Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Zen Filter

One of my favorite filters to use in photography is what I call, the ‘zen filter’. It can turn ordinary snapshots into paintings – glowing waterfalls, playful water spirals, an impression of moving waves across a grassy field. I refer to none other than the 6 stop ND (neutral density) filter – essentially a color-neutral darkening filter (almost black), so that more light is required to properly expose the picture. For the same aperture, the requirement for more light translates to a longer exposure time.  For twilight images, this can mean a 30 second exposure; for mid-day waterfall shots, this can mean a 1-2 second exposure (instead of fractions of a second). Most commonly available ND filters are one or two stops, but I find the images truly become magical at or above 6-stops, where the shutter speed slows down considerably.
Here is an example of one of my photographs using a 6-stop ND filter. (This is Palouse Falls, in Washington.) Notice how the waterfall almost appears to glow. The longer exposure time allowed for the spray of the waterfall to merge into a beautiful blur, and the bubbles across the river surface merge into elegant streaks.

Most of my shots with a 6-stop ND filter are in the 30 seconds to 1 minute exposure range which means that any motion during that time will become a blur-effect in the final image. This motivates a different way of looking at the landscape while you are composing an image. Instead of freezing all motion and quickly snapping shots left and right (which is also fun & very creative), the ‘zen’ filter is a change of pace. Now, instead of just framing the line of a river, for example, you start noticing the water bubbles floating on top of the water (that you may not have particularly noticed in a freeze frame) might create a compelling pattern that can become the centerpiece of a 6-stop ND image. So, instead of rushing to capture what you immediately see, your images benefit greatly from stopping to notice the larger patterns of motion across the landscape – hence, more of a ‘zen’ experience. Notice repeating patterns, and then photograph what will happen, not what is happening right now. Your photograph becomes an image not only of dimensions, but an impression of time.

I think it’s a wonderful change of pace, and I always marvel at the wonderful and unexpected patterns that pop up on the image after the exposure finishes. Digital cameras really enhance this process, because invariably, I see additional patterns I had not recognized when I review the shot in camera. Once you have that feedback, it not only helps you recompose the next image, but helps train your eye to see patterns in nature you had previously overlooked. If your camera lens is threaded, and you are willing to use a tripod, I highly recommend giving a 6-stop ND filter a try. :)

Here's the 6 stop ND filter I use: B+W 65-066534 77mm Neutral Density 1.8-64x Filter #106

More scene ideas: Waves, Streams, Waterfalls, Blowing Tree Branches, Grass Fields in the Wind, People in Motion?, …


The only down-side of a 6-stop ND filter in my opinion is that it essentially requires a tripod. Most shots work well if objects in motion are balanced by other objects that are crystal clear. I think this provides perspective & shows technical intent. Tripods and I have a difficult relationship. On one hand, I find they are a necessity for me to obtain high quality images, but they put an extreme inertia in the field. I want to freely move the camera around composing images, but end up moving at a snail’s pace (missing cool lighting opportunities along the way), as I fiddle with the levers and leg angles. And just when I think I have the shot lined up, many times the tripod configuration is not quite stable and will shift around at the slightest touch. Grr. Needless to say, my tips for using a tripod are still a work in progress. If you know of any awesome tripods, let me know!

Here’s the one I am using right now:

It’s heavy and cumbersome, but I’ve noticed a huge improvement in my images when I use it.

I’ve tried out using a gorilla pod (Joby GP8-BHEN GorillaPod Focus with Ballhead X bundle)  on my recent trip to the Grand Canyon. It was much more portable and flexible, but is fixed at just a few inches off the ground (or whatever rocks or railing you might be able to put it on). The ball head mechanism is just at the range of what will hold my SLR camera. I’m using a Canon 50d and am slowly building up a lens collection. I wouldn’t use my largest lenses with the ball head that came with the gorilla pod (it doesn’t hold the vertical shots properly for a long exposure). So this tripod has trade-offs, as with anything, but seems very promising to me so far. I will post an update as I use it more.

Circular Polarizer
Even though I love the 6-stop ND filter, if there is no significant motion in the scene, the most useful photography accessory to buy in my opinion is the circular polarizer. When you rotate the circular polarizers to block out reflections on leaves/rocks, it really has a magical effect on the colors and also reduces unwanted contrast. And also, if you use a polarizer combined with a smaller f-stop (I find f/11-f/13 is the sharpest for my lenses anyway), you will usually have a couple of seconds per exposure which can also blur the water enough to create blur/diffusion effects. The 6-stop ND filter is an extreme version of this (which I love).

Here's the circular polarizer I use:

Filter Size Strategy
Since lens filter threading size is non-standard across lenses, and good quality filters (that do not degrade your image) are *expensive*, I learned a valuable strategy: only by the largest sized filters, 77mm. Then buy step-up rings to fit onto your particular lens (ie: 72-77mm step up ring, 52-77mm step up ring, etc ...). The majority of the fancy lenses are 77mm, so as you upgrade, you will most likely be able to use you 77mm filters on all subsequent lenses. 

For example, here's one of the step up rings I bought for a 72mm lens for my 77mm filters:

As an added bonus, I leave these step-up rings on the lens when I'm not using the filters. It acts as a sort of protection and rudimentary light shield for the lens.I can also buy spare 77mm lens caps to interchange with all of my other lenses (and their step-up rings). I have found this strategy has greatly streamlined the process of changing lenses & filters out in the field. 

Hope these tips help!

by Laura A Knauth

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