Best ND Filter for Long Exposure: A Guide
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read


Whether you're an experienced photographer or just starting out, mastering the art of long exposure photography can be greatly enhanced with the use of the right tools. One such tool is the Neutral Density Filter, often referred to as an ND Filter. This handy little device can be your best friend when you're aiming for that perfect long exposure shot. So, let's dive into the world of ND Filters and see how they can improve your long exposure photography.

What is an ND filter?

Think of an ND filter as a pair of sunglasses for your camera. It's a filter that reduces the amount of light entering your camera lens without affecting the color of the image. Just like your favorite pair of sunglasses, it allows you to see clearly on a bright sunny day without squinting.

Understanding Light Reduction

Here's the cool part: ND filters work by using a darkened piece of glass that reduces the light entering the camera. This reduction in light allows you to use slower shutter speeds or larger apertures, both of which are key elements in achieving stunning long exposure shots. Let's break it down:

  • Slower shutter speeds: This means your camera's shutter is open for longer, allowing more time for light to hit the sensor. The result? Beautifully blurred motion in your photos, like a waterfall that looks like silky ribbons of water.
  • Larger apertures: A larger aperture lets in more light, which can lead to a shallower depth of field. That means the subject of your photo is sharp, while the background is nicely blurred. It's a popular effect in portrait photography, but can also add a magical touch to long exposure shots.

The ND Filter's Role in Long Exposure Photography

In the realm of long exposure photography, ND filters are like magic wands. They allow you to capture the movement of time in a single frame, creating dreamy landscapes and dramatic skies. As a photographer, you can create those stunning images where clouds trail across the sky or where a busy city street turns into a blur of light and color.

Remember, the key to a good long exposure photo is balancing the exposure. Too much light and your photo will be overexposed. Too little light and it will be underexposed. But with the right ND filter, you can control the light and create the perfect long exposure photo.

Different Types of ND Filters

ND filters come in different types and levels of darkness, each suited to different lighting conditions and desired effects. Some of the most common types include:

  • Solid ND Filters: These are the most common type. They have a uniform level of darkness across the entire filter, and are great for situations where the light is evenly distributed across your scene.
  • Graduated ND Filters: These filters are darker at the top and gradually get lighter towards the bottom. They're perfect for scenes where the sky is much brighter than the foreground, like a sunset.
  • Variable ND Filters: These filters allow you to adjust the level of darkness by rotating the filter. It's like having multiple ND filters in one, making it a flexible choice for changing light conditions.

Understanding the different types of ND filters and their uses will help you choose the right one for your long exposure photography needs. Stay tuned as we delve deeper into how to choose the right ND filter in the next section of this guide.

Why use an ND filter for long exposure?

For anyone dabbling in long exposure photography, ND filters are more than a fancy addition to your camera bag. They are a necessity. But why exactly are they so pivotal? Let's explore the reasons.

Finding Balance in Bright Light

Ever tried taking a long exposure shot in broad daylight? It's tricky, isn't it? Without an ND filter, your photos can end up overexposed — they're too bright, and all the details get washed out. ND filters help you manage this excess light. They give you the freedom to choose slower shutter speeds without overexposing your shot. You get to capture the serene movement of a flowing river or the tranquil drift of clouds against a bright sky — all without losing detail in your image.

Creating Artistic Blur

One of the charms of long exposure photography is the ability to portray motion in a still image. ND filters allow you to open your shutter for longer periods, creating that beautiful, artistic blur. You see it in the smooth, ghostly trails of waterfalls or the light streaks of passing cars at night. Without an ND filter, achieving this effect is nearly impossible.

Enhancing Depth of Field

Have you noticed how some photos have a sharp subject against a beautifully blurred background? That’s a shallow depth of field at work. In bright conditions, creating this effect can be a challenge as it requires a wide-open aperture which lets in a lot of light. With an ND filter, you can achieve this effect without overexposing your image. It keeps your subject in sharp focus while creating a soft, out-of-focus backdrop.

Reducing Color Cast

High-quality ND filters can also help reduce color cast, a common issue in long exposure photography. Color cast is an unwanted tint that can affect the overall color balance of your image. It's often caused by poor quality filters or extreme lighting conditions. Good ND filters can help keep your colors true to life, making your images more vibrant and pleasing to the eye.

So, why use an ND filter for long exposure? In short, they're the secret sauce to creating stunning, professional-quality long exposure shots. They give you greater artistic control, help manage tricky lighting conditions, and ensure your images are always vibrant and full of detail.

How to choose the right ND filter

Now that we understand the importance of ND filters for long exposure photography, let's talk about how to choose the right one. Not all ND filters are created equal, and the right one for you will depend on your specific needs and shooting conditions.

Understand the ND Filter Ratings

ND filters are rated by how much light they block. The rating is usually marked on the filter as ND2, ND4, ND8, and so on. The higher the number, the more light it blocks. ND2 filters reduce light by 1 stop, ND4 by 2 stops, ND8 by 3 stops, and so forth. So, if you're shooting in super bright conditions, you'll want a filter with a higher rating. But remember, the higher the rating, the longer your exposure time will be.

Choose the Right Size

ND filters come in different sizes to fit various lenses. It's crucial to choose the right size for your specific lens. If it's too small, it won't cover the entire lens, and if it's too big, it might cause vignetting. So, always check the diameter of your lens (usually marked on the lens itself) before buying an ND filter.

Quality Matters

When it comes to ND filters, quality is key. Cheap filters might seem like a bargain, but they can degrade image quality and introduce color casts. High-quality ND filters are made from optical-grade glass and have multi-layer coatings to reduce reflections and enhance color accuracy. Brands like B+W, Lee, and Hoya are well-known for their high-quality ND filters.

Consider a Variable ND Filter

If you often shoot in changing light conditions, a variable ND filter might be a good investment. These filters allow you to adjust the amount of light reduction by simply rotating the filter. While they are generally more expensive, they offer greater flexibility and can replace several fixed ND filters.

Finding the right ND filter for long exposure photography can be a bit of a journey, but with these tips in hand, you're well on your way to making an informed choice. Remember, the right ND filter can make all the difference in your long exposure shots, so choose wisely!

Best ND filter brands for long exposure

There's a wide range of ND filters brands on the market, but not all of them will give you the stunning long exposure shots you're after. Here are our top picks for the best ND filter brands that are sure to elevate your long exposure photography game.


When it comes to long exposure photography filters, B+W is a brand that stands out. Their filters are made with Schott Glass, which is renowned for its exceptional clarity. Plus, they have a special multi-resistant coating to reduce reflections and maintain color accuracy. Their ND filters come in a range of sizes and density options, so you'll be sure to find one that suits your needs.

Lee Filters

You can't talk about top-notch ND filters without mentioning Lee Filters. Known for their high-quality and reliable filters, Lee Filters offers a broad range of densities and sizes. Their Big Stopper, a 10-stop ND filter, is a favorite among long exposure photographers for its ability to create silky smooth waters and dramatic skies.


Hoya is another popular choice among photographers. They offer both fixed and variable ND filters that are praised for their color accuracy and sharpness. They're also a more affordable option, making them a great choice for those just starting out with long exposure photography.


NiSi is a relatively new player in the photography game, but they've quickly made a name for themselves with their high-quality ND filters. Their filters are made from optical glass and feature a nano coating to help reduce reflections and enhance color fidelity. Their range includes both round and square filters, catering to a variety of photographer preferences.

These brands are just a starting point. Your choice of an ND filter brand will depend on your specific needs, budget, and the kind of long exposure shots you want to capture. As always, do your research and choose wisely!

How to use an ND filter for long exposure

Using an ND filter for long exposure isn't as daunting as it may seem. With a little practice, you'll be capturing those dreamy, surreal images in no time. Here's how to get started:

Step 1: Set Up Your Camera

First, you'll want to mount your camera on a sturdy tripod to prevent any movement during the long exposure. Then, frame your shot as you normally would. It's important to do this before attaching the ND filter because the darkness of the filter can make framing a challenge.

Step 2: Attach Your ND Filter

Once you're happy with your composition, attach your ND filter to the lens. Make sure it's securely attached — the last thing you want is your filter sliding off mid-shot!

Step 3: Adjust Your Camera Settings

With the ND filter attached, you'll need to adjust your camera settings. Start by setting your camera to manual mode. This gives you complete control over your exposure settings, which is crucial for long exposure photography. Next, adjust your aperture and ISO. A smaller aperture (higher f-stop) and lower ISO will give you a longer exposure time. Remember, the goal of using an ND filter is to slow down your shutter speed to capture the movement in your scene.

Step 4: Take the Shot

With everything set up and your settings dialed in, it's time to take the shot. Use a remote shutter release or your camera's timer to avoid any camera shake when pressing the shutter button. After taking the shot, check your image on the camera's LCD screen. If it's too dark, adjust your settings and try again. If it's too light, do the same. It may take a few tries to get the perfect exposure, but that's part of the fun!

Remember, practice makes perfect. The more you use your ND filter, the better you'll get at nailing those long exposure shots. Happy shooting!

Tips for maintaining your ND filter

Just like any other piece of photography equipment, an ND filter requires proper care and maintenance to keep it in tip-top shape. Here are some practical tips to help prolong the life of your beloved long exposure photography filter:

Handle with Care

When attaching or removing your ND filter, handle it by the edges. Fingerprints or smudges on the filter can affect the quality of your images. And remember, it's not a frisbee — no tossing or turning!

Clean Your Filter Regularly

Just as you would clean your camera lens, your ND filter deserves the same attention. Use a lens cleaning solution and a microfiber cloth to gently remove any dust, fingerprints, or smudges. Avoid rubbing it vigorously; this might scratch the filter's surface.

Store Your Filter Properly

When you're not using your ND filter, store it in a protective case. This will shield it from dust, scratches, and accidental drops. If your filter came with a protective pouch or case, use it. If not, it's a good idea to invest in one.

Inspect Your Filter Regularly

Before and after each use, give your filter a quick inspection. Look for any scratches, marks, or signs of wear and tear. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, it might be time for a cleaning or, in worst-case scenarios, a replacement.

By following these simple maintenance tips, you can extend the lifespan of your ND filter and continue capturing stunning long exposure shots for years to come. After all, good maintenance is the key to longevity!

If you found this guide on the best ND filters for long exposure helpful, you might also be interested in Caleb Stein's workshop, 'Intro to Photographing at Night.' This workshop will provide you with valuable tips and techniques for capturing stunning nighttime images, further enhancing your long exposure photography skills.