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The Gear... Neutral Density Filters

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The Gear... Neutral Density Filters

A neutral density filter is basically a dark piece of glass you put in front of your lens, for no other reason than to darken the scene, which in turn means that you’ll need a longer exposure to get a decent image. But why would you do that, you ask? Well, mainly for artistic reasons. Read on to learn how and why.

Let’s say you’re photographing a stream and you want to make the water look smooth and creamy. If you make a straight picture of the scene, the water will generally appear pretty bland and uninteresting. But if, by putting a neutral density filter in front of your lens, you have to use a longer shutter speed, the water will become blurry and give you a nice, soft appearance, specially if you can slow down your shutter speed to longer than a couple of seconds.

In the image below, I used a three-stop (.9) neutral density filter and a twenty-five second exposure to blur the water and make it stand out against the darker rocks. Without the filter, the water wouldn’t have been as interesting; it would have blended with the rocks and all but ‘disappeared’ into the composition.

Cobblestone Bridge and Jordan Stream, Acadia National Park, Main

In the image below, I used a ten-stop filter, which means I needed ten times the exposure to take the picture. In this case, it took a 93-second exposure, or one and a half minutes. With such a long exposure, the choppy waters of Newport Cove were reduced to a milky smooth surface, almost like frosted glass. Is it realistic? No, but it’s an artistic interpretation and as artists, we’re free to make these choices when we create art with our camera.

Sunrise along the east coast of Acadia National Park, Maine, USA

I’ve also used a neutral density filter to photograph trees. In the image below, it was a breezy day, and I decided to use a really long shutter speed to accentuate the movement of the leaves, so that they became a colorful, soft blur of motion. I used the 10-stop filter again to lengthen my exposure to 162 seconds, rendering the grass and most of the leaves as soft blurs.

Birch trees near the Great Meadow, Acadia National Park, Maine,

The Graduated Neutral Density Filter

As photographers, it’s our job to get the exposure right. If it’s too dark or too light, the photo’s ruined. In landscape photography, it’s even more crucial that we get the exposure right. If the shadows are too dark (underexposed), we lose a lot of the subtle details. If the sky is blown out (overexposed), we lose the subtlety in the clouds and the sky becomes a blob of white. Fortunately for the landscape photographer, we have graduated neutral density filters to help us solve, or at least minimize, the problem.

Where neutral density filters really come in handy is when you’re photographing a scene with a bright sky and a darker foreground. In this scenario, you’re either left with exposing for the sky (which will give you a dark foreground) or expose for the ground (which will give you a blown-out, overexposed sky). A graduated neutral density filter will add some darkness to the upper part of your scene, thereby lowering the brightness of the sky more to levels that match the foreground. Graduated ND filters are usually rectangular and fit into a filter holder that screws onto the front of the lens. Then you can slide the filter up or down to match the horizon line in your composition.

Graduated ND filters are usually rectangular and fit into a filter holder that screws onto the front of the lens. Then you can slide the filter up or down to match the horizon line in your composition.

Graduated ND filters are usually rectangular and fit into a filter holder that screws onto the front of the lens. Then you can slide the filter up or down to match the horizon line in your composition.

In the picture on the left, no filter was used. Notice how the sky has ‘blown out’ to pure white, with no detail near the horizon. We’re missing any detail here. In the picture on the right, I used a 3-stop graduated ND filter, which has brought down the light levels in the sky (but not on the rocks, which were covered by the clear glass portion of the filter). Now we can see the band of orange at the horizon and nothing is blown out. Notice however, that the darker part of the filter (which covered the top 40% of the picture), has darkened the cliff on the right. It doesn’t ruin the picture, but that is a consequence of using graduated filters– some areas may become darker.

Seal Harbor sunset, Mount Desert Island, Maine, USA

Without a graduated neutral density filter covering the upper half of the picture, the sky would’ve come out too bright and dull. The filter darkened the sky enough to retain the vibrant colors and clouds that my naked eye saw when I made the image. In the end, that’s the really useful thing about graduated filters- they help you photograph a scene as the naked eye sees it, without the limitations of what your camera’s sensor can capture.

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The Photographer's Guide to Acadia

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The Photographer's Guide to Acadia

I first published the Photographer's Guide to Acadia in 2014. Over the years, I've been keeping notes about places in Acadia that photograph really well. Some locations are better photographed in the early morning, others in the afternoon, and some are best seen while the sun is going down. It took me years of visiting these locations again and again, at all times of the day, to realize this.

I found some places in books or on postcards. I asked locals and other photographers for suggestions. I pored over maps to discover where the light might be extra special at a certain vantage point. Some locations were great and I came away with beautiful photos. Other places sounded good, but photographically, I came away with nothing. But all the while, I kept making mental notes about where the best places were.

Sunrise at Hunters Head, Acadia National Park, Maine, USA

Eventually after eight years of exploring Acadia this way, I sat down one winter to write a book where I could share my extensive knowledge of Acadia with other photographers– so that they could spend their time in the park well, not searching fruitlessly with nothing to show for their labors. OK now... I'm all about wandering through the landscape with no agenda, observing purely for the sake of enjoying nature. But I also know most visitors have little time to wander aimlessly. They want to leave with iconic images, beautiful prints that they can hang on their walls or show friends.

Fog and boulders around Jordan Pond, Acadia National Park, Maine

The new, second edition of the Photographer's Guide to Acadia gives you my Top Ten suggestions of places to see and photograph in Acadia. But I also tell you when to visit them- the best time of day– and how to photograph them. I share with you the camera settings I used, what kind of lens is best in any given location, and any other extra gear I used, and what filters might be appropriate. I also talk about how to use your camera more effectively, and how to creatively use aperture and shutter speed to be more artistic in your photography.

Evening light on Bubble Pond, Acadia National Park, Maine, USA

Best of all, every photo in the book is tagged with a link to Google Maps, so that you only have to touch a photo on your screen and you'll be taken to the exact location where I made the photo, and be given directions how to get there. You can't do that with a printed book; only an ebook has this advantage!

Autumn Foliage, Northeast Creek, Mount Desert Island, Maine, USA

If Under October Skies is my ultimate book of fine art landscape photography in Acadia, the Photographer's Guide to Acadia is the book that gives away all my secrets. You'll read how I made many of the images, the gear I used and what I was thinking when I made the photo. If you're planning to visit Acadia National Park this year, download your copy of the book and start planning your trip now. It's only $12.99.

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