Visual Experiments with an ND Filter

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Photography has become quite standardised, with almost everyone who owns a smartphone adopting the title of Photographer. It’s important from time-to-time to break out of this mould and experiment with different styles and ideas. An ND filter is a versatile lens filter that can facilitate all kinds of creative experimentation.

I remember when I was preparing for my first group exhibition and was so nervous about what content I’d show. Taking photos of my friend in preparation, I asked them to wiggle their head to ‘loosen up’. I snapped a candid photo when they did and the resulting blurred effect has become a cornerstone of my photographic style. 

Improvisation and experimentation will always get your creative juices flowing, and learning particular techniques can help you create interesting effects. Using ND filters and collaborating with a model, you can find new ways to level up your photography.

Shot with a Urth ND4 filter

“I’ve used an ND4 to create an intense motion blur effect without compromising the light levels in the photograph.”

Motion Blur & Longer Exposures

Long exposures stretch out the time your camera sensor is exposed to light. Two of the main benefits of using long exposure are the ability to capture motion blur, and to remove textures from particular parts of the image by smoothing the movement in the frame. 

The reason why an ND filter is useful when shooting with long exposures is that the filter reduces the amount of light travelling through your lens, so you can create a flowing effect without dealing with over exposure or any unwanted clipping. Find out more on How To Capture Motion With ND Filters to help get yourself up to speed. 

Shot with a Urth ND4 filter

The example image above was shot indoors without much natural light. I’ve used an ND4 to create an intense motion blur effect without compromising the light levels in the photograph. Place your camera on a tripod, and set your shutter speed to 1 second or more (depending on how intense the result you want). Use a remote shutter release (or in-camera countdown) to stop unwanted shaking of the camera in long exposures. I like to use manual shutter mode to be more in the moment; directing the model. This helps create a connection between model and photographer. 

Instruct your model to move in slow shapeful movements, to create a continuous flow in the blur. Experiment with shape and direction of movements and watch the beautiful fuzzy dance take shape. 

“Keeping one element within the photo still creates a static point for the viewer to focus on.”

Shot with a Urth ND8 filter
Shot with a Urth ND8 filter
Shot with a Urth ND8 filter

Building on this technique, applying motion blur to portrait work can also create interesting results. In the three example images above I used an ND8 and opened the aperture wide open, in this case f/3.5 on a 35mm lens. The model has been asked to keep their body completely still and slowly move their head. Keeping one element within the photo still creates a static point for the viewer to focus on and exaggerates the blur effect in the parts that are moving.

Shot with a Urth ND1000 filter

Creative Use of Sun Flares

ND filters also allow you to manipulate the sun for creative effect. Traditionally, ND filters are used to balance landscape photography and control natural lighting. Taking this idea further, you can create interesting photographs using your ND1000 filter and direct sunlight. This filter reduces the light exposure by 10 f-stops allowing only 0.098% of the light through your lens. 

In the example photographs above and below this paragraph, the model has been placed directly under a harsh afternoon sun. Using the ND1000 filter and a sun-reflector to add some direct light to the subject, I shot up on a 45 degree angle towards the model. I felt shooting up towards the model with the sun blasting down on them would add a level of drama to the image. The result shows interesting shapes cast across the frame from the sunshine. Paired with motion blur techniques, a ‘wash’ effect can be achieved. These techniques should be experimented with to create more beautiful, elaborate photographs.

Shot with a Urth ND1000 filter

“Even if the final image is unusable, each experiment gives you a clearer understanding of your practice.”

As you continue your photographic journey it’s important to spend time to experiment with new ideas, new gear, and to see what’s creatively possible. Even if the final image is bizarre or unusable, each moment of experimentation gives you a clearer understanding of your practice and can take your photography to the next level.

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James Caswell

James Caswell is a Brisbane-based photographer and creative director. Caswell’s portfolio showcases his own unique, dynamic portraits and quick snapshot live imagery in fashion and music. He has had features in, CONTROL zine, and Gum Magazine.

2019-12-24T03:19:24+00:00Categories: Gear|Tags: , , , , |