There is something magical about a daytime long exposure, transforming usually familiar surroundings into unusual dramatic landscapes using nothing more than a Neutral Density (ND) filter.

ND filters cut out the amount of light coming into the lens allowing the shutter to be left open for much longer, capturing movement with an ethereal aesthetic. The strength of the filter is measured in stops, and for daytime long exposures it is recommended that you choose a 9 or 10 stop ND filter.

What You Will Need

The Set Up

  • Opt for a low ISO - 100 to 200

  • Choose F11 or similar so everything is in focus

  • Set your camera to bulb mode

  • Compose and focus your shot from the tripod before fitting the ND filter. (The
    filter is so dark that you will not be able to do this once it is on)

  • Carefully put the filter on the lens, taking care not to move the camera

  • Work out your exposure time

  • Release the shutter and time your exposure

Top Tip
Reduce camera movement on a windy day by removing the camera strap and
weighing your tripod down at the base.

The Subject - Capturing Movement

  • People – create ghostly images of people wandering through the shot,
    or get your subject to stand still and capture the movement in hair and
    clothes caused by the wind

  • Clouds – choose a cloudy day, not an overcast one and for an extra
    dramatic sky shoot with the clouds coming towards you or moving away
    from you rather than across the scene.

  • Water – water takes on an eerie quality in a long exposure, from
    movement in a waterfall to a glass-like surface on the sea. Waves crashing
    onto rocks resemble extra-terrestrial landscapes with smoky effects.

Top Tip
A graduated ND filter will prevent over exposing the sky.

Creating a deserted scene

The beauty of a long exposure is that if you keep the shutter open for long
enough, everything that moves will eventually disappear, leaving you with a
deserted scene – particularly unsettling in places where we are used to seeing
lots of people such as:
  • Train Stations

  • Main Roads

  • Shopping Malls

  • Airports

  • The Zoo

Top Tip
Before you buy, do shop around and consider what lens you will most likely be
using – this is one bit of kit that will cost a penny or two! View ND Filters on Amazon

Setting exposure length

When using an ND filter you will need to adjust the period of time your shutter stays open for depending on the strength of filter you use, here are a few links to helpful calculators that can guide you.

PDF or As an image

October 4th, 2012
As I discovered on holiday, live view on a Canon can 'see' through a fitted ND filter. Even my 10-stopper. :)
October 5th, 2012
It would be useful to have a little more of a discussion about purchasing recommendations: brands, strengths, variable or no, etc.
October 5th, 2012
THANK YOU! I have recently purchased a 9 stop ND filter and haven't had a chance to use it. I'm kinda' freaked out by it, as my remote shutter release isn't working so well. Typically, how long do you leave the shutter open? Can I get results by using my timer and having my camera set for a 3 minute shot? I'm just trying to dance around the fact that my remote shutter release isn't my friend... thoughts on this?
October 5th, 2012
@humphreyhippo That's a cool feature!
October 5th, 2012
Funny - I've actually just started seriously trying more daytime long exposures (now that summer is almost here and I'm done with exams!).

I own a variable ND filter - and unfortunately, at the extremes of strength, it often forms these dark blobs in the shape of an X across the frame. (I can also, at full strength, still "see" the scene through the viewfinder - but only just!)

I wonder - would a fixed strength ND be superior in terms of eliminating this X shape, or would they be more of a pain since they're not adjustable? (And I can usually get rid of the X by turning the filter very slightly backwards, or in post-processing!)

Also - and I have no idea if I'm just doing it wrong - even at the darkest setting on my variable ND, I can still not expose for longer than 10 seconds in broad daylight - becomes over-exposed after that. Is that just because I'm shooting in full daylight? Should be aiming for dawn or dusk if I want to shoot longer exposures? Or am I actually doing something wrong? lol. :D
October 5th, 2012
@eyesofbetsie With my recent attempts on holiday with a 10-stop filter, on a fairly bright beach, I was using around f/8 to f/11 and times between 3 to 30s (ISO fixed at 100). The light changed a lot as the sun went in and out.
There are quite a few smartphone apps that will work out the exposure time for you based on a 'no filter' metering. The iOS one I use is called LongTime.
I often use the timer delay on my camera when I've forgotten the remote release. :)
October 5th, 2012
Brilliant, I'm about to get myself a ND filter and start to experiment properly.
October 5th, 2012
@pocketmouse With the variable just turn it back a bit so x disappears, and adjust time.

I usually leave ND and compose using live view on LCD screen. This allows appropriate adjustments to be made for shutter and aperture settings to ensure the effect I want is achieved. It also allows choices to be made on target to focus on.

Good to use a graduated over top to stop sky blowing out
October 6th, 2012
If you are going to purchase a ND filter, consider the variable ND filters. They cost more than one 2, 4, or 8 ND filter, but you have more flexibility of strength and it is about the same price as if you bought all three of ND's.

I would suggest that you strongly consider getting a circular polarizing filter first. A CPL will enhance your images. If compared to ND for effect it is 1-2 stops.
October 7th, 2012
@humphreyhippo Great idea to use the timer delay! I must try one of these shots soon. They are so cool
October 7th, 2012
I made the mistake of purchasing an ND 4 but I add a circular polarizing filter as well so I can get a slightly longer shutter speed. Even so it is still not long enough. This image was taken yesterday and would be much better with a longer shutter speed but the two filers were just not enough.

I'm going to look for a variable ND filter and make that my next purchase :) You should also consider a remote shutter release to avoid any camera shake. I have one of those and love it. Use it all the time even when I'm not doing long exposure shots.
October 9th, 2012
Is there a way to tag these blogs as a fav or something ? I am filling up bookmarks ... lol ... Never can find them again when I want the info ...
November 12th, 2012
I actually tried this too not too long ago, in my shot there were at least 50 cars that sped through the frame while the shutter was open
April 23rd, 2013
Used to be a technique used by some holiday brochure companies to make the beaches look empty
November 15th, 2013
Fantastic! Thanks for this!
November 15th, 2013
ND filter on xmas list now!
January 16th, 2014
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