Filters have played an important role in my photography ever since purchasing a circular polarizer filter several years ago. 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 a 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?
Let’s take a step back for a moment. Before getting into which particular filter I use the most, let’s talk about what a Neutral Density Filter is.
Simply put, an ND Filter is a darkened piece of glass that’s placed in front of the lens. This will reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor, requiring a longer shutter speed to capture a well-exposed image.
There are a few other reasons why you can use such a filter but the most common is to create an effect called long exposure photography. This effect makes use of slow shutter speeds and blurs anything that moves while the image is taken; creating a silky and dreamy effect.
Make sure to read our article “Why Neutral Density Filters Will Improve Your Photography” for an in-depth explanation of what these filters are and why you should use them.
My favorite Neutral Density Filter
The first ND Filters I purchased were affordable no-name brands found in any electronic shop. While these are more than good enough when you’re getting started, you’ll come to a point where something of better quality is preferred.
For me, that meant investing in a well-known square filter system. That led to me instantly falling in love with the 10-Stop filter. What is a 10-Stop filter you ask? It’s a filter that 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.
While I still enjoy long exposure photography today, many years after investing in my first proper filter system, I don’t tend to use minute-long shutter speeds anymore.
That leads me to my current favorite ND Filter: the 6-Stop (ND64).
The benefits of a 6-Stop ND Filter
Images with a shutter speed of several minutes can look stunning but I’ve found that my personal style of photography has evolved into using quicker shutter speeds during the past years. But when I break out the ND Filters I want one that allows a slow enough shutter speed 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 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 Neutral Density Filter
Photographing with filters is quite different than ‘regular’ quick shutter speed photography.
Those who are familiar with the techniques described in my 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 6-Stop ND Filters to Purchase
I’ve tested a variety of brands for both screw-in and square filter systems during the past years. The differences in both price and quality can be huge so here are some of my experiences with various brands:
If you’re completely new to filters and don’t yet know if it’s something you want to invest money in, I recommend choosing a screw-in filter. The top-end versions aren’t cheap but you don’t need to purchase filter holders and other additional equipment. These 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. That being said, the B+W filters have a strong red/orange color cast that you’ll need to correct.
Square filter systems are popular amongst landscape photographers and have become 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. I have nothing bad to say about it and found it to be a good option. While their 10-Stop is known to have a strong blue color cast, it’s not a large issue with the 6-Stop.
Today, however, my go-to filters system is from NiSi. I’ve been using them for several years now and absolutely love them; there’s no color cast and the quality is high. My favorite, and most used filter is their 6-Stop.
Purchasing a square filter system is a big investment but I recommend that you in addition to the 6-Stop filter get a 3-Stop, 10-Stop, and the Medium Grad Filter. That will cover all your needs.
Disclaimer: This is NOT a paid endorsement for any brands mentioned.