Most of our customers at Action Camera know the value of a UV filter.  They can tell you it’s a good idea to put one on to protect your exposed outer lens element.   Most know it can also add some physical protection; it’s basically a bumper for your lens.  Some can even tell you that a UV filter can reduce haze and in doing so add contrast to your shot.

How about neutral density (ND) filters?  What do ND filters do?  Put simply, ND filters block light.  Good ones block light without changing color cast.  What are they used for?  The most common answer is lengthen your effective shutter speed and in doing so allow you to blur clouds and make water look like glass.  The shot below was taken was exposed for 90 seconds in broad daylight.  This wold not have been possible without the use of an ND filter.

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Though increasing shutter speed with an ND filter can be a great creative tool it’s not all they can be used for nor is it the main topic of this blog LOL

What I really wanted to share with you is a way that ND filters can improve your portraiture.  What is often the tell tale sign of a well done professional looking portrait?  Why do we buy high end mirrorless and DSLR’s rather than just picking up a cheap point and shoot or a phone?  Well aside from resolution the answer is the ability to control our depth of field and blur, blur, blur that background.

The problem is if your shooting in bright sunlight or powerful strobes it doesn’t matter how good your camera is you wont be able open up that amazing lens to a wide aperture.  My favorite portrait lens is my 85mm f/1.4.  However, even at 1/8000th shutter speed, let alone the 1/4000th max of many cameras, on a bright day or in front of power strobes I can’t shoot at f/1.4.  I end up closing down my aperture to get a proper exposure and losing that shallow depth of field that makes that lens worth the cost in the first place.

Take a look studio portraits and you’ll see that the vast majority are not done with a shallow depth of field.  This is because 9 out of 10 studio photographers shoot at f/8 or f/10 in the studio because their lights are too powerful and until recently didn’t have high speed sync capability (a topic for a different day).  So yes… most studio shooters give up their ability to control their depth of field.  They are willing giving up one of the best bullets in their creative gun.  Why?  Well I can only assume that it’s because no one told them about ND filters.  Below are two shots both at 1/250th in accordance with standard sync speed and both shot at a very large aperture.  In each shot an ND8 was used to block 3 stops of light.  Neither shot would have been possible without the ND filter.

85mm f/1.6  (Blair)

50mm f/1.4  (Bianca)

In the following example I was able to turn a bright sunny Sacramento summer day into a dusk shot using a ND64 reducing the light by 6 stops.

Below is a behind the scenes shot of the environment before any external light and without any filter.


Now here is the shot after darkening the exposure 6 stops with the ND64 filter and adding the model and lighting her.   The shot is unedited so you can still see the speed light poking out from behind the tree 😛

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As you can see the shoot looks like it was done after the sun went down but it’s only possible because of the ND filter.

The dance company actually wanted a more “edgy” look to the final so here is what it eventually morphed into.  They also needed a lot of space on the sides for their text 😛

Alice Evolution Final
Sara Aceves as Alice.

The moral of the story?  Don’t take the blue pill!  Just kidding; get yourself a Neutral Density filter and get the most out of your lenses!

*Cover shot model Paige.

© All images are property of Blackriver Photography and Lightsmith Studios.