Using Neutral Density Filters

Shooting Winter scenes isn’t as easy as it looks, especially on a bright, contrasty day. Exposure usually maxes out at around 1/1000 at f/22. Since the exposures are so short a lot of shadow detail gets lost. One way to combat this is using neutral density, or ND filters.

ND filters block light from entering a lens. This makes longer exposures possible in bright, high contrast lighting situations. ND filters come in different graduations, such as 0.3, 0.6 and so on. Each one reduces the light entering a lens by twice the amount.

This is a point of confusion with ND filters, since there are many designations for them. For example, a clear filter, such as a UV zero, reduces light by zero stops. An ND 0.3 filter lets 1/2 of the light pass, so it reduces the light by one stop. An ND 0.6 filter lets 1/4 of the light to pass, so it reduces the light by two stops. This decimal representation is called an Optical Density Number.

ND filters also have “ND 1” numbers. A 0.3 ND filter is ND 101, a 0.6 filter is ND102, and so on.

If you look at the markings on the outside of an ND filter, the designation is almost always given by its optical density number, or ODN. I use this as a guide to correlate the ODN to the number of reduced f-stops.

I made a small ND filter table available as a downloadable PDF. The table is small enough to print out and take with you on shoots. I printed it, cut it out, laminated it and keep it in my camera bag.


I was shooting on a cold, clear day this February at a park with a lot of snow on the ground. I shot with my Mamiya 645E using Tri-X at IS0 400. I developed the negatives in Ilfosol 3. Normal exposures tended around 1/1000 shutter speed at f/16 or f/22. Shooting at this speed washes out the highlights and shadow detail, which winds up muddying a black and white negative. Here’ s an example:


To get more shadow detail I used a 0.6, 0.9 and 2.1 on this shoot.

Here’s a shot using the 0.6 filter. Much better tonal separation and shadow detail.

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Here’s a shot with the 0.9 filter. The 0.9 seemed to work well on this shoot, brining out more subtle shadow detail.

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Here’s a shot with the 1.2 filter, taking the exposure down 4 stops.


ND filters help on bright days. It takes the exposure down allowing you to capture more shadow detail. I find them especially useful when capturing Winter scenes.

Manhattan in Medium Format, 1980

Instead of flying out of Newark, New Jersey after a week’s worth of work, I changed my flight to La Guardia and took a bus to Manhattan to spend a few hours shooting with my Yashica Mat 124G. The Yashica Mat 124G is a metal solid twin lens reflex medium format camera that I’ve had for over thirty years now and is still as reliable and functional as the day I bought it.

These shots were taken in May, 1980. The day was clear and warm being late spring. This was my first time to New York City and I was in awe, to say the least. For the time that I had, I just wandered around taking shots.

Here’s a shot of a subway under Grand Central Station.

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The light was really low and I was shooting Tri-X at ISO 400 and didn’t push the film, so it was tough holding the camera steady. This was shot at f/3.5 which is wide open for the 124G and at 1/30 sec.

Every photographer takes a subway entrance shot whenever they see one, and I’m no exception. The irony isn’t lost, looking at the debris on the stairs and the “IT’S YOUR SUBWAY” sign.

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The leisure suit in this guy looks cool, big time in style at the time. Maybe they’ll come back…

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Grand Central Station is a classic place to shoot, It’s challenging with a TLR to get fast street-style shots looking down at a waist level view finder, but if you park yourself in a spot it works. Here are a few:

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This worked out because of the light on the front of the escalator, centrally framing the subject.

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Here’s another shot below Grand Central Station that caught my eye because of the posters and soft contrast.

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This dude was cool, dancing and trying to pick up the two women seated at the fountain.

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Of all the shots taken that day, this is my favorite with the girl with the notebook.

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This is a small slice of un-gentrified NYC in 1980. I still remember shooting there to this day. Using a TLR is a little tough for street photography, but many great street photographers have used them in the past.