Neutral Density Exposures the Easy Way!

Artistically blurring moving elements in a photograph can offer a new way to represent familiar scenes.  A ten stop neutral density (ND) filter renders a wonderful softness to waves, waterfalls, and moving clouds.  It’s also effective with tall grasses blowing in the breeze.  Car lights passing in a busy street scene are transformed into glowing lines slicing through your composition.

As its name implies, ten stop ND filter will reduce the light exposing your image by ten stops.  So, for example, Dawn at Avalon Pier in Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.working at dawn, if the proper exposure without the filter is 1/4 second, it’ll require an additional ten stops of exposure with the filter.  That’s 4 minutes at the same aperture and ISO.  There’s a phenomenal difference in the look of an image at 1/4 second and that at 4 minutes.

But using this filter presents some challenges.

If you hold a ten stop neutral density filter to your eye, you will not see through it.  Same problem when you put it on your lens.

Using a solid tripod is a must.  Not only must you hold the camera steady during long exposures, you’ll find it necessary to hold the composition stable as you work with the filter.  A shutter release cable will permit you to hold open the shutter without shaking the camera.

Work in manual mode while the ND filter is attached.  In most cases, your camera’s meter will not get enough light to meter properly, so your exposure automation will not be reliable.

Since you can’t see anything through the filter, neither you nor the camera will be able so focus.  The trick is to focus without the filter on the lens.  After obtaining focus, switch off auto-focusing so the camera does not try to refocus.  Work carefully so you do not upset the sharp focus you just obtained.  If you accidentally shift the focus, remove the filter, refocus, and again disable auto-focus.

Before you attach the ND filter, you must decide how to determine the exposure.  Here’s three ways.  Two are cumbersome, one is super easy.

Cumbersome Way #1 – Calculate it in your head
Determine your exposure without the ND filter.  You can do this either with exposure automation on, or in manual exposure mode via the meter in your camera, or by making test exposures and checking your histogram.  Insure that you aren’t clipping any important highlights, and have as many of the shadows as possible inside the histogram range.  Once you are satisfied with the exposure, note the shutter speed.  Switch to manual exposure.  Carefully attach the ND filter, being careful not to upset the focus.  Now, multiply the shutter speed, in decimal seconds, by 1024.  (1024 is 2 to the 10th power, for math geeks.  Ten stops!)  Multiplying by 1000 instead of 1024 is close enough.  Set that for your shutter speed.  You may have to go to bulb setting.

Using our previous example, 1/4 of a second is 0.25 seconds (in decimals notation), multiply that by 1000, and you get 250 seconds, or 4 minutes and 10 seconds.  (We have a little rounding-off error here.  A ten second discrepancy in four minutes is not noticeable.)  Yes, it works.  But you may get brain blisters from all the math.

Cumbersome Way #2 – Use a Neutral Density Calculator App
Determine the correct exposure as above.  Switch to manual exposure.  Carefully attach the ND filter, being careful not to upset the focus.  Use an ND Calculator smartphone app, enter the exposure, the number of stops in your ND filter (we’ve been discussing 10, but there are other densities available), and read out the new shutter speed for when you use the ND filter.  Apps include ND Filter and ND Filter Calculator for Android, or ND Filter Calculator and LongTime for iPhone.  Not as cumbersome.  But there’s an easier way.

The Easy Way – The ISO 6400 trick
Be sure you are in manual mode.  Attach your ND filter, being careful not to bump the focus.  You are going to do the exposure determination and the final shoot both with the ND filter attached.  For exposure testing purposes only, turn your ISO up to 6400, and determine the correct exposure by making test shots and checking the histogram.  Note the shutter speed in seconds.  At ISO 6400, these photos will be noisy, not what we want for a final image.  Turn the ISO down to 100.  The shutter speed you noted in seconds at ISO 6400 is the shutter speed in minutes at ISO 100!  Set that shutter speed in minutes, possibly needing to use the bulb setting, and make your final exposure.  Under the lighting conditions of our example, with a ten stop neutral density filter attached, and ISO at 6400, the shutter speed would be 4 seconds.  Turn the ISO to 100, and the correct shutter speed is 4 minutes.

If you are going to make a mistake here, it will probably be forgetting to turn the ISO to 100 before making your “real” shot with the ND filter, so pay attention to that.

You may be tempted to use exposure automation to make the ISO 6400 exposure determination.  I’ve found that the meter is less accurate with such severely subdued light coming thru the lens because of the ND filter.  If you get your ISO 6400 exposure in any way that relies on the meter, you may find that your final exposure is off.  And since ND exposures can range into minutes in some cases, you don’t want to take more of those than necessary trying to dial it in.  If you use test shots and check the histogram, it’s WYSIWYG – what you see is what you get!  You are determining exposure by what the camera actually recorded, rather than by what the meter thinks the camera will record.

Note that this ISO 6400 trick is completely independent of the ten stop density of the filter we’re discussing.  It can be used with any strength ND filter, even a variable ND filter.  It has nothing at all to do with the filter!  In fact, this trick is just as useful for any low light exposure determination.  The key is the relationship between ISO 100 and ISO 6400, and between minutes and seconds.  The difference between ISO 100 and 6400 is six stops (100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400 – six steps.)  The difference between 1 second and 1 minute is also six stops (1 sec, 2 sec, 4 sec, 8 sec, 15 sec, 30 sec, 60 sec – six steps.)  So, holding aperture constant, the correct exposure in seconds at ISO 6400 is also a correct exposure in minutes at ISO 100.

What if your camera only goes down to ISO 200?  Figure the exposure at ISO 100, and use one half that time at ISO 200.  That’s double the ISO sensitivity, one half the amount of time to expose.  A one stop change of each.  Again using our example, at ISO 200 the shutter speed would be 2 minutes.

Try a strong neutral density filter, such as a ten stop ND, to open exciting creative possibilities.  Find new ways to record moving items, turning the movement itself into compositional elements.  And use the easy, fail-proof ISO 6400 trick to determine the exposure through that nearly opaque, but magical piece of glass.

Thank you to Boston-based photographer Paul Treseler for sharing this technique with me.

The photo accompanying this article was made about 10 minutes before sunrise, using a ten stop ND filter.  Using the ISO 6400 trick, I determined that the ISO 100 exposure at f/16 would be 25 minutes.  With the sun about the break the horizon, the light was changing too quickly to allow a 25 minute exposure.  So I bumped the ISO by three stops to ISO 800, and shortened the shutter speed by three stops to 3 minutes.  This rendered the sky and water perfectly.  However, the underside of the pier was far too dark.  The range of tones in the scene exceeded the sensor’s ability.  So, I made a few bracketed exposures at the same ISO and aperture, but without the ND filter.  The underside of the pier was nicely recorded at 1/2 second, but it blew out the water and sky.  I combined the images in the digital darkroom to create the image as I saw it in my mind.  Avalon Pier, Kill Devil Hills, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

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Happy Halloween!

Abandoned house near Roper North Carolina.

Abandoned house near Roper North Carolina.

Haunted House

When I first saw this abandoned house near Roper North Carolina, while I was on a CNPA camera club outing, it brought to mind a Halloween card, haunted house. Once I decided on an idea for my photograph, and what I was trying to convey, I tried to use my photographic knowledge to enhance the idea and eliminate anything that did not contribute to the idea of a haunted house.

 Wide Angle Distortion

I used the distortion of my wide-angle (16 x 35mm) lens, set at 16mm to make the house appear to be leaning backwards. This makes for a more unsettling haunted house. I also wanted the leaves on the grass to be prominent in the photo. I set my tripod down low pointing up the short hill, about 10 inches from the first leaf. The distortion from the wide angle lens is greater the further from level the camera is tilted.


I could have captured the dynamic range of this photo in one shot since it was gray day with little contrast. But I knew that using HDR (high dynamic range) would bring details out in the clouds that one image couldn’t accomplish. I took three photographs, each two stops apart and combined them using Nik software’s HDR Pro plug-in.

 Continue To Develop the Idea in the Digital Darkroom

While developing photographs in the digital darkroom I try to remember the idea behind the photograph and continue enhancing this idea with Adobe Lightroom. I made sure to disable the lens profile corrections, I even used the manual lens corrections in Adobe Lightroom to tilt the house back even further.

 Nik Software

I want to thank my photo buddy and fellow workshop leader, Dan Beauvais for helping me with the filters in Nik Software, Color Effects Pro 4. We used the midnight filter and the detail extractor filter to really enhance the spooky feeling of this image. It was a lot of fun messing around with this photo, trying to create a spooky haunted house.


Happy Halloween!


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Fetch With A Fish

I was recently at Wancheese NC on the Outer Banks, teaching a private photo workshop when we spotted this retriever playing fetch with a fishermen unloading his catch. The fishermen would throw a fish in the water and the retriever would dive in get the fish then swim around to the boat ramp and bring it back to the fishermen. The retriever had obviously played this game many times. We hung around and photograph the fishermen untangling the catch from the net, the retriever playing fetch, and some close-ups pattern shots of all the fish caught. It was nice of the fishermen to let us photograph them while they were working.

A retriever plays fetch with a fishIn Wancheese NC.

Pattern of fish ready to be taken to market on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.           A fisherman untangles his catch from a net in Wancheese, NC on the Outer Banks.

Wanchese Harbor is a great photo destination. It is a real working fishing village located on Roanoke Island. You can expect to photograph everything from stacked up crab baskets, old rusty fishing trawler’s, colorful buoys, fishermen at work, and a multitude of close up photo opportunities. It is a little off the beaten path and most of the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Outer Banks don’t know it exists. It is well worth the 20 min. drive from the beach. I also recommend having lunch or dinner at the Fisherman’s Wharf Restaurant overlooking the Wancheeses Harbor.


Below is a slideshow and link to my Wancheese photo gallery.

Wanchese Harbor – Images by Daniel Waters

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22 New Photos Added to My Website

I have had a wonderful couple months photographing these 22 new photos Up-and-down the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I hope you enjoy them.

See all 22 new photos here:

22 New Photos Added

Pier Impression

Standing Ovulation

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Workshop Participant’s Photos

Shawn Pustay recently visited the Outer Banks, NC and participated in two  Sunrise and Sunset Photo Workshops, Sunset at Jockeys Ridge, and Sunrise at Manteo Waterfront.

Shawn e-mailed us about the workshops she attended, “I really enjoyed both you and Dan B., I learned a lot at both workshops.”

These are some of the photos she captured during the workshop’s.


Shawn, thank you for letting us share these wonderful images with everyone else.

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Fishing Can Be A Dangerous Business


Close-up photo of a string of fishing hooks used for long line fishing on a Wanchese trawler.

For this photo I was teaching a Sunrise Weekly Photo Workshop at Wanchese North Carolina. We photographed this pattern of fish hooks on a trawler at the dock. They use these hooks for a style of fishing called long line fishing. The fishermen play out a long monofilament line and every so often they snap on one of these baited hooks. This style of fishing is mainly used to catch swordfish and tuna.

While we were photographing these hooks, a fishermen came out of the cabin and explained what they are to us. He had a bandage on his thumb and we asked what had happened. He had gotten his thumb tangled in the long line as it was playing out behind the boat and the monofilament cut part his thumb off. He told us that it was the second time that it happened to the same thumb. Fishing can be a dangerous business.

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Twilight by Dan Waters

The Blues     Red and black surf board at Avon pier near twilight.

For most people photography starts as the sun rises and ends with sunset. Unfortunately these people are missing some of the best and most productive times to photograph. Twilight is that time when there’s just a hint of color in the sky. There is approximately a 10 minute window when the light is just right for twilight photography. It happens twice a day 1/2 hour before sunrise and 1/2 hour after sunset. Why is it worth getting up so early or staying out that late? When photographing at this time the sky turns a cobalt blue and contrasts beautifully with the warm hues of morning and man-made lights. This phenomenon happens whether it’s raining or cloudy, no matter what the weather is. It is a perfect time for capturing city skyline’s, or anywhere there are man-made lights. I suggest keeping the cameras white balance setting on daylight, as this ensures capturing the beautiful cobalt blue color in the sky. You will need to use a tripod because the shutter speeds will be long. I think you’ll agree, it’s definitely worth the extra effort of getting up earlier and staying out later.

At our Weekly Sunrise and Sunset Photo Workshops you will learn to take advantage of the beautiful twilight time.

New World   Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse at twilight.

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How To Improve Your Photography

Bridge to Beauty
This is a little story I read the other day and I thought I’d share it with you.

By Kenny McKeithan
“A street performer, long haired and shaggy, sat playing his saxophone on the streets of Manhattan when tourist happened by. The tourist, lost, asked the street performer “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The old street performer looked up at the tourist over his dirty glasses and said, ”Practice man, practice!!”
And so it is with our photography, like anything else, to get better or excel at it one has to practice it.”

Our Weekly Sunrise and Sunset Photo Workshops and One-on-One Private Instructions are a couple of the best ways to practice Photography.

A quote by Percy Harris, “Skill in photography is a result of practice not purchase.”

Thanks Dan Waters
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By Dan Waters

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Silhouettes are one of the easiest ways to take your photography to a new level.  They almost always have that wow effect.  Frequently, beginners accidentally make silhouettes by placing their subject in front of a strong light source.  However, the best silhouettes are well thought out and planned in advance.  The shutter speeds are generally higher because you’re exposing for the light, which means you can hand hold without worrying about camera movement.

There are a couple simple guidelines to help you make great silhouettes.

1. Place your subject in front of a light source.

2. Expose for the light source.  In other words make sure you’re getting a correct exposure for the light behind your subject.  You can do this by framing your shot without your subject
pushing the shutter button down half way to lock the exposure, then re-frame to include the subject and take the photograph.

3. The subject has to be simple and easily recognizable.

4. Change your angle and perspective until the elements in your photograph are clearly visible, with no overlaps.

If you follow these simple guidelines, silhouettes are easy to master and will give a fresh look to your photographs.

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Wright Brothers Memorial Flyover

Every year, to celebrate the first flight on December 17, there is a fly over at the Wright Brothers Memorial in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  I went to photograph some of the planes with Dan Beauvais, who is a wonderful aircraft photographer.  He gave me some pointers about shutter speed; if the shutter speed is too fast you do not see the blur of the props and the photo looks static.  It’s a lot harder than you would think to follow the planes, use the right shutter speed, expose correctly, keep everything in focus, and keep the plane framed in the shot.  This is the best shot I took of the day.  The planes were too high to capture the Wright Brothers Memorial and the plane in the same photo and still have the plane look large enough to see well.  It was a lot of fun but judging from the number of discarded photos I took, I need a lot more practice.

Thanks, Dan Waters


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Eye Level

Eye Level
By Dan Waters

This tip works for everything, insects, birds, pets,people, and even inanimate objects. The viewer has a greater connection with the subject if the photograph is taken at the subjects “eye level”. If you want the viewer to relate to your subject get down on its level. This can create an “even playing field” and help to show the subjects scale and relationship to its surroundings.

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There are times to break this rule and shoot up or down on your subject. If you would like to convey a feeling of smallness, insignificant, or to belittle your subject get above and shoot down at it. The opposite is also true if you would like to create a feeling of grandeur, control, or strength then shoot up toward your subject. Angle and perspective have everything to do with how the viewer relates to the subject.

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Weekly Sunrise and Sunset Workshops offered!

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Dan Beauvais or Dan Waters will lead an Outer Banks sunrise photo workshop Tuesdays at Avalon fishing pier, Outer Banks sunset photo workshop Wednesdays at Jockeys Ridge State Park, and Outer Banks sunrise photo workshop Thursday’s at either the Manteo Waterfront or Wanchese Harbor from Easter through Thanksgiving. For more information follow the links below.

Sunrise and Sunset Workshops

Register now to save your spot! Call 252-491-8437

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