If anyone has been a keen amateur black and white photographer over the past six years they will, without doubt, have seen pictures taken with long exposures. This trend has been mainly attributed to camera filter manufacturers producing very strong neutral density filters. Without strong neutral density filters the only way to achieve long exposures is to set your camera’s ISO to its lowest setting and stopping down the aperture on your lens or, quite simply, photographing when there is very little light such as at twilight or even at night.
Working with neutral density filters
Filters cut out some of the light that reaches your camera sensor, therefore requiring you to prolong your exposure to differing degrees. So, when very strong neutral density filters are fitted to the front of your camera, they cut out a large amount of light and the resulting exposure time can run into minutes.
The resulting images are somewhat ethereal and ‘other worldly’. This is because if there is any movement at all in the subject matter you are photographing, it will be rendered as very smooth or even vanish completely. There are two main effects on a landscape image as a result of using this type of filter:
1. If you have water in your composition then this will become almost ‘milk-like’ in appearance with no surface texture. As you can see with the image ‘Loch Torridon’, here I used a Lee Little Stopper 6 stop neutral density filter and my exposure was 15 seconds at f16, which has smoothed the sea water out but retained cloud structure.
Nikon D800e, 24mm PC-E lens, f13, Neutral Density Hard Graduated Filter, Lee Little Stopper
2. The second effect is evident in skies. Although water will begin to look smooth without a particularly long exposure, skies are totally transformed - clouds streak and become very dramatic. If you look at image below, ‘Kilbrannan Sound’, you can see that the sea water is very smooth and so are the clouds that have streaked across the skies. For this image I used a Lee Big Stopper, which is a 10 stop neutral density filter, my lens at f19, and my exposure time was three and a half minutes.
Another great effect of using this type of filter is in urban situations where there is movement of people or cars. During the exposure time everything becomes blurred, only the parts of the image that were static in the first place will remain sharp and, once again, people and cars will almost disappear.
Exploring Black & White Photography: A Masterclass by Paul Gallagher