When I first started getting into photography I always wondered how some photographers took these beautifully surreal shots where everything seemed too beautiful to be real; The ocean was smooth, the sky looked like it was moving, and the colors were almost unrealistic. I ended up finding out that the answer is long exposures. Sounds simple, right?
I immediately ran out with my camera, found a beautiful spot overlooking the George Washington bridge in New York, and went to set up my camera; ISO set to 100, aperture to f/11.0, shutter speed to 30 seconds. The picture was as white as this background. It turns out that you cant just set up a long exposure when it's too bright out. All you're doing is letting in a lot of light for a long time. To get the shots I wanted to capture, I need to let in a little light over a long time, but how do I do that when it's a bright sunny day? The answer to that is also simple: Use a ND (Neutral Density) filter.
A ND filter reduces how much light hits the sensor. It comes in many different shades, colors, and variations. I always carry with me a pack of 3 filters. One that reduces the light intensity by 3 stops, one by 10 stops, and one graduated filter that reduces the top half by 3 stops. Using any of these filters allow me to slow my shutter speed down. How much depends on which filter I use.
The way I shoot may sound a bit dumb, but it works for me, and saves me from having to do calculations while holding all of my gear. I set up my camera, think about how long of a shutter speed I want (depends on what I am shooting), and try out different filters until one gets me in my shutter speed range. If you have a way of exposing your sensor for longer than your camera can by itself, you can use LEE Filter's iOS/Android app to calculate exactly how long you'll need the expose your sensor for. I just purchased Triggertrap Mobile which let's my phone control my shutter speed beyond what my camera is capable of by itself. I am planning on doing some hour long night shots just for fun.
So what's this about a graduated filter? A graduated filter reduces light intensity on one half of the filter before transitioning to clear glass. If you try to capture the sunset without a filter you will notice that either the sky is blown out while the ocean looks great or the sunset looks great, but the ocean is too dark. A graduated filter would let you darken from the horizon up so your final shot has the sky and the ocean below it perfectly exposed.
Graduated filters come in handy anytime you take a shot without a filter only to find that part of your photo is completely blown out. Graduated filters are available with hard of soft transitions. A soft transition is useful when the horizon is not a straight line; a mountain range with a bright, beautiful sky above it. Using a soft graduated filter in this instance would let the light intensity slowly decrease as it goes up the mountain instead of being a hard line that goes across the mountain.
If you're looking for a filter recommendation, I would go with LEE Filter's 100mm system. They are as good as it gets when it comes to photography filters. I prefer the 100mm system over screw on lens filters because the 100mm system only requires one adapter to go from any lens to the lock on adapter. In other words you can change your lens, camera, etc and you will only need to buy the one adapter instead of a whole new screw on lens filter system. I have no affiliation with LEE Filters nor is this a sponsored post. I have been using them for years now and love them.