Despite the fact that digital cameras and post-production have established themselves as the basis of all modern photography, there is still a niche area in which the technique can’t do without the original analog tools: I’m talking about photography using filters.
Nearly all filters can be realistically replicated using Photoshop, but some of them, such as neutral filters, cannot.
But what are these neutral filters used for and what do they allow you to do? Neutral filters can be likened to sunglasses. They soften the intensity of the sunlight in any particular situation, in such a way as to allow you to take shots with very slow shutter speed, i.e. long exposure, of scenes in which there are elements in motion.
Whilst this technique may seem a bit risky, in reality you end up with really unusual, almost contradictory, visual effects in the resulting photo. This result is caused by the fact that I, you, all of us, we are used to seeing and gathering visual stimuli dynamically, whereas a camera captures just one frame, even if the exposure is prolonged for several seconds. In this way, the result of the long exposure process is a blurring/softening of the elements in motion – that leave very attractive light trails – whilst the fixed elements remain unchanged and detailed.
I wanted to try out the brand new Manfrotto filters as soon as they became available, to get an idea of their quality and performance.
With neutral filter, the higher their number, the darker they are, the more light they block. The Manfrotto filters come in 3 grades (of density) and I had the opportunity to try them all.
• ND 8 that reduces light by 3 stops
• ND 64 that reduces light by 6 stops
• ND 500 that reduces light by around 9 stops
What are stops and what parameters to they give you?
It’s very easy: start by considering that, when a filter blocks light by 1 stop, it means that it halves the light intensity, meaning you have to use a shutter speed that is twice as slow. 2 stops means using a shutter speed 4 times as slow, 3 stops up to 8 times as slow, and so on.
To summarise, the Manfrotto filters mean you have to slow down your shutter speed as follows:
• ND 8 slows the shutter speed by 8 times.
• ND 64 slows the shutter speed by 64 times.
• ND 500 slows the shutter speed by around 500 times.
My experience with Manfrotto filters
One feature that decides the high or low quality of a neutral filter is, strangely enough, precisely its “neutrality”. Unfortunately, one negative aspect of poor quality neutral filters is the fact that they compromise the final image you obtain, by creating an annoying dominant reddish-purple colour that is really difficult to get rid of in post-production.
This side effect did not occur with the Manfrotto filters.
I tried out the filters during a few photography trips I organised in order to complete some manuals I’m busy creating; for this, I used the ND500 and ND64 filters, achieving excellent results.
Furthermore, on more than one occasion, I had to try out the filters one on top of the other, ND500+ND8 filter, because I found myself taking pictures in very intense light. In fact, superimposing filters multiplies their capacity to block the light, and the results were truly surprising.
On the one hand, this trio of filters is very versatile because they are of three grades that can be used in combination (by superimposing the filters) to be able to deal with any light conditions and requirements. On the other hand, even when I applied two filters, one in front of the other, I observed no decrease in the quality or detail of the image, which indicates a very high quality of materials used to create the surface of the filter.
Obviously, the dominant reddish-purple I mentioned before did not appear and wasn’t seen even in the context of superimposed filters.
Taking long exposure shots with neutral filters is a technique that allows anyone, even those with no particular expertise, to obtain fantastic, evocative and striking images. However, on many occasions, the greatest hurdle is finding the right filters that don’t make things too complicated.
From my point of view, the Manfrotto trio of neutral filters is a kit that no beginner photographer should be without in getting to grips and dealing successfully with this technique. For professional photographers, it is an essential kit to have on hand: the filters are superb quality and very high performance and they can be used in any combination to create an extremely effective “Swiss army knife” of filters.
In this article, you can see a few images created using the Manfrotto filters.
Freelance photographer, photography teacher, author and blogger.