Using a Neutral Density filter for beautiful Disney Photos!

By Cory Disbrow on May 8th, 2012   |    Posted in:  Disney Photo Tips   |    8 Comments

Hey gang! For today’s post, I’d like to show how you can use a Neutral Density (ND for short) filter for something other than fireworks at Walt Disney World or Disneyland!

One of my favorite things to do when in the parks is shoot at really big apertures to create beautiful bokeh and shallow depth of field in my images. I have a tendency to get a little trigger happy between f/2 and f/1.4! In my eyes, a portrait of something in the parks with a creamy, buttery, smooth background is just as good as the grand landscapes we love to shoot. But, there is an issue with our cameras when we try to do this during the day. Fast lenses are wonderful for dark rides and when the light outside starts to get low. But, when the sun is out and bright, shooting at f/1.4 can become a problem, since many cameras have a fastest shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second, and in more professional cameras, 1/8000 of a second. What this means is that there is so much light available that the camera wants to expose using a faster shutter than those numbers, but it can’t. So the result is often something that is very overexposed and ugly. Thankfully, there is a quick little trick that we can use. It happens to be one of our go-to tools for shooting fireworks, the ND filter. The Neutral Density filter simply acts like a pair of sunglasses for your lens, and forces the camera to see the light differently and call for a slower shutter speed, making it possible to swirl out the backgrounds and make the shot you want to capture.

But, all those words and no examples means nothing, so here are a few photographs from a morning/afternoon I spent last week at Epcot. All of these shots were taken between f/1.4 and f/2 with the Canon 5D Mark II with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 lens attached, with a .6 ND filter attached to the lens. The light was very bright that day, and all of these shots would have called for at least 1/8000 of a second for a shutter speed, so the ND was a must. Here we go!

Pluto hammin’ it up at World Showcase Promenade

Year of the Dragon in China

Beautiful flowers near the fountains in the France pavilion

The amazing flower bed by Journey Into Imagination

Seating area for Tangierine Cafe

Sleeping Beauty topiary between the UK and France pavilions


So there you have it! A pretty worthwhile use of an ND filter that doesn’t involve huge colorful explosions in the sky! A word of warning though, if you purchase an ND filter, buying a cheap one will more than likely end up making your image quality suffer. Cheap glass going over your nice and well built glass is a no-no! I personally use Tiffen ND filters, both the .6 and .9 depending on the shot. They are a great quality filter and the cost is reasonable. You can purchase them from Amazon by using our Disney Photography Blog link which in return helps us :) The link goes to the main Tiffen search results page because you will need to purchase the filter size that fits your particular lens.

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  1. Scott Thomas Photography   |   May 8, 2012

    Great idea…but what did the shutter speed end up being? 1/2000s?

    • Cory Disbrow   |   May 8, 2012

      Yeah, most of the shots Ended up being 1/1250, 1/2000, or in the really bright light, 1/4000.

  2. andy   |   May 8, 2012

    Do you have a specific ND filter your recommend? Or a price range?

    Also how do you use it with fireworks?

    • Adam Hansen   |   May 8, 2012

      We updated the end of the article with the ND filters that Cory uses along with a link. That should give you a start in finding one that is right for you.

      For fireworks, you can checkout our Fireworks Photography eBook that goes into great details on photographing fireworks using an ND filter (that is how you get photos that are over a minute long).

      We are also working on an article for the blog that goes over the settings for some of the fireworks photos we showcased last week. We will be touching on ND filters for that article also.

  3. laurie   |   May 8, 2012

    I just recently got the Canon SX40, and haven’t had the chance to use it yet at WDW. It has a built-in ND filter. Have you had any experience using those?

  4. Brett Kiger   |   May 13, 2012

    Excellent tip, Cory! As my Disney photo library is starting to grow, I am finding that I really appreciate isolating little details throughout the parks. At first I always saw the parks “wide,” but now I’m really starting to focus on the details. I shot my 30mm at f/1.4 quite a bit on the trip and kept hitting the shutter speed limit, but my ND was the wrong filter size. Time for a new one, or at least a few step up rings. Love these shots and that creamy, colorful bokeh,,,

  5. Bryan   |   Jun 22, 2012

    Cory, do you notice a big difference in the focus area veres the bokeh size when shooting with a crop sensor? I guess it makes sense because the sensor is so much larger in a full frame, but I think if I shot these with my crop at this aperture I wouldn’t get as much in focus.



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