Slowing it all down

In photographic terms f/8 will always be f/8 (actually we could debate this but to keep things simple we won’t), but technology changes a lot about how we shoot and what things we need to shoot with, writes Andrew James.

When Kodak made the first DSLR in 1991, it set off a series of cause and effects, like the proverbial snooker cue hitting the white ball, that in turn hits the rest of the balls and sends them all off in different directions. One effect was the eventual death of Kodak because that early DSLR proved to be something of a Trojan Horse for the film giant.

In 1991 I was happily using film, unaware a kodak scientist was lining up their snooker cue. In fact, it wasn’t until 2002, when Canon launched an early consumer called the 60D, that I first felt the true effect of digital and I quickly became certain that time was pretty much up for film. I took the 60D to Africa, along with my SLR and a bag of film. I barely used the film camera because the new digital alchemy was just too irresistible.

The point of this meander down memory lane is not about the cameras themselves but about the way that technology changes the accessories we use. In my film days, I had a box full of filters for all sorts of things. Filters for black & white photography – red, yellow, and orange. There were filters for colour slide photography – polarisers, UV filters, Neutral Densities (ND), ND Grads, variously-coloured filters often used for colour correct or ‘mood’, soft focus filters, tobacco grad filters, and so on.

How many types of filters do I own now? Not many. I have a Variable ND filter, used mainly for video where it’s needed to keep the camera shooting at the same shutter speed. I own one (yes one) soft-edged ND Grad. More for nostalgia than because it’s really needed, though I use it occasionally to balance sky and land when the light difference between them is extreme. But to be honest, I could, in most cases simply bracket three shots and merge them in Lightroom for a perfect result.

I still have a polariser. It’s good for cutting down glare or removing unwanted reflections but it’s used less often than in the past. I also nearly forgot my R72 IR filter that mimics the infrared look – I wrote about it here. Finally, I have two straight NDs – a six stop ND (Little Stopper) and a 10-stop ND (Big Stopper).

Which filter would I panic over if I forgot to take it? If I am honest, probably only the Variable ND, if I was shooting video.

Which filters would I miss if they were banned? Really only the straight NDs – the ones that hold back the light to let me do something creative with shutter speed. The polariser is great to have, but it wouldn’t be a disaster not to have one.

Taken with a 10-Stop ND filter (Big Stopper) so the surface of the Venician canal blurred enough to create a contrast between the softer water and the harder buildings.

From all those original filters, some of which I clung onto probably for too long into the digital era, it now boils down to ND filters, maybe the polariser, or the novelty R72. Everything else has been superseded by technology – by which I mean either improved dynamic range within a raw file or the processing capabilities of software like Lightroom, Capture One, and Adobe Camera Raw.

The reason the NDs are still so important is simply because you can’t replicate what they do post-capture. Their ability to hold back light, and therefore change the exposure is the key to their continued use.

As I said earlier, a circular variable ND on the front of a lens when shooting video is absolutely essential, unless you’re indoors and controlling your own light. To keep the constant 1/50sec shutter speed for the most natural-looking movement when videoing with a DSLR, the variable ND is the ‘go to’ filter. Mine is a ND2-400, which basically provides from 1 to 8.66 stops of light reduction and that’s plenty even on the brightest day. It’s a simple and practical answer that can be turned up or down with a slight twist.

But a straight ND, such as a 6 or 10-stop, is a creative tool, rather than a practical one. If you never want to slow down a shutter speed to inject movement, then you’ll never need it. But they are fun, effective, and incredibly easy to use. The popular Lee Filters Little (6 stop) and Big (10 stop) Stoppers are probably the best known, but in truth, if you own an ND filter that goes to 8 stops or beyond, they’ll do exactly the same thing! Hold back light.

This image needed a 6-Stop ND to hold back the light and create some blur in the water hitting the rocks.

I met up with Foto-Buzzer Dave Curley recently for a feature that will appear in Photo Plus Magazine, and part of the session was designed to get Dave trying landscapes with his Big Stopper! It was still dark at Happisburgh Beach (pronounced Haysbrough) in Norfolk when we met, and I’d had a 3am start driving from home. Dave had stopped nearby in his camper van as he was more sensible than me. I wanted us there for sunrise, hence the horribly early start.

Pre-sunrise, we didn’t need filters and were able to play around with both Intentional Camera Movement, and natural wave movement with the camera on a tripod. It was dark enough to get long exposures without anything added to hold back the light, but I knew that by mid-morning, when the old sea defences that Happisburgh is known for (along with its rapidly crumbling cliff), were properly exposed by the receding tide, a Big or Little Stopper would be useful to add some movement into the waves and create that lovely contrast between the solidity of the groynes and the ebb and flow of the tide. Here’s a couple of early shots…

A simple landscape, with a flock of sea birds adding interest in the sky, and the figure with his three dogs adding scale. There's no wave movement in this shot but it shows you the scene as it was.
The same view but using intentional camera movement. It was still dark enough to work without an ND filter holding back more light.

We were blessed with some good early light following the sunrise (sadly I can’t say the same about the afternoon light) so Dave was keen to use his Big Stopper for some shots. The Lee Big Stopper is a square filter that needs a corresponding filter mount so you can slot it in place. You can’t just hold it in front of the lens. Here’s the breakdown I explained to Dave on using his 10-Stop filter.

  1. Set the camera on a sturdy tripod and work out your composition. Before you pop the filter on you take an exposure reading with the available light. For example, if you have 1/30sec at f/11, you know you need to add 10 stops to the shutter speed. If that makes your brain hurt, it’s best to use the Lee Filter App. Actually, 1/30sec is easy to calculate as it’s 30 seconds, but the App takes the pain away.
  2. It’s critical that when you put the filter in place, you use the slot on the filter mount closest to lens to help prevent light leak, as this can ruin a long exposure shot.
  3. If the exposure with the ND in place is 30 seconds or under, then work in Manual Mode. You keep the aperture at f/11 and dial in the extra shutter speed. Remember in the case of 1/30sec at f/11 the exposure becomes 30 seconds at f/11. On a mirrorless, or in Live View on a DSLR, as you dial in the settings with the filter in place, your screen will go from dark to normal, so you can still tweak composition and focusing at this point, if required. I try not to.
  4. If your shutter speed is longer than 30 seconds – and that’s quite possible – then you need to switch to Bulb mode. To work in Bulb Mode, you need a cable release that allows you to lock the shutter open until you release it. You are also going to have to monitor the time the shutter remains open either on the camera, on the App, or a watch. Don’t forget in Bulb, with the cable release locked open, you have to manually close it!
  5. Depending on the motion you are shooting; timing may be critical. For example, the flow of the tide away from you may need to be captured at a certain point. This is trial and error. Shooting long exposures slows you down a lot – especially if you are making exposure tweaks as you go, but at least you have less images to process at the end!
  6. Lastly, it’s important to remember, the longer the exposure and greater the movement, the blurrier those moving parts of the image become – whether it’s water, clouds, wind-blown plants, or people. The amount of blur you use is a personal creative choice, but you might find that a 6-stop filter is better than a 10-stop, if you want some extra definition in your movement. Remember that 1/30sec at f/11 exposure that becomes 30 seconds on a 10-stop ND? Well, it’s only 2 seconds on a 6-stop ND and that’s quite a difference in potential movement

Dave was surprised just how simple using the Big Stopper was. It’s all really about finding subjects that a slow shutter speed works with. A beach, with a waves and groynes, is about as perfect as it can get. His first Big Stopper shot of the day involved some groynes and seagulls. He was always going to get a little bit of movement on the seagulls but the groynes weren’t budging.

You can see in this next shot how the 30 second exposure has totally smoothed the water. It works really well, but as I explained earlier, sometimes a faster ‘slow’ shutter speed can give you a bit more definition. Here is Dave’s shot.

Now compare Dave’s shot with mine. Mine is a tighter composition obviously, but you also get the suggestion of the form of the waves. Neither is right or wrong, it just shows the difference the length of time the shutter is open can make. My shot is a 2 second exposure achieved with the Little Stopper.

We can repeat this experiment with Dave’s next shot. I love this framing and image and I think the whole shots works beautifully. This is a 35 second exposure so he’s in Bulb territory now. The water and clouds are all smoothed out so it’s textbook Big Stopper stuff. Love it.

Compare Dave’s 35 second frame with my Little Stopper shot. The shutter speed for this is also 2 seconds, so once again there’s slightly more definition in the waves. The water is still smoothed out but there’s greater contrast. I also moved closer the the waves hitting the beach and timed the start of the exposure with the point the water moved back towards the sea so I got some lovely lines to lead the eye into the image. Both frames and exposures work really well, but they also neatly demonstrate that you should think about how much blur you like or would suit the scene when you are selecting the filter.

Incidentally, you’ll see some colour temperature differences between Dave’s shots and mine. The longer exposure shots tend to be bluer, though of course you can add extra warmth by cranking up the White Balance. Somewhere between 8000-10000k is often best. That said, I also like the bluer look you get with the Big Stopper shots so it’s not necessary to warm them up completely. Just do what feels right!

Dave’s best Big Stopper shot of the day

I think we should finish on what I think is Dave’s best shot from the selection I’ve seen. This final shot was taken in the afternoon at Cromer. The light was horrible and it was drizzling slightly, so we went right down on the beach just to one side of the pier to see what composition we could work out. Here, I think the Big Stopper has done a magical job in making a superb picture in less than ideal conditions. It’s the contrast of the crisp structure of the pier and the ultra softness of both the water and the sky that works so well.

Plus, trust me, you could NOT see a reflection in the water at the time of shooting. This is a 42 second exposure, so Bulb territory again, and its success makes the wet feet we managed to get at this location well worth it.

Published in Camera Skills
4 Comments
  1. Love this article, I can honestly say that was the best day out, I learnt so much and came away with some brilliant shots which I now have an idea of how to process !!

    Thanks Andrew for your wisdom, I didn’t think I could take instruction from someone nearly young enough to be my son but I did and I really enjoyed every minute.

  2. Excellent pointers. Thank you!

  3. Excellent and a great reminder. I seem to have lost my big & Little stop calculators so tend to use live view to see what I am doing.

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