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Getting perfectly smooth water with a Neutral Density filter

Living in Michigan, one of my favorite subjects to photograph is Lake Michigan. I regularly go out with friends to photograph our lakeshore, whether that be in places like Grand Haven and Holland, or Muskegon and Traverse City. What I’ve learned at the lakeshore I’ve been able to take with me closer to home, shooting things like waterfalls and rivers.

If I’m photographing water, the number one tool I rely on is a quality Neutral Density filter. When I first started photography, this required a large filter adapter with square filters. And while those are still great options, I’ve recently had a chance to play around with ND filters that live right inside my camera, thanks to Kolari Vision.

Kolari’s magnetic clip-in filters are super easy to use, and they let you change your lenses without having to worry about screwing on new filters each time. Utilizing the ND6 and ND10 filters, I’m able to expand my exposure time, creating a beautiful long exposure.

Here’s a few tips to keep in mind when using ND filters to capture that smooth water you’re going for.

What’s an ND filter?

Simply put, ND filters help to cut the amount of light reaching your camera’s sensor. ND filters typically have a number after them. For instance, my Kolari filters are ND6 and ND10. But I also have round filters that fit on the front of my lens that are ND3 and ND8. What do these values mean?

Simply put, this determines how much light is getting blocked from reaching your sensor. Each “stop” of exposure cuts your light in half. So, an ND6 filter would let me cut light by 3 stops. An ND10 would let me cut the light by 5 stops.

This lets me have better control over my exposure, leading to longer exposure times if needed. During the day, I might want an ND10 to cut out more light for a lengthier exposure. But I might also want to stick with an ND6 — even in darker conditions — to let some slight movement flow in my water.

Because Kolari’s clip-in filters are magnetic, it’s never been quicker to switch out filters if you need to.

Selecting a focal length

If you’re new to shooting landscapes, you might just pick up your wide-angle lens out of habit and call it good. But standard and even telephoto lenses can make wonders for capturing landscapes, and provide a different view from what you might have expected.

Furthermore, sometimes having wide-angle lenses can introduce distortion into your lens, especially if you’re too close to the elements you’re trying to capture (like the waterfall below). While the Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 Art lens I used is a wonderful wide-angle, having it means that you can experience some distortion where the view might not look how you intended. In this case, taking a few steps back can do wonders.

Because I’m using magnetic clip-in filters from Kolari Vision, if I’m not happy I can easily swap out my lens without having to worry about unattaching and reattaching my ND filter.

Don’t forget about the wind

One of the most common mistakes I make when shooting long exposures is that I forget about the wind. While this might not have an impact on my water, it will have an impact with elements like plants and trees around the water.

In this case, if I have an ND10 filter attached, I might swap it for an ND6 or even an ND3. This still lets me capture the scene at the aperture I want, but it lets me speed up my shutter speed so those windy elements are no longer a problem. If the wind is really bad, it might mean cropping in on your scene more than you’d like to eliminate the distraction.

If you really want to get creative, you can take an image at a much faster speed and combine it with a long exposure image using Photoshop’s masking tools. But that’s a story for another day.

Look for unique elements

While you might be tempted to just shoot what you see at eye level, it’s important to look around the main part of the scene. For instance, the above photo I could’ve taken straight on. But then I noticed the red sculpture in the background. This helps to add an element that adds a bit of a break from nature, creating a dynamic interest. So with this shot, I took the idea of leading lines and applied it to my scene.

I started in the lower right corner, and made sure the water was vast. This draws the viewer’s eye up to the first, lower waterfall, and then up to the second and third waterfalls before finally reaching red the sculpture.

If you’re at the lake, it might mean using a foreground elements to lead your way into a sunset, for example.

Explore the great outdoors, without the weight

As mirrorless cameras have become more and more popular, it’s great to see accessory manufacturers taking the idea of smaller gear and applying it to their own offerings. With clip-in filters like those from Kolari, it’s never been easier to attach filters right to your camera and achieve the look you’re going for.

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Rafael Jones

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