How to shoot long exposures with Big Stopper filters

First published:
July 18, 2022
July 28, 2023

How to shoot long exposures with Big Stopper filters

First published:
July 18, 2022
July 28, 2023

Image by James Abbott

Discover the magic of 10-stop ND filters for capturing long exposures at any time of the day

Colloquially known as Big Stoppers and Extreme NDs, 10-stop ND filters are popular because of the way they can make a standard exposure ten times longer. This doesn’t sound exciting at the outset, but when you consider the fact that you can shoot 30-second exposures in the middle of a bright day, or exposures minutes long in low light, the creative possibilities quickly become apparent.

An ND filter is a filter that reduces the amount of light that can enter the lens by varying degrees, often in light reducing densities of two, three, four, six, 10 and 15-stops. The weaker strengths do not affect colour, but as soon as you hit six stops and above colour casts are something you’ll have to work with, whether that’s by converting to mono or colour correcting a colour image.

The majority of Big Stopper images are converted to black and white, typically because it’s a way of avoiding correcting the strong colour casts. Of course, black and white is also selected for aesthetic and creative reasons. But if you’re willing to put the effort in to perform a manual white balance adjustment in Lightroom, colour Big Stopper images often stand out from the mono crowd.

Situations where Big Stoppers work well

Smooth water

Long exposure image of sea defences at Felixstowe by Rick Bowdenf/5.6 | 2.0s | ISO 200

Long exposures are ideal for smoothing water to capture it as an ethereal blur. Whether waterfalls, streams or the ebb and flow of the tide, long exposures capture the scene with a sense of calm that may belie the actual conditions of the day. In this image, the exposure has completely smoothed the water, while the sea defences add a solid point of interest that contrasts perfectly against the water.

Streaking clouds

Long Exposure shot of The Shard, London by Shaun Mills |  f/8.0 | 301s | ISO 100

Capturing clouds as streaks in the sky is a great way to add a sense of dynamism to landscapes and cityscapes. This looks most dramatic when the clouds are moving towards the camera because it can create lead-in lines to the scene below, but even clouds moving horizontally through the image can look fantastic when shot with a long exposure. This can be, and often is, combined with water for blur in both areas.

Minimalist compositions

Théoule sur mer, France by Yannick Lefevre -  f/10 | 30s | ISO 200

When shooting minimalist photography, texture and detail in the sky and water can be distracting so long exposures to completely blur this detail is a popular approach. And as long as you have that all-important solid element in the scene, the possibilities are endless. This image takes the minimalist approach one step further because the horizon line has been cloned out to create a continuous background that further emphasises the minimalist nature of the scene.

"...if you’re willing to put the effort in to perform a manual white balance adjustment in Lightroom, colour Big Stopper images often stand out from the mono crowd."
Editor's kit recommendation:

We can't speak highly enough of NiSI ND Lens Grade Optical Glass Filters - beautifully made 10 stop ND filters that are extremely good quality at a price that doesn't break the bank.


1 Find the standard exposure

Set your camera up on a tripod and attach your polariser and any ND grads if these are required to control exposure in the sky area. Set the camera to aperture priority at ISO 100 with the desired aperture selected and apply exposure compensation to lighten or darken the image as required. The correct ‘standard’ exposure here was 1/15sec at f/13. At this stage, make a mental note of the shutter speed. Finally, manually focus to lock focus at the desired distance and avoid autofocus problems that can occur with some cameras when a Big Stopper is attached to the lens.

2 Calculate exposure

If you’re comfortable with manually calculating exposures you can do this in your head. Otherwise, use the LEE Stopper Exposure Guide app or the NiSi Filters – Australia ND Exposure Calculator app. With these, you simply select the filter density and the standard shutter speed from step one and they will calculate an exposure time. These apps also have a built-in timer so if exposures are longer than 30 seconds and you need to shoot in Bulb mode, you can use the timer to time the exposure.

3 Shoot in manual mode

Attach the 10-stop ND and set your camera to manual mode, making sure that ISO and aperture are set to the same values as step one. For shutter speed, set the exposure calculator app shutter speed up to 30 seconds. But for exposures longer than 30 seconds, you’ll need to rotate the shutter speed dial until shutter speed says Bulb. In this mode, you have to use a shutter remote to manually hold the shutter open while you manually time the exposure with a stopwatch or an exposure calculator app.

4 Take your shot

If you’re shooting with a DSLR, cover the viewfinder with the viewfinder cover or a lens cloth to avoid light leaks. Using a cable release or shutter remote, release the shutter. If the exposure is 30 seconds or less you can leave the camera to do its thing. But if you’re shooting in Bulb mode, you’ll need to lock the shutter open using a switch on the remote or by pressing and holding the button on a wireless remote. When the timer is finished, unlock the shutter remote to close the shutter.

Tip: Remove people from cityscapes

Big stoppers are most commonly used to lengthen exposures to capture clouds as streaks in the sky or for silky smooth water. A less common, but equally effective use of them is to lengthen exposure in street scenes to remove people from busy streets. As long as no one is standing still, the long exposure will help to avoid people walking through the scene from being captured.
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