Portrait photography doesn’t always come to mind when thinking about Neutral Density filters. ND filters are more commonly used in landscape or street photography to capture movement, but ND filters can bring dramatic beauty to portrait photography too.
Words by Jack Parsons
Remember when Bob Dylan picked up an electric guitar? And everyone went, hang on, you play folk music man! And he said, yeah well, I’m still going to do that, and I’m going to play a bit of rock and roll too and I’m going to do it with any guitar I want and sorry, but who the hell are you? Well now, some equally independent thinking photographers are using neutral density lens filters (ND filter) – usually associated with landscape photography – in portrait photography.
Typically ND filters have been used by landscape photographers to control excess light or capture movement. A neutral density filter is named as such because:
1. It’s neutral so it doesn’t affect the colour of your photo
2. It’s a filter so it lowers the amount of light your camera sensor registers
WHY USE AN ND FILTER?
They have been widely used in wildlife photography for their effect on depth of field, which provides fantastic clarity in a photo’s foreground, while blurring the background. Think a big bird of prey taking flight, or indie movie covers from the early 00s where a person is forlorn in perfect clarity while a city is blurred into movement behind them – think Zach Braff in anything.
Put simply, an ND filter allows you to slow your shutter speed for motion blur or widen your aperture for shallow depth of field effects. So in the middle of the day, harsh light won’t control your camera settings. You won’t have to hide in the shadows, you won’t have to deal with light flaring. You regain control.
THEY ARE NUMBERED
Like all key functions of a camera, ND filters are numbered and it may take some getting used to although it may not be clear at first. A Fixed ND2 lens filter provides a single f-stop of light reduction. So if you’re shooting at f/8 without an ND filter and add an Fixed ND2 filter, you could open up your aperture 1 f-stop to f/5.6. With a Fixed ND4 lens filter, there is a 2 f-stop reduction, so you could open your aperture even further to f/4. Alternatively, you can adjust shutter speed or your ISO to adjust for the reduced light intake.
WHY USE ND FILTERS IN PORTRAITURE?
Why not? Channel your inner young Bob Dylan, step outside expectation and experiment. Portraits can be beautifully enhanced by ND Filters for all the same reasons they make landscapes so interesting.
You can play around with depth of field in bright conditions, and use motion blur to powerful effect. In portraiture you will be able to bring your subject to the foreground with a clarity which will be further enhanced by lack of focus in the back ground.
You will be able to shoot in the middle of a sunny day and be able to achieve a shallow depth in a sun lit scene. You will be able to achieve that dreamy sunrise and sunset hue outside of those hours, which means you aren’t necessarily dictated by those short periods to achieve ambient portraits.
WILL I NEED ANY OTHER GEAR IF I AM USING AN ND FILTER?
You’ll need a tripod. For some photographers a tripod isn’t an optional extra but a necessity. Remember, you are letting in a lot of light, so you need to keep your camera still and a tripod is your best option.
THE ELEVATOR PITCH
Historically, ND Filters have been a tool for landscape photography. And if you apply all the reasons it makes landscape photography fantastic, you can achieve similarly great results with your portraiture. You can achieve a crisp, vital shot of your subject with ambient light and background movement. And you can try and get that shot in the middle of a sunny day.
Most importantly you will get to know a lot more about how your camera interacts with light which will help you take better photos with or without an ND filter.