I was going through a tutorial that explained the use of an NDX filter. Pictures taken of a busy street at slow shutter speeds with the filter on had only empty streets without any vehicles. How does this happen ? Shouldn't there be objects with blur instead of completely disappearing? Can someone please explain how this happens ?


2 Answers 2


The camera records light reflected or emitted by the scene being photographed. While the shutter is kept open during exposure, the camera accumulates light hitting the sensor as per the selected sensitivity and aperture.

Now, thinking about the camera recording light, you can consider what happens to different parts of the scene:

  1. A stationary object: The light it reflects is always recorded in camera by exactly the same pixels. This results in a normally exposed, sharp object (assuming it is in focus).
  2. A slow moving object: The light it reflects gets recorded by pixels spread across a small section of the image. The image is of object is therefore blurred.
  3. A fast moving object: The light it reflects is recorded by pixels spread across a wide section of the image and makes only a small contribution to what is recorded at any particular pixel. Also, the background makes a significant contribution because the camera spends more time accumulating light reflected by it than the subject. In this case, the object appears close to invisible.
  4. A moving light source: Its emitted light is recorded by a large number of pixels. Unlike the case of a reflective object though, its high brightness makes a large contribution to each pixel compared to a typical background.

Considering a set exposure, #1 explains why the background appears and is sharp. #2 explains why people who are mostly still by slightly moving make it into the image but appear blurry. #3 explains why cars bodies do not show in long exposures and #4 explains why cars leave light-trails but are not seen themselves.

Now, this will happen with a normal exposure or using an ND filter. The only difference is what falls into the fast moving case. For a short exposure, an object must be moving quite fast not to contribute to the scene. For a long exposure, even a person walking can move enough within the frame not to make an imprint in the photo.

  • 1
    Thank you for your answer, it answered few more doubts which I had.
    – GoodSp33d
    Feb 11, 2013 at 4:10

They're not gone completely, they are there with blur, but the effect a moving object has on the overall exposure is so small that we can't see it any more.

You could simulate this effect in Photoshop or other editing tools. Create an image with a black background and put a white dot or mark in the centre and apply increasing amounts of the motion blur tool. Eventually you reach a point where you can't see the white dot any more because the effect it has on the brightness of that area is negligible.

Or you can often see this effect multiplied in seascape images done with the ND filter. Because the sea never settles on one point it just becomes a mist, where the exposed rocks which are static, show through sharply.

This is what's happening in a long exposure with the ND filter, the length of the blur 'trail' of any object is so long that it doesn't visibly affect the exposure.

This is a spot with differing amounts of motion blur applied:

Simulated a light source over motion blur lengths in Px

  • 10
    I would think of it this way - if you have a 30 sec exposure, and a car passes in front of a building for 1 second during that exposure, that's 3% of the time. 97% of the time the sensor is recording the building, so the car would probably not be visible at all.
    – MikeW
    Feb 10, 2013 at 19:08
  • The 97%, 3%, one car, building example is not valid when explaining trail lights because trail lights are produced by hundreds & thousands of cars, not just one car. In order for there to be constant lights.. there has to be cars passing by constantly.
    – Joe
    Nov 30, 2017 at 19:29
  • 1
    Length of exposure is just as important as light intensity. While the 97/3 example only looks at length - it's not an entirely bad example. However, your answer would be better if you could show the differences in long exposure photography using the 97/3 example at differing intensities...
    – OnBreak.
    Nov 30, 2017 at 19:50
  • Or the lights could be very bright.
    – user50888
    Nov 30, 2017 at 19:50
  • By trail lights, do you mean either headlights or tail lights? Because the original question talked about a long exposure using an NDX filter, so I take that to mean during the daytime. In any case I've done long exposures of car lights at night, with no more than a half dozen cars passing by, and you get continuous streaks of light, you don't need hundreds or thousands of cars. Maybe I'm misunderstanding you though.
    – MikeW
    Dec 1, 2017 at 3:06

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