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!
Images captured via screen grab.