Using An ND Filter For Sunset Photos

Sunset is always a great time for landscape photography no matter what kind of shot you want.

A neutral density (ND) filter is essential for landscape photography and comes in handy for sunset and sunrise photos because they allow you to achieve slower shutter speeds than you could normally get and create motion blur for a more compelling image.

The hours before sunset provide beautiful soft light that is low in the sky to give definition to the details of the landscape.

And the hours after sunset often produce some unique colors in the sky.

But if you want to take your evening images to the next level, try using an ND filter for sunset photography. For our latest recommendations, check out our guide on the Best Lens Filters.

Effects Of An ND Filter For Sunset

So why would you use an ND filter?

An ND filter is like sunglasses for your camera. It darkens the scene to varying degrees (based on the strength of the filter).

This allows you to use a longer shutter speed than you normally would for a particular shot.

Longer shutter speeds let you do cool things like blur movement and smooth out water.

Photo of the coastline to demonstrate using the best lens for seascape photography

Finding The Right Composition For Using An ND Filter

The key to good long exposure photography is finding a scene with some kind of movement in it.

This can be as subtle as the clouds moving in the sky or it can be as obvious as waves crashing against the shore. But without movement a 20 second long exposure looks the same as a 1/250 sec. exposure.

In addition to the movement, it also helps to have something stationary to anchor the movement in the scene. The best sunset shots with an ND filter will have a combination of movement and a stationary object to provide contrast to the movement.

Setup For Shooting Sunsets With An ND Filter

There are some things you’ll need to make sure you do as far as setting up the shot when shooting with an ND filter.

Here’s what you need to know…

Use A Tripod

ND filters mean longer shutter speeds and you just can’t shoot longer shutter speeds while holding the camera in your hands (unless you are purposely trying to blur the entire image).

Use An Intervalometer Or Remote Trigger

Touching the camera when shooting at slower shutter speeds can cause blurring of fine details in the image. So ideally, you want to avoid this altogether.

The best way to do this is with a remote trigger or intervalometer. It’s pretty easy to find one that matches your camera and most new cameras let you trigger the shutter button with your smartphone.

Don’t Forget Basic Composition

One of the biggest mistakes I see photographers making when using an ND filter (whether you’re shooting sunsets or anything else) is relying so much on using the filter to create motion blur and forgetting about looking for a good composition.

So remember to set up your framing the same way you would any other landscape photo.

Take into consideration some of the basic principles of composition like the rule of thirds when composing your image.

Your goal should be to create a good sunset landscape photo that uses elements of motion blur to enhance the image rather than just using an ND filter to show that you can do it.

Shooting Tips

Here’s a couple things to keep in mind when shooting these kinds of images..

Try Different Shutter Speeds

How fast things are moving in your frame and how much you want to blur that movement will factor into which shutter speed you choose.

In order to find the speed that looks best for your particular image, you should experiment. Don’t decide on a shutter speed and just keep taking photos with that speed.

Vary the shutter speeds. Then see how each one looks. You’ll easily be able to see the ideal speed.

Since you are trying to capture the sunset, be sure to get set up early and do this experimenting before the sun reaches its ideal height for the photo you want. Then you’ll be ready when it happens.

Expose For The Highlights

Whenever shooting at sunset, pay close attention to the highlights in your image.

Usually this means the sky. This is where much of the color in the image will come from. So you want to be very careful not to overexpose any part of these highlights or you’ll be losing some of the color saturation.

If there is a drastic difference between the brightness of the sky and the ground, take two or more shots at varying exposures and you can blend them together later in post-processing.

Should You Use A Graduated ND Filter For Sunsets?

A graduated ND filter is darker on the top and fades as you go down. They are usually square and need a special adapter that you attach to the end of your lens.

If you are shooting directly into the sun, the sky is going to be a lot brighter than the land. So a graduated ND filter can help you balance that out.

However, the problem with graduated ND filters is that they really only work well if the horizon is perfectly straight with nothing sticking up into the sky. If there are trees, rocks, buildings, or anything else sticking up into the sky, then the filter will darken that too.

A better approach is to shoot two exposures, one exposed for the sky and one exposed for the foreground, and blend them in post-processing. This can be as simple as using the two images to create an HDR image in Lightroom.

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