No Neutral Density Filter – No Problem

no neutral density filter no problem

Have you ever looked at those creamy smooth waterfalls and wondered how landscape photographers do that? Perhaps you know how it is achieved in camera, but you just can’t afford to purchase a good quality neutral density filter. The solution to this can be found in a few simple steps in Photoshop and I go through what you need to do get great results in no time at all.

What You Need

Firstly, before I even get on to the equipment you need to do this I have to note that I am, and probably always will be, a fan of trying as best as possible to get things right in camera. Because of this, I am a huge fan of good quality neutral density filters. However, sometimes cost is an issue, especially when starting out, or you may have been caught without your filters. This is when understanding this technique helps.

This list is what I used to create the photo of the pier. It is what I used to get the job done but is by no means an exhaustive list. It is damn near impossible to know about every piece of gear or software, so I have decided to just stick to what I know.

  • Camera – you will need something that allows you to manually set all exposure variables (ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed) as well as the focus.
  • Tripod – Something sturdy. I used a Manfrotto 055 tripod which I have owned for 21 years.
  • Cable release – this helps eliminate any vibrations caused when pressing the shutter release button.
  • Adobe Photoshop (I used both Lightroom and Photoshop but strictly speaking Lightroom isn’t needed to do this.)

Calculating The Number of Photos Needed

Once you have set up your shot and are ready to shoot you need to calculate how many images you require to get the long exposure ‘look’ you would have achieved had you been using a neutral density filter. If you have never used neutral density filters and therefore have no idea how long the exposure should be, then use the above example as a starting point. In that image, I tried to replicate a 20-second exposure.

With your camera set-up into position you need to now manually set your ISO to the cameras base ISO setting, select the desired aperture to achieve the depth of field you need, and now see what shutter speed is needed to give you a correct exposure. In the above image, my ISO was 200 (base ISO for the FujiFilm X100S), my aperture was set to f16, and the corresponding shutter speed needed to get a correct exposure was 1/2 a second. Now, manually set the focus so that both the exposure and focus remain constant in all of the images taken.

No. of Images = Desired Shutter Speed ÷ Actual Shutter Speed

Using the above calculation, and the exposure info we got whilst setting up, we can now determine how many images are needed to replicate the long exposure ‘look’ we are trying to achieve.

No. of Images = 20 seconds ÷ 1/2 second

No of Images = 40 

So, I needed 40 images all shot at 1/2 a second to achieve the ‘look’ of a 20-second exposure once they are merged in Photoshop. 40 images isn’t too bad in the greater scheme of things, but things start to get a little crazy if your initial shutter speed was much faster. Had my initial shutter speed been 1/15 of a second we would have needed 300 images!! Because of this, I would say you need to get your shooting shutter speed as low as possible. I had originally wanted to shoot at f11 but that would have meant taking 40 more images as my shooting shutter speed would have been 1/4 of a second.

no neutral density filter no problem

All 40 images taken

Bringing it All Together

Once you have all your images and are back at your computer you will need to bring them all together into a single image. This really isn’t to difficult as the software does most of the heavy lifting for you. I said earlier that you don’t need Lightroom to do this, but as Lightroom is very much part of my workflow I thought that I would mention how it is done both with and without Lightroom.

Using Lightroom

  • Import your images into Lightroom.
  • Edit the first image in the series (colour balance, brightness, contrast etc…)
  • Apply those edits to the other images in the series
  • Select all the images
  • Send images to Photoshop and open them as layers in a single document (Photo > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop )

Using Photoshop

This first bit is for people who haven’t done the above in Lightroom

  • Open Images in Camera RAW
  • Edit the first image in the series (colour balance, brightness, contrast etc…)
  • Apply those edits to the other images in the series
  • Close Camera RAW
  • Open the RAW files into a single image as Layers (File > Automate > Photomerge)

no neutral density filter no problem

  • In Photomerge select the ‘Auto’ layout option
  • Select your Source Files (RAW images you have just edited)
  • Unselect ALL the options

no neutral density filter no problem

  • Click OK

*Lightroom users can pick-up from here*

  •  Go to the Layers panel and select all of the layers
  • Now convert the selected layers into a Smart Object (Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object)

no neutral density filter no problem

  • Now you need to stack the Smart Object (Layer > Smart Objects >Stack Mode > Mean)

no neutral density filter no problem

  • Your image should now me merged!

Sometimes there may be an issue with merging the images because the camera may have moved slightly between some of the exposures. What you will need to do is align the layers first before creating the Smart Object. Let’s pick up from after opening all the source files as layers into a single file, but before we create the Smart Object:

  • Select all the layers in the Layers Panel
  • Align all the layers (Edit > Auto Align Layers)

no neutral density filter no problem

  • In the Auto Align Layers dialogue select Auto and deselect all other options.

no neutral density filter no problem

Once you have done the above try recreating the Smart Object and see if it blends the images together better than before.

A Note on JPEGS

One extra step that I recommend you add if you shoot jpegs, as opposed to RAW files, it to also set the White balance to one of the manufacturers white balance presets. If you have a grey card then set a custom white balance first using that but whatever you do don’t leave it on Auto White Balance. Auto white balance can often shift quite considerably, especially in the fast-changing conditions of a rising/setting sun. If set to auto white balance you could end up with a lot more editing to do afterwards to get the colours the same across all the images.

If you do need to adjust your colour settings, and you have used a preset or a custom colour setting, then you can edit the first image and apply to all. This is something you can’t do when the camera was set to Auto White Balance and you will have to go through each image individually.

A Note on Cable Releases

A cable release is a must for shooting long exposures. It helps minimize the risk of potentially getting camera shake caused when pushing the shutter release button. Even when using a cable release I still tend to use it in conjunction with the 2-second self-timer so that the cable release activates the timer, two seconds pass, and then the shutter is released. It is just an extra safety measure to try an eliminate camera shake.

Many modern digital cameras now come with a built-in intervalometer. This is a setting which allows you to set the number of images the camera is required to take, as well as the interval between each image. If my camera had had this setting I could have programmed it to shoot 40 frames each with a 1-second delay between shots. Once I pressed the cable release once the camera would have done the rest. Originally designed for time-lapse photography it is perfect for this application as well.


I hope that helps you understand just how to get those dreamy long exposure shots without needing to use a neutral density filter. It really is quite simple to do, and with not much practice most people should be able to get quite good at it.

If there is anything I have missed, or perhaps you have some great additional tips, then please comment below so that I can edit the article if need be.


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  • […] while back I wrote a short article how you could achieve the look of a neutral density filter without actually using one. A lot of […]ReplyCancel

  • Willie07/10/2018 - 17:46

    Why not just the ISO of 3 to 25 like with film? Having an ISO 3 with the sharpness and contrast of Kodak Tech pan in digital would be very nice. At the very least ISO25 like Kodachrome 25. All the high ISO stuff but no usable low ISO settings.ReplyCancel

    • Graham Carruthers07/10/2018 - 17:52

      Completely agree – I’m not a huge fan of the extended ISO settings and suggest people stick to the base ISO of their camera.

      There has been such a push for high ISO performance over the years that we just haven’t seen the same advances at the lower end like we had with film.ReplyCancel

  • Brian05/10/2018 - 01:16

    Thanks for the tutorial Graham!ReplyCancel

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