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Tips & Tricks

Love Lighting With Strobes Outdoors! Use an ND filter For a Shallow Depth Of Field

By Chris Nachtwey on September 25th 2014

I’m not sure about you, but I love to create portraits with my lens wide open (f/2.8) to create a shallow depth of field, and the oh so dreamy bokeh. When shooting outdoors with strobes though, it can be hard to balance the ambient light with your strobe light, and still shoot wide open. Many times, we have to stop down (f/11) our lens resulting in a wider depth of field, and no shallow depth of field. Enter a neutral density (ND) filter! Many photographers associate ND filters with landscape photography, but honestly, they can come in quite handy when creating outdoor portraits!


In the Westcott sponsored video below,  Zach Gray shows us how using a ND filter when creating outdoor strobe lit portraits is not all that difficult and can yield great results.




The technique is pretty simple, but does take some practice. Honestly, it’s one of those techniques that you can overthink, and if you’re someone who gets all caught up in completely understanding the technical settings, knock yourself out trying to explain it.

Personally, I like how Zach breaks down the technique. Set up your lighting as you normally would as if you were not using the ND filter. Then put your ND filter on your camera and depending on how many stops of light the ND filter will limit (3 stops in Zach’s example), open up your aperture that many stops. This works because the ND filter is working to brighten up everything coming through the lens to the correct exposure, allowing you to create images with a shallow depth of field. Trust me when I say don’t over think it, just try it out for yourself.




Personally, I always have a few ND filters in my bag no matter what I’m shooting. I’ve used the technique Zach explains multiple times and have gotten great results. You can also use High Speed Sync with compatible speedlights and cameras to archive a similar look – more about that here. Personally, I think if you’re someone who shoots with manual flash or strobes all the time, learning the ND filter technique is good to have in your bag of tricks. Once you master the technique, you will love the results!

Via: Westcott YouTube Page

Images captured via screen grab. 

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Chris Nachtwey is a full-time wedding and portrait photographer based in Connecticut. He is the founder and creator of 35to220 a website dedicated to showcasing the best film photography in the world. Chris loves to hear from readers, feel free to drop him a line via the contact page on his website! You can see his work here: Chris Nachtwey Photography

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Patrick Larson

    These photos all look blurry to me. Is it just me? I used the Ricoh GR yesterday (leaf shutter) and it also has the 2-stop ND filter in there. I can sync all the way to 1/2000 second with Alien Bees B400 flash (should use a more powerful one in the future, however).

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  2. Jesper Ek

    Lots of converters and large nd filters does the trick.

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  3. Greg Krycinski

    …and that is why we love Fuji’s X100 series, 3 stop ND filter at the push of a button + high speed sync. You can shoot at f2 all day long ;)

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  4. Barry Cunningham

    Of course, besides letting your blur your background they also darken it.
    That’s great if that’s what you want. But, it is another set of tradeoffs.

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  5. Robert Lüthje

    I personally always use ND Filters when I’m filming around noon, so I don’t have to stop down to apertures like f/8 or f/11 and lose the cinematic depth-of-field.
    For me, they’re also great when you’re photographing architecture at daylight and don’t want any persons in your photo.
    Thanks for sharing!

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  6. Nick Viton

    ND filters are cool and all, but I find my pictures with ND filter aren’t as sharp. If a camera with an AA filter is apparently less sharp than one without, then imagine what an ND filter takes away in terms of sharpness. And there’s always that signature ND filter colour cast. Nonetheless, the DOF you get when using them in conjuction with strobes is pretty rad.

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    • Stan Rogers

      That makes as close to zero sense as logically possible. There’s a HUGE difference between an AA, or optical low-pass, filter (which is something introduced to DELIBERATELY blur the image in a controlled fashion at the sensor) and an ND filter. Yes, there are bad filters, and ways you can use even the best filters to ensure bad results, but a good (optically flat), well-coated filter — used with care — should have no ill effect that doesn’t take an optical bench test to discern. In the meantime, your need for “purity” is preventing you from taking entire classes of pictures.

      By the way, there are still extraneous elements in your image path: microlenses, colour filter arrays (unless you are using a Foveon or a dedicated/converted B&W/IR/UV camera, and any of the latter will need you to introduce selective filtration in front of the lens), even freakin’ wires (okay, chip-surface conductor runs, unless you’re using a BSI sensor). Mellow out on the photo-forum pseudo-tech and do what you need to do to take the pictures you want to take.

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    • Nick Viton

      You don’t have to take my word for it Stan. Look at the sample pictures above. Do they look sharp to you?

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    • Stan Rogers

      Try it yourself (and use a freakin’ hood, preferably a compendium). Look, I’ve been shooting for more than 40 years, much of that professionally, and most of that time involved acetate and filters (colour correction, contrast correction, neutral density, both solid and grad, polarizers, band-blocks — the whole gamut). Digital has only changed the need for (most) colour correction. I can assure you that good filters, properly used, will have a net-positive effect on your photographs that FAR exceeds anything you can get by trying to avoid appropriate filtration, and that you’d literally have to resort to a test bench to see any degradation.

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  7. Brandon Dewey

    ND Filters also work if you “HAVE” to shoot at noon and your shutter speed is max out, ISO is already as low as it will go but your image is still over exposed. Instead of changing your aperture use an ND filter.

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