May Newsletter: How to use a Vari-ND Filter for Waterfall Photography

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April was a whirlwind for me. I was in Florida for the first part of the month both on vacation and then kayaking in the Florida Keys with friends finishing up a three-year kayaking expedition. On the way back from Florida, I swung through the Smoky Mountain National Park, and when I got home, I taught two Winter Spring Photography Workshops. Spring is late in coming this year and as I write this, there is still snow in the yard and the inland lakes are frozen solid. Last year, the lake I live on, Devil Track, was wide open in April. In fact, I had filmed a kayaking video in the Apostle Islands in April last year. Going into May, it still feels like the first part of April.

I heard a rumor that the last time this time of weather happened in the northland was in the 80s, and snow came early that year and it snowed ever month that year. Still, there were signs of spring in April. By the last weekend all the rivers were opening up. During one of my workshops, we watched as the Flute Reed River broke up before our eyes. The change from ice to slush to water amazed me, but I hope that it warms up to normal soon. Memorial Day weekend is coming up, which is the kick off for the summer tourism season in Grand Marais. With that in mind, here are a few activities that I’m doing for free on Memorial Day weekend:

  • Photo Walk, Saturday, 7AM, meet at the U.S. Coast Guard building
  • Slideshow, Exploring Lake Superior by Camera and Kayak, time TBA, place TBA, check the weekly event flyer when it comes out

Using a Vari-ND Effectively for Waterfall Photography

Cascades Of the Cascade

Purchase this print here.

A variable ND filter is a filter that changes darkness as you spin the outer ring. You can use it during the bright parts of the day to help reduce the amount of light that reaches the image sensor. This allows you to do a couple of things:

  1. Use a wider aperture to create a shallower depth of field. This is generally used more by cinematographers.
  2. Slow the shutter down to create motion effects. This is often what fine art photographers use it for.

To use it, you put it on your lens and turn the outer ring. As the ring spins, you’ll see the filter get darker. On wide angle lenses, you can sometimes see an uneven effect (called an X effect), but on telephotos it usually works fine. If you decrease the intensity for wide angle lenses, you can usually get at least 4 stops of light reduction without running into the X effect.  For waterfall photography, the best way to use this is by following these steps:

  • Decide how much depth-of-field (DOF) you need. Usually, you’re going to want a deep DOF, so select an aperture of f/11 to f/16. The more you close down the aperture, the slower the shutter speed. An aperture of f/16 halves the shutter speed that you’d get from f/11. Set your camera for aperture priority, so that you can set the aperture and the shutter speed is changed automagically by the camera.
  • Put your camera on a sturdy tripod and frame the shot.
  • Focus and then lock your focus off.
  • Decide what kind of look you want. This varies a bit based on water speed, but a shutter speed from 1/30th to 1/4th results in some blur, but you can still see definition in the water. The photo to the left is shot at 1/4 of a second. Once you get to about 1 second to 3 seconds, you get a silky waterfall look where the water starts to lose definition. Shutter speeds of 15 second or longer tend to even out the flow and make it look like a solid flow of taffy.
  • Put on the vari-ND and set it to the minimum effect.
  • Look for your shutter speed and watch it while you shift the vari-ND from minimum to maximum until you arrive at the shutter speed that you need to get the effect that you want.

As you use a vari-ND, you’ll start to get a hang of how the water speed affects the look and learn how to adjust the intensity of the ND to get the look you want. Until you can figure that out, shoot multiple shots from the same tripod placement with different ND intensities. When you’re ready to move on, shift the ND filter’s to its weakest intensity.

Choices: Variable ND filters on

Florida Keys Mini Gallery

At the end of March and in April I joined friends in the Florida Keys for a kayaking trip. They were finishing a three-year, 11,700-mile kayaking trip and I was along for the ride. I’ve never paddled in a tropical area before and was absolutely amazed by the sea life that we saw, which included sea turtles, eagle rays, crabs and the highlight for me was seeing a 8-foot nurse shark. Here are a few pictures from kayaking in the Florida Keys. The house shots and details are from Hemingway’s house on Key West or from museums in Key West.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park Mini Gallery

After visiting the Florida Keys, we spent a few days photographing the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Here are a few shots. I’m planning on running a small workshop in the Smokies during fall color this year. Here are the details:

Great Smoky Mountain National Park Fall Photography Workshop

  • When: October 18th to the 20th (This could vary because I’ll be out there for a week, so I’m flexible on this. Midweek will have less traffic.)
  • Time: Dawn to Dusk on all three days. We’ll meet up on the 17th just to talk about the weekend.
  • Where: Great Smoky Mountains National Park (I’m camping, but there are plenty of lodging options in Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg.)
  • How Much: $450 per person.
  • Workshop Size: 2 to 4 people
  • How to register: Email me at or call me 218-370-8351.

Upcoming Photography Workshops

Free Desktop Background Wallpaper

Someone asked for this image for desktop wallpaper, so I’m releasing it for personal use only. Right click the image and select “Save Link as” to save it on your desktop.


Select Images from April

These are a few select images from April. Click the thumbnail to see the images larger. If you can’t see the images in your email, click the link below to go to my website and see the images.

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Showing 3 comments
  • Bob Straka

    Bryan, This comment in your Vari-ND tips is particularly insightful: “Set your camera for aperture priority, so that you can set the aperture and the shutter speed is changed automagically by the camera.” Now I know how the camera works! :-)

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  • […] to write something for folks that can’t make it to my workshops. Last year, I wrote about how to use vari-nd filters for waterfall photography, so this year, I decided to write about how to use solid neutral density filters to do something […]

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