Using Creative Filters to Capture Dynamic Scenes


I want to talk about using creative filters to achieve certain looks while photographing scenic landscapes.

Creative filters are used in front of the lens to enhance an image or can help make the scene look very close to what you see with your eye.

My favorite creative filters are 4×5 Graduated Neutral Density Filters (will be referred to as GND filters) and extreme Neutral Density filters (aka ND filters), specifically the B+W 10 stop (aka ND 3.0) filter or the Lee Big Stopper 4×4 filter.

A Graduated Neutral Density filter is used to balance exposures with a Large Dynamic Range of light. Think of a scene with a bright sky. If you shot that without a Graduated Neutral Density filter and metered for the foreground, the sky would be overexposed (washed out with a loss of detail) and the foreground would be exposed properly. Inversely, if you metered for the sky, the sky would be exposed properly and the foreground would be underexposed (too dark with little to no details). Basically, The Graduated Neutral Density filter will balance your exposures and allow both the bright sky and foreground to be properly exposed.

Graduated Neutral Density filters (GND Filters) come in several different densities or strengths. 1 stop, 2 stop, 3 stop, and 4 stop are the most common. They also are available in hard edge or soft edge varieties. Hard Edge GND filters are best used in scenes that have hard, clean lines without anything protruding through them such as a lake with a clear horizon line.

A Hitech 3 Stop hard Edge Grad ND was used to capture this image. I placed the hard edge transition line of the filter on the horizon.

Soft Edge GND filters are best used in busier scenes such as a Pier with a lighthouse or a stream with foliage, trees and a bit of sky showing.

A Hitech 3 Stop Soft Edge Grad ND was used to capture this image. I used a soft edge filter due to the tree line on the left meeting the sky and the trees on the right protruding into the upper portion of the image.

Whether you decide you use a Hard Edge or a Soft Edge GND, the brightness of the scene will help dictate which filter strength is best to use. You can wing it and guess or you can use this metering technique to calculate which filter might work the best. Start by metering the scene twice, once for the sky and once for the foreground. Let’s say the sky metered at 1/1000th of a second and the foreground metered at 1/125th. This means the sky is 3 stops brighter than the foreground, (1/1000th to 1/500th second to 1/250th second to 1/125th second) you would want to use a 3 stop Graduated Neutral Density filter to balance the scene. The top portion of the Grad ND filter is going to block 3 stops of light and the bottom of the filter is going to allow all of the light to pass through for an even exposure.

Here is an example of no filters vs. Using a Grad ND filter. As you can see, the Grad ND really helps balance the exposure for a much better looking final image.
I used a HiTech 3 Stop Soft Edge Filter on the right portion of the image. You might be asking why I didn’t use a hard edge filter since the horizon line is so clear with no obtrusions. I used the soft edge filter to help keep the water in the mid ground from overexposing. If I had used a hard edge in this case, everything above the horizon would have been exposed properly and the water would have been a bit too bright.

The last filter I am going to talk about is the 10 Stop Solid Neutral Density Filter. This filter reduces the amount of light that hits the camera’s sensor by 10 stops which allows you to achieve very long exposures in bright conditions.

This side by side image will help you visualize what the filter is capable of.
The image on the left was shot with a 3 Stop Soft Edge Graduated Neutral Density Filter and the image on the right was captured with a 10 stop Solid ND filter only.
The image on the left had an exposure value of ISO100 – F/16 – 5 seconds
The image on the right had an exposure value of ISO100 – F/11 – 256 seconds
Even though I shot the 10 stop image at a wider aperture than the non-10 stop image, a much longer exposure was needed to expose the image properly.

To calculate the proper exposure you need to get a base exposure without the filter attached to the camera.

Put the camera on your tripod and dial in your composition. Take a photo and review it, making sure you haven’t over or under exposed the image. Once you have the exposure and focus dialed in and the composition looks good, set the lens to manual and attach the 10 stop filter. Turn the camera’s mode dial to Bulb. Attach your cable release.
Now, you need to review your last image and see what the settings were. Let’s say your settings for the test image you just took are ISO100 – F/11 – .5 second
You need to double the exposure time 10 times to get the proper exposure to compensate for the 10 stop filter you just attached to the camera.
Let’s double our exposure 10 times, starting at .5 second
.5 second
1 second
2 seconds
4 seconds
8 seconds
16 seconds
32 seconds
64 seconds
128 seconds
256 seconds
512 seconds
( I find that doubling the exposure 11 times for to compensate for my 10 stop filter generally works the best, though Your mileage may vary.)
In that case, the final exposure would be:
1024 seconds (17 minutes)

The 10 stop filter adds a bit of drama and an extra element that the eye cannot see, helping to capture dynamic scenes.
Also, I find that I rarely ever need to combine a Grad ND filter with the 10 stop filter. The final exposure with just the 10 stop filter almost always retains all of the exposure information from the scene. Your mileage may vary with this too.

A storm had just passed through Split Rock State park. I used a B+W 10 stop ND filter to get a 256 second exposure. The long exposure smoothed out the large waves and blurred the clouds, giving the image a painted feeling.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below or you can email me. I am always happy to answer any questions.
Thank you for reading this article and I hope it helps you understand the advantages of using creative filters in the field.
– Shawn

This entry was posted in How To, Landscape, tutorial.


  1. Jeff Dexheimer 09/07/2011 at 10:05 am #

    Excellent images and great tutorial. I am curious if you tone map any images in post precessing? Also, what is the difference in the hard edge ND and soft ND filter? I know the transition is different, but is the transition for the soft filter spread over the entire filter? Thanks.

  2. Shawn Thompson 09/07/2011 at 10:39 am #

    Hi Jeff,
    Thanks for the comments. I do not tone map my images. There are times where I will add some shadow fill if needed, but it is pretty minimal when done.
    This will give you an idea of how I process my images. Every image is different, but this is the standard tweaks I make.
    As for grad transition lines, you are correct. The hard edge will stop abruptly approximately halfway up the filter and the soft edge will graduate lighter toward the bottom of the filter, but not all the way to the bottom.
    I hope that helps.
    – Shawn

  3. Guy 11/01/2013 at 2:44 pm #

    Thanks for this tutorial. I have a Hitech 2 stop and 3 stop hard edge. I got it for a Bryan Peterson class. He recommends a 3 stop for everything and Ken Rockwell recommends a 2 stop as all you will ever need. I guess there is an opinion for every person.

    I do think I will get a soft edge one.

    Regards the 10 stop, is there a brand you use. Some people say the Hitech 10 stop gives a color cast.

  4. Don Smith 02/09/2015 at 1:55 pm #

    Very informative re the GND filters. I have and use a Lee Big Stopper and understand how to properly use it. My question is how do you determine the proper exposure for a GND. Do you just use a correct unfiltered exposure setting after choosing the correct GND using the two exposure method?

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