How to Use a 10 Stop Neutral Density Filter for Long Exposure Photography

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Dreaming of silky rivers, whooshing clouds, and misty oceans? Well then WAKE UP and get yourself a 10-stop filter.

Nowadays many photographers are saying things like: “Cletus we don’t need no filters. That’s what Photoshop is for.” But one kind of filter that Photoshop can’t recreate is the 10 stop neutral density.

The 10 stop ND filter is an extremely dark filter that blocks almost all of the light trying to enter your camera. Which lets you do a couple of things, either shoot with a wide open aperture in super bright light, or more commonly, stretch your shutter speed out to astounding lengths.

For example, I took this photo in New Zealand in broad daylight, and by using a 10-stop neutral density filter I was able to make the exposure 62 seconds! Which caused the clouds to whip overhead and the lake to smooth out like a creamy pudding cup.

Lake Wanaka willow in fall color, South Island, New Zealand

But a 10 stop neutral density filter is so dark you can’t even see through it, so how the heck do you use it? Here comes the step by step.

1) First, compose and focus – Do this before you put the filter on your lens, otherwise you’ll you won’t be able to see anything. Once you’re focused, make sure to switch your lens to manual focus otherwise you’ll cause a rip in the space time continuum. Wait, no, that’s not right.. Oh yeah, it’s that when you put the super dark filter on it makes your camera’s autofocus hunt around because it can’t see, and that screws up your shot.

2) Next, dial in a proper exposure for the scene without any filter on. This is your baseline. For example ISO100, f8, 1/100 of a second.

3) Put on your filter, easy!

4) Math, ugh….. 🙂 10 stop filter: that’s more than just a clever name, it’s telling you that it blocks 10 stops of light. Which means that you need to increase your shutter speed by 10 stops to compensate. So you can manually count stops as you turn your shutter speed dial (only works up to 30″), you can multiply your shutter speed by 1000 (10 stops = 2^10 = 1024), or you can do things the old fashioned way, with an app on your phone! I like PhotoPills for this.

It doesn’t matter what method you use because they all give the same result (10 seconds for my example), so just do what’s easiest for you. And be aware that if you end up with an exposure longer than 30 seconds you’ll have to switch you camera to Bulb mode and use a remote.

And whatever shutter speed you land on, bear in mind it’s just a starting point since many 10 stops are a little darker than advertised and you may need to tweak things.

5) Tweak the color. If you take a picture at this point you’ll get some great long exposure goodness, but you’ll probably also get some funky looks with the color. And that’s because most 10 stop ND filters are not truly neutral, but rather have a color cast, like blue or brown. So you need to adjust for this, either by using your camera’s auto WB or by dialing in a custom WB. Each filter is a little different so it’ll just be a matter of trial and error until you figure out what works for your filter. Here I’m simply using auto WB.

Now that you’ve got your shutter speed and color adjustments dialed in you’re ready to take a totally kick ass photo. Be sure to cover the viewfinder on the back of the camera otherwise stray light may corrupt your image.

Ok, now things are looking cool, but what if you want more??? Well everything you know about aperture and shutter speed is still in effect here, so if I want to stretch my exposure even longer, I can simply stop down. If I change my aperture from f/8 to f/22, a difference of three stops, it means I can increase my shutter speed by 3 stops, taking it from 10 seconds to 80 seconds. And now my long exposure dreams are really coming true.

Thanks for reading. If you want to learn even more about 10 stop filters, or about other fun filters like the 6-stop you can check out a detailed article I wrote about them by clicking right here.

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9 Responses

  1. Is the effect of stacking filters additive or multiplicative? For example, I have a 5 stop filter and a 3 stop filter — if I stack them, are we talking 15 stops or 8 stops? Thanks!

    1. Hey Hunter, good question. It’s additive, so you’d have 8 stops in this case. But don’t forget that stops themselves are a geometric scale. So say you had a 10 second exposure with 5 stops. If you add another three stops you get 10->20->40->80 sec. So it makes a big difference!

    1. Hi Dean,

      Generally speaking I have found the Lee GNDs to be quite good, though I prefer ProGrey for a 10-stop filter. I also have a B+W CPL that I think is quite good, though there are many great brands of CPLs out there.



  2. Great article! You could add a little more about focus stacking and combining images too, or write a whole other article! Sometimes those pesky trees just wont stay perfectly still at the last second! Keep up the great work, brother!

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