own light using Variable Neutral Density Filters

If you’re like me, I make the majority of my income from my so-called 9-5 job. Trouble is, it usually turns out to be more like 45-60 hrs a week and that severely cuts into my personal shooting time. You know the scenario, you get one day a week off and make plans to go shoot a particular location. But when the day comes, you can’t get there early enough or late enough in the day to catch the right light and just have to make the best of it.

Has this ever happened to you? Then maybe this article will help you too.

I was online one day reading a story about this photographer’s personal experience shooting with a Variable Neutral Density Filter. The author talked about using one of these filters and being able to shoot wide open at f1.2 and maxing out his shutter speed at 1/250, all at 2:30 in the afternoon! I had never heard of these before. Variable Neutral Density filters are very handy in situations where you need a slower shutter speed than what can be achieved by using your camera’s lowest ISO and stopping down the lens. I found out that with these filters you could reduce the light entering the lens from 1 to 8 stops (without affecting the color) just by twisting the end of filter. In other words you would use it like you would a circular polarizer lens and turn the end to let in more light or to block out light. In techie terms that meant going from a ND2 all the way to a ND400 in a single filter! Check out this little clip to see how it works.    Variable Neutral Density Filter

Well this started the wheels in my head spinning. I like to shoot anything with water; waterfalls, fountains, the ocean and I knew from experience that if you want your water smoothed out nicely, you usually have to be there really early (or on a very overcast day). Even timing it just right, most of the time you still had to use a 2 or 3 stop Neutral Density Filter so you that you could keep your open shutter long enough to blur your water without blowing out all your highlights at the same time. Then I thought about some other possibilities of where I could use these, like when I shoot a wedding and try to shoot the bride and groom in the mid-afternoon sun. Have you ever tried to minimize your depth of field at noontime, not an easy task huh? With these filters that problem is easily overcome, just dial down the density, pop it with a little flash, and presto - problem solved! Not only were they good for controlling depth of field and blurring motion, they were also useful for selective focus and Macro photography!

Well I always like a bargain and I decided to do a little research on these filters. What I found out was that these are getting really popular with people who shoot videos with their DSLR’s because they can shoot in the afternoon and still adjust their depth of field on the fly. I also found out that there were only a few companies that made these filters and they could get pretty expensive. Probably the best ones were put out by Singh-Ray and you could pay upwards of $400.00. But I continued to shop around online and came across a relatively unknown company called Light Craft Workshop, who manufactured the Fador Mark II - Variable Neutral Density Filters. For me, my favorite lenses are 77mm and I found out that I could save a couple hundred bucks and get one of these for $199.00. Don’t let that scare you, I found you could get a 58mm for as little as $109.00. Like everything else they come with mixed reviews and some people said that these types of filters could soften your images sometimes, but I really haven’t found that to be the case and I can always selectively sharpen if I feel the image needs it.

Take a look at the two images. On the one without the Fader ND filter, you’ll notice how I’m blowing out my sky and the water isn’t even softened yet. That was shot at f/8 at 1/50 sec. For the other image I repositioned my tripod and used the Fader ND. This was shot also at f/8 but at 0.8 sec, about a 5 stop of difference. Keep in mind that these waterfall photos were taken a minute or two apart, at about 2 pm with the sun almost directly overhead. To create this image, I opened it up in Camera Raw, cropped it a little and pumped up my blacks. Then I added some fill light to the rocks with an adjustment brush. Lastly, I adjusted the clarity, vibrance and saturation sliders to my liking. But now it looks like I was there around dawn! Of course to finish it off I’d bring it into Photoshop and tweak it here and there, but take a look at what this filter can help you do. Maybe you could use one of these in your camera bag too? I hope this article gives you some new ideas. Fader Mark II Variable Neutral Density Filter
Remember, as always, keep shooting and have some fun!
© D. Gould Photography