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Perhaps one of the most iconic uses for an ND filter is using it outside with a slow shutter speed to catch a motion blur effect -- suppose mover water (waterfall, river, creek, ect). So I'm familiar with the underlying theory: the ND filter will keep the shot from becoming over-exposed while the slow shutter speed allows one to capture the motions as a blur. However, I'm struggling with the creative side. There don't seem to be many other applications like that out there.

Question

Aside from moving water, what other motion blur applications can one achieve with an ND filter? Especially, any classic or "textbook" examples that are comparable with the moving water + ND shot?

I suppose in principle, any fast moving object would be suitable, but I don't see too many photographers use anything but moving water. I'm just having trouble extrapolating this technique because all the literature on the topic uses the same example (moving water).

  • Assume any variety of ND filter you want (8-32)
  • Context is outdoors (mostly landscape)
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Aside from moving water, what other motion blur applications can one achieve with an ND filter?

Pretty much anything that moves in relation to the camera.

One can make people moving through a scene totally disappear by using enough density to require an exposure time of several minutes or longer.

Imagine pacing a train while your assistant drives on a road parallel to the tracks. You keep the camera pointed at the same spot on the engine as the scenery flows by. I've seen many examples of such "pacing" shots.

One could even use an ND filter with a totally static scene and move the camera with respect to the scene during a longer exposure to create a blurry effect with a specific shape created by the path of the camera's motion.

Blurring moving objects is only half of the equation afforded by using ND filters.

Rather than allow a longer exposure time with the same aperture, ND filters can also allow wider apertures with the same exposure times. Thus one can use very shallow depth of field with wide aperture lenses in bright settings.

Wider apertures reduce the depth of field. An ND filter allows wider apertures and shallower DoF even if your camera's exposure time is constrained by flash sync speed or even the camera's shortest exposure time.

For example, if you're outside on a bright, sunny day but you want to use a very wide aperture and fill flash. Your flash only works with a 1/200 second or longer exposure time. Your meter says you need to use a shutter time of 1/8000 to use f/2. By using a 6 stop ND filter, you can use 1/125 second instead of 1/8000. (You'll also need a LOT more flash power!)

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With regard to water, an ND filter can be useful for still water. If you want to photograph stuff mirrored in water, it is rare for the water to be calm enough to deliver a perfect reflection. Long exposure can go a long way towards masking the ripples otherwise visible in the reflected part of the image.

So basically it can be made to let water appear like it should be rather than like it shouldn't be (like the fad of smoothing turbulent water flow like in waterfalls or creeks to some milky thing).

Example of this (added by Hueco, who took the shot):

enter image description here

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Most moving things becomes blurry and unrecognizable at slow shutter speeds. Other uses of an ND filter I have seen:

  • Moving clouds
  • Cities (moving bits (cars, people) disappear)
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My list of ND applications. Yeap, some already mentioned in the other answers :o)

  1. Lower the shutter speed to capture motion on moving subjects. e.g. A river flowing.

  2. Removing people from a crowded scene on daytime. If you take a shoot of let's say, 30 seconds, fewer people will appear on the frame if they moved away.

  3. Modifying exposure when you have your other variables fixed. This is normally the case on video, where you have your shutter speed fixed and defined by the framerate, and want a specific aperture on the lens. on still photography when using a flash and your sync speed is limited e.g. Shallow DOF on a portrait on daylight.

  4. A graded neutral density filter is used to reduce the dynamic range of a scene. e.g. a landscape where you do not want the clouds to be overexposed.

  5. Allowing you to take a photo of very bright objects. e.g. a solar eclipse.


  1. Some creative effects, that are not totally dependant on the ND filter, but the slower shutter speed they produce:

Making a trail longer. A light trail of a car, a superhero trail combining rear sync flash.

  • 3
    For solar work, one should use a solar filter that also attenuates IR and UV, or you might wind up with this or even eye damage to the photographer. – Michael C Jul 30 at 18:48
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In many instances we choose to use a wide open lens setting to obtain a shallow depth-of-field. In other instances we choose super long exposures to allow subject movement to blur. This calls for a low sensitivity film or digital sensor. Since most films and digital sensors operate at elevated ISO, we use a neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light that is able to enter the camera.

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You have a solution (ND filter) and now you're trying to find a problem it can solve. Nothing good ever comes from that.

ND is used when your desired combination of shutter + aperture + iso yields exposure too bright. That's it. If you must, you can try to imagine any situation with slow shutter, wide aperture or high iso - ND filter will help there. Out of those, what you consider artistic is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps in 100 years people will consider sensor noise as artistic effect - ND filter can bring it out.

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Complementary answer:

  • Fireworks with ND, it will i. cut off some smoke light reflection, ii. make the foreground/background scene properly exposed.
  • increase light sources contrast
  • allow you to use of larger aperture under bright conditions
  • Make light trails photo under bright light.
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Other complements (maybe this answer should be put as community wiki):

  • flashing lights: e.g. if you want to show flashed (from public) in stadium, or just blue light of car police (for journalism).

  • portrait like images outdoor. If you need shallow deep of field, and you have much light, you must use ND filters. Think about weddings. In general, if you have too much light and you need large apertures.

  • double exposure (you twice in the same photo). Now probably you will make them in photoshops. Else double exposure and multiple flashes.

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