Neutral density filters or ND Filters are a great tool for landscape photographers. They are filters that reduce the amount of light going through the lens without compromising the color, hence the name Neutral. They are mostly used when the photographer need a longer exposure to create certain effects (blurred water, clouds, etc) and the environment light is too bright. I have great experience using these filters and here are the tips I wish someone else told me when I was starting out.
You don’t want to over-do, don’t use it unless the long exposure is necessary. Remember: The longer the exposure, the more noise and the less quality your image will have. Not to mention the chance of movement, which will decrease your sharpness drastically. The idea is to get the effect you want e.g. smooth waters, without losing image quality. Contrary than you might think, you don’t need 60 second exposures to get a great water or sky effect. Test it out and keep in mind that: Less is more, always.
Have your assistants clean your filters right before you use them, especially if you work with medium format cameras. The smallest debris will seem like a huge smudge on your original shot, and most importantly, it will keep the lens from focusing on your subject matter. The lens tend to focus on the filter debri, leaving the subject completely blurred. This happens a lot, and at first glance, most photographers think it’s a problem with the camera or the lens. But nope, that’s not the problem. The problem is simply that the filter that is not clean enough! You’ll think of me when this happens, because it will happen, I promise.
Having a small filter pouch handy allows you or your staff to access your filter holder and pick your filters more easily and faster while shooting. You don’t want to stop what you are doing, cut the creative flow, and open your backpack to select filters. You want your filters handy at all times while on location. Remember: Photography is about the moment, don’t risk missing that perfect shot due to poor logistics.
Don’t buy the Neutral Density (ND) filter kits, you don’t need them. We use ND Filters mostly when it is too bright outside and we need a longer exposure to create an specific effect, e.g. smooth water. That being said, 0.3 and 0.6 filters don’t even scratch the surface in reducing the exposure, don’t waste your money on them. I speak from experience, you need a minimum of 0.9 f stop.
Graduated filters seem like a great choice, except they are not. Not the Soft-edge, nor the hard-edge, they simply don’t work well. Trust me, you will not find a use for this on location. Shoot raw and expose twice (if necessary), but don’t go for these graduated filters. When you see it for sale, it makes total sense, but in reality it simply doesn’t work as you’d think it should. Lightroom has a fantastic ND Filter feature, and you can control it perfectly, especially for black and white photography. I would suggest adding ND effects during your dodge and burning process. I honestly don’t recommend these filters.
Circular filters are not very versatile (unless you are considering a variable density circular filter). I suggest spending the extra money and buying the filter holder + squared/rectangular filters system, you will not regret it. Another main advantage of using the filter holder is the ability to combine/stack filters.
Yes, glass is much better than acrylic. You simply can’t compare the optics of Glass VS Acrylic. And, even though acrylic filters are more affordable, they scratch easily. When you are on location, the smallest scratch will be a big problem, because your camera will have a hard time ignoring the scratch when trying to focus.
Don’t fall prey of the “Big Stopper” or “Black Glass” fever, it will not be as useful to you as you might think. There is no need to buy a separate filter with 3.0 exposure reduction. In fact, Lee created the “Little Stopper” with 1.8 exposure reduction after the “Big stopper” was already on the market, and probably failing to deliver. It’s an overkill, specially for photographers who do very precise or large sized prints and can’t afford to have a noisy 2 minute exposures.
When it comes to Neutral Density filters, all you need is a 0.9 Solid Filter and a Little Stopper 1.8 Filter. You are pretty well covered with those two filters, and you can also stack them if you need less exposure, or want to create a “Big Stopper” effect.
Have a fun on location and only hire assistants who take great care of your gear. A good test is to observe what their cell phones look like during the interview. That will give you an instant answer as to how well they take care of their own belongings.