Neutral Density filters, more commonly called ND filters, are very useful. It’s worthwhile to have at least one ND filter available for your photography. Maybe you don’t know which one (or ones) to own and why you’d use it. I recently got some ND filters, and perhaps my story will be helpful to you.
In my How to get Filmic Photographs from your iPhone article I explained that my wife has a Sandmarc case for her iPhone 13 Pro. I thought she’d also appreciate some ND filters for her phone, since she uses it regularly for videography, so I got her three Sandmarc ND filters that can attach to her iPhone case. You see, ND filters are common in cinematography because you want a shutter speed close to the frames-per-second you’re recording in order to avoid jutter (a.k.a. stutter or choppy) when panning or whenever there is movement. Getting a slow enough shutter speed in bright conditions can be difficult without an ND filter. Unfortunately, the ND filters didn’t really work out with her iPhone workflow, so they initially went unused. Not wanting to let the filters go to waste, I reimagined how they could be utilized, and I figured out how to make them work for me. Now I see them as an essential tool for my photography!
Before I get to the filters, I want to briefly talk about one other Sandmarc item I have: iPhone Tripod, Compact Edition. This was also for my wife, but she doesn’t use it often—only occasionally—so I borrow it regularly, except that I use it with my Fujifilm cameras and not my phone. I need a small tripod for my desk when I do the SOOC Live broadcasts, but the one I’ve owned for years kind of sucks and just barely works; however, with Season 3, I began using the Sandmarc tripod, and it is so much better—perfect for the job! I also discovered that it’s great for travel because it folds up very small and doesn’t take up much space (about 8.5 inches). The tripod only expands to a little taller than two feet, but it is sturdy enough to hold my X-T5 with a lens as large as the Fujinon 90mm, so for occasional casual use—which is all I ever use tripods for in my photography—it is just fine. Since getting it, the Sandmarc tripod has become my most-used. I don’t think that it’s intended for “real” cameras like the Fujifilm X-T5, but that’s what I use it for, and it works great. I bring this up because tripods are closely associate with ND filters.
Neutral Density filters block the amount of light entering the lens, which allows for slower shutter speeds. Why would you want to do this? I already mentioned that in cinematography, slowing the shutter can reduce juttering. In still photography, slowing down the shutter allows you to show motion by way of blurring moving things, and it allows for high-ISO photography in bright conditions.
Sandmarc’s iPhone ND filters come in a pack of three: ND16, ND32, and ND64. The ND16 reduces light by four stops, the ND32 reduces by five stops, and the ND64 reduces by six stops. I most commonly use the ND16, but for longer exposures, the other two certainly come in handy. Did I mention that Sandmarc’s ND filters are also polarized? They are! Polarizers reduce glare and haze, which can be particularly useful when photographing water. Pretty cool, eh?
So if these ND filters are made for iPhones, how am I using them on my Fujifilm cameras? Technically, I’m not using them on my camera, I’m attaching them to my Fujinon 27mm f/2.8 lens. The ND filters have 40.5mm threads, and the 27mm lens accepts 39mm threads, so I purchased a cheap Rise 39mm-40.5mm step-up ring, which allows me to use the Sandmarc ND filters on my Fujinon lens. It works like a charm!
There are three ways in which I’ve integrated ND filters into my photography: slow shutter with a tripod, slow shutter without a tripod, and high-ISO in daylight. I’ll briefly explain each below.
ND Filter + Tripod
The classic way ND filters are used for still photography is with a tripod. By utilizing a slow shutter speed, things within the frame that are moving will become a blur. Waterfalls are probably the most common subject for this technique, where water appears to be a streak of blur or even a mist if the exposure is long enough. Typically, a maximum shutter speed of 1/15 is required for blurring the subject, but there are a few factors—lens focal length, speed and distance of the subject, desired blur—that could affect the necessary shutter speed, either faster or slower. The longer the shutter is open, the more blur you will get. Because you want everything that’s not moving to be sharp, a tripod is required for this technique.
ND Filter without Tripod
Who says that pictures have to be sharp? Maybe you want everything in the frame to be blurry! For this, you simply remove the tripod and use a slow shutter while the camera is handheld. Panning is one example of this. Using a slow shutter speed without a tripod is probably the most difficult ND filter technique, but there is a lot of opportunity for creativity, which means there is potential for dramatic or interesting photographs. The longer the exposure the more difficult this technique is—unless you’re really going for abstract art—so be careful not to set the shutter too slow.
High ISO in Bright Daylight
You might think that purposefully setting a high-ISO in bright daylight is a weird thing to do. The general advice given since the beginning of photography is to use the lowest ISO that you can get away with. If you can use ISO 200, use ISO 200. If you need to bump it up to ISO 400 because the light is dimmer, use ISO 400. Only use ISO 800 if you have to. And ISO 1600 should be used with extreme caution. ISOs higher than that are for emergency purposes only. But is that still good advice? In my opinion, Fujifilm cameras are excellent at high-ISO because—thanks to the X-Trans sensor and processor—they better control the aesthetic of digital noise, rendering it more like film grain. In other words, purposefully using high-ISOs can produce a more analog-like result. Some of my Film Simulation Recipes actually require ultra-high ISOs, and using them in bright daylight can be difficult; however, ND filters make it much more practical. My X100V has a built-in ND filter, but my other Fujifilm cameras do not; ND filters have opened up the opportunity to use these high-ISO Recipes in situations that would be much more difficult otherwise—this is how I’m most often using my Sandmarc ND filters.
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Note: the top four pictures were captured with a Fujifilm X-E4 & Fujinon 35mm f/2; images 1, 2 & 4 are Pacific Blues and image 3 is Kodak Portra 400 v2. The other pictures were captured using my Fujifilm X-T5 & Fujinon 27mm f/2.8 with a Sandmarc ND filter attached.