Long Exposures with NiSi Filters (Part 1)

March 15, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

It’s hard to look through an online gallery of images without finding one or two that describe the capture technique was “long exposure.” For the newcomer to intermediates in photography this may initially seem quite confusing, but it needn’t be. In this article I will attempt to break down the myths about filters that confuse photographers who are new to using them.

Often the technique is so widely used that photographers will not necessarily name it. Images with milky blurry water, waterfalls that are clean like ribbons and skies that are long and streaky are the telltale signs of a filter. This allows the aspects of a scene that are stationary to be sharply focused, while blurring or fading or smearing any moving element. On the rough edge of the spectrum, incorrect filter usage stands out and often looks cheap. It’s all about balance.

Some will argue the correct definition of “long” exposure and what that entails. For the sake of this discussion, we’re going to look at different lengths of exposures in a landscape setting so you know what you want to achieve, and then work back from there. My definition of long exposure is any exposure that takes 0.3 seconds or slower, anywhere up to 30 seconds natively what most DSLR cameras will support, and then up to infinity depending on your filter setup, time of day and whether you have a timer remote.

^ A beautiful example of the power of a Reverse Graduated Neutral density filter. Iceland 2014

Fantastic Filters and what to use them for...

There are almost too many types of filters to name, but for a landscape photographer, our choice is only limited by our creativity and persistence to make it work. Here’s a quick look at some of the types of filters you’re likely to come across when considering what to purchase.

Ultraviolet (UV) – Some people will tell you to use these to protect the lens from accidental damage. I don’t believe in these anymore, because when I graduated to professional glass, my images were so much better with the filter off… This filter will always come as a circular screw-on filter for the front element of the lens.

Circular Polarizer (CPL) – Like sunglasses for your lens. Helps makes skies bluer, water clearer or more reflective, aids long exposures and boosts greens. Typically a circular screw-in filter as well, circular polarisers also have made their way into the 100mm square filter systems. They work best for their abilities to rotate around a lens, depending on which effect you wish to use. These have fallen out of fashion somewhat, with some photographers believing that they cast ugly light. These days, I can’t live without a polarizer.

Infra-Red (IR) – Seeing light not natively seen by the human eye. Most cameras will have this spectrum blocked out, but by the use of a filter you can shoot these types of black and whites. A permanent camera alteration by a professional repair mechanic can make an old camera do this by default, but is irreversible and a niche conversion. These are almost always a circular filter as well, as any light leaks will ruin your image quality.

Neutral Density (ND) – Aims at stopping down, or removing, available light. This means it will give you a longer exposure, day or night, and allow movement to be blurred. ND filters go anywhere from 2 to 1000, there’s single types of ND; ND2, ND4. ND8, ND400, ND1000…. VariND filters, I personally don’t recommend as the effect is not easily reproducible. Neutral Density filters come in a variety of shapes and sizes, namely either circular or square, depending on your setup.

Graduated Neutral Density (GND) – A landscape photographer’s weapon of choice. These filters start at the top of the filter in a graded neutral density and fade to clear. Exceptionally useful for pretty much everything during the beginning and end of daylight hours, really helps control light and turn something excessively bright into art. There are many different grading of intensity of the graduation,

The NiSi system –Not just another filter holder

I’ve been into DSLR photography for almost ten years now. I’ve been specializing in Landscape for seven of those, and in that time, I have seen a lot of changes in the products and equipment that we take for granted! One of the types of things that haven’t required too much technology to make them useful, is filters. The only parts of these that improve are basically the coatings.

Enter the NiSi V5 system...

This is a complete reinvention of how we use filters, clearly the conundrum of whether to polarize or filter, or get all tricky with loading the filter adapter ring onto the front element of a polarizer and then winging it annoyed someone out there, enough to change it. The beautiful NiSi filter system is as useful as it is sleek. Nothing plastic here, just solid, aviation-grade aluminum. The polarizer comes in the V5 foundation kit, no other systems include this in their filter holder kit.

The best part, is that the polarizer lives in the middle of the mounted holder, before you add your 100mm optical glass filters.  Two toothed-wheels appear from the outer edge of the holder (see photo), on the camera side of the setup, allowing you to rotate your polarizer without putting fingerprints over them. This is the NiSi difference, and I have got to say, it’s one of the reasons why photographers are changing from other systems to NiSi.

Different graduated neutral density filters are used for different purposes. NiSi stocks a full range of high quality, low colour cast filters. NiSi filters, unlike their competitors, are made from Optical Glass, much better than resins or cheaper glass.

An Essential Landscape Kit, typically consists of:

  • A sturdy filter holder – the NiSi V5 filter system is my choice
  • A 10 stop ND Filter – typically known as a “Big Stopper”
  • A 3 stop ND Filter
  • A graduated neutral density filter, typically 0.6 in grading or stronger
  • A Reverse graduated neutral density filter
  • Polarizer
  • Lens cloth for cleaning and ROR (Residual oil remover)


Pausing time

For the purpose of discussion, it is impossible for me to tell you what settings to use to achieve a longer exposure, as every single camera, lens and light readings are different. Instead, let’s look at what certain timed exposures can do to a scene.

0.3 to 1 second

Moving elements such as water, trees and clouds will be still quite sharp, but with an “aliased” look to them, meaning some movement will be caught depending on how fast they are moving. You’ll get magic with photos of the ocean, and it will be a very languid, seductive sort of effect. It is both frozen capture and movement in one shot. Suitable for very simple compositions that need extra detail in water.

1 to 5 seconds

More movement will be captured, and this will make water go milky, and other moving objects may show a bit of undesirable movement if you haven’t thought about what it will effect. Use this to your advantage in shots that need some simplification by slowing down the shutter. Unless the water is moving slower than this can capture, this is about as fast as an exposure needs to be, to make water milky. This is the point where streaky clouds will benefit from the longer exposure, but not so much the trees. If you prefer solid trees and moving clouds, take a fast exposure without filters and while keeping the tripod in same place, camera at the same settings, take the long exposure and blend the two in post.

6 to 10 seconds

This is the realm of the perfect exposure inside a dark rainforest on an overcast or cloudy day. The deep shadows will mean longer exposure times. Thanks to the NiSi system, you can load a 3 stop or 10 stop filter onto the lens to achieve the longer shutter speed, combined with the polarizer’s amazing abilities to see through water and boost greens, it’s your ideal rainforest companion!

Bulb Mode

Enter the world of star trails, hyper-lapses and “empty” tourist destinations during the day. Exposures taken in Bulb mode with a remote timer can go as long as your battery holds out, provided you are shooting under the right conditions not to overexpose. The possibilities really open up around this point. Granted you don’t need to use a set of filters for star trails, exposure times and filters can be played with to create different effects. Have you ever tried light painting? The possibilities are infinite, only limited by your creativity and imagination.

Filters 101:

I get asked about filters and what to use them for a fair bit. Here's some of the common questions and my responses.

Q: How can the use of Filters improve my Photography?

A: The point of filters, by their very title, is to filter in or out, available light, giving you better control over your exposure and enhance

compositional elements. This opens up an entire world, helps your camera perform to its optimum levels and gives you a more balanced image to process.

Q: When I use filters, should I meter my scene and then put the filters on, or load them all up and then meter the scene?

A: Definitely put your filters on first before metering the scene and shooting. Filters are used to slow down our shutter speeds, thus allowing movement to show in the image. Your camera is great at figuring out what to do in most cases. But this isn't a definitive, get your filters on and get experimenting~! In some cases you will need to pre-focus a scene if the filter is too dark and the camera can't read the scene. For this, focus, lock it and then carefully -ever so carefully- load up the filters, but don't bump the zoom or aperture rings!

Q: "Filters are cheating"

A: "No, they're not." They're the same thing as wearing sunglasses in the daytime, they help you see better by blocking out all the extra light.

Q: How can I control the sunlight on the horizon when it first comes up?

A: Use a Reverse Graduated Neutral Density Filter. These are purposely darker where the sun will typically rise or set on the horizon, thus giving you more control over the first rays of day.

Q: What about Color Casting?

A: The NiSi filters which I use, have a very low colour cast. In almost all cases, this cast is correctable in post processing, allowing you to make it whatever colour/tint you want. Most landscapers find this to not be an issue and actually enjoy any colours cast into an image. NiSi filters are made with Optical glass and offer a low colour cast, I simply cannot fault the quality of these filters.

Q: Where can I buy NiSi filters?

A: In Australia, this is the best place: http://nisifilters.com.au/

Got a question about filters? Post a response in the comments below or use my contact form to ask me!

In the coming months I will post Part 2 of this article, I did not want to do it all at once, as it would be a lot of reading. Let me know if there's anything you want me to cover!

EDIT: To get a set of NiSi filters of your own, use the code Mel10NiSi at the website above to receive 10% off your order. Hurry, this doesn't last forever!

See you soon!


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