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NATURE’S VIEW: The Lowdown on the Slowdown by Jim Clark

By March 6, 2014No Comments
With neutral density filter (c) Jim Clark

With neutral density filter (c) Jim Clark

Variable Neutral Density Filters Expand Horizons for Landscape Photography

Story and photographs by Jim Clark

For years I was a devoted citizen of the basic rules of landscape photography. Images were sharp and focused throughout, and I photographed only during early morning, late afternoon or during days with overcast skies. I wouldn’t have dared to photograph during the mid-day hours when there were clear skies. I did not step outside this zone of comfort fearing somewhere in some international doctrine of nature photography I would be prosecuted to the fullest extent. Yet, I wanted to add a bit more spark to my images.

No Density Filter - Photographed at mid-morning (c) Jim Clark

No Density Filter – Photographed at mid-morning (c) Jim Clark

The challenge and fun of nature photography for me has always been in trying something new. In the past few years I have started photographing landscapes during the mid-day hours. What did you say? How could you? How dare you! But again, how did you do it?

Well, it’s simple. I use variable neutral density filters. These filters can be adjusted from 2 to 8 stops of added density without any loss of color fidelity or sharpness. While photographing along the coast of Virginia and Maryland, I became addicted to using these filters to slow the waves as they crashed onto the beach at mid-day. Exposures were right on the dot. (I use the variable neutral density filters from Singh-Ray, but there are other equally good brands out there.)

The possibilities are endless, such as getting a sense of flowing motion from clouds passing overhead or the receding tide rushing past a seashell or horseshoe crab. You can photograph waterfalls at high noon and still get that velvety appearance of the water as it cascades over the falls. The primary element in the scene–the mountaintop, the beach, the seashell–remains focused and properly exposed.

The key to using these filters lies in composing the scene and adjusting the number of stops to get the effect desired. It takes practice and, most importantly, a sturdy tripod. I set the focus to manual and do a series of test shots. With instant review of the composition and exposure via the camera’s LCD monitor, you can adjust to your heart’s content.

Some variable neutral density filters also come with a built-in color enhancer and polarizer, eliminating the need to stack an additional filter to the lens.

I have several variable neutral density filter now, and I include a session in my workshops on how to use them. I even have my students try them during field shoots. At first, they are a little wary, but once they get going, I can’t pry the filters away from them.

To expand your creative vision and give a whole new look to your photography, try these variable neutral density filters. You’ll love ‘em.

A past NANPA President, Jim is a contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer and nature photography instructor for Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book, Coal Country. Visit Jim’s website at, blog at or visit him on Facebook.


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