A Guide to Shooting Dreamy Landscapes with a Variable ND

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Using a variable ND8-128 is like waving a magic wand. Convert harsh light into soft pastel colours. Shoot at f/2.8 directly into the sun and avoid maxing out your shutter speed. Turn waves into wisps. Magic.

Words and Photography by Caitlin Fullam

If I had to use one word to describe my landscape photography it would be dreamy. I aim to create a feeling with my images rather than produce the most realistic photo possible.  

Though I often rely on post processing to create dreaminess, lately I’ve been trying to make more of that soft, pastel, nostalgic look happen in-camera. This typically limits me to shooting at golden and blue hour, but with a big road trip along California’s coast coming up, I decided to test out a neutral density filter in hopes of making better use of that harsh midday light. Gobe’s Variable ND8-128 seemed like a perfect option for my travels since it can cut out 3-7 f-stops of light in one small filter.

Shot with a Canon 6D camera, a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 24mm, and a Gobe Variable ND8-128 filter at ND8.

The filter gave my photos an undeniably soft quality during daylight; the bright blue sky became a muted light blue.”

Handheld Softness, During High Noon

Being a bit of a lens filter noob, I thought I would only use the filter during specific conditions, such as to create long exposures using a tripod. As it turned out, I preferred keeping it on my lens all day most days. The filter gave my photos an undeniably soft quality during daylight; the bright blue sky became a muted light blue. I quickly became hooked on these high-noon creamy colours, and I noticed that ND8-16 were my preferred dots along the ring for daytime. They cut out just enough light while still allowing me to have a quick enough shutter speed to freeze water splashes and other movements.

It felt like for once I wasn’t as beholden to the actual natural lighting conditions.”

Variability is Key

Though I’ve never tried a fixed ND filter, I found the variability of this ND8-128 very useful. With a quick twist I could change a scene dramatically and this kind of control led to more creative freedom. It felt like for once I wasn’t as beholden to the actual natural lighting conditions. I could decide what kind of light my camera got to see, and play with different settings from long exposures at a heavily darkened ND128 to only slightly less light at ND8 and everything in between.

Shot with a Canon 6D camera, a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at 70mm, and a Gobe Variable ND8-128 filter at ND8.

Shooting Into the Sun

I’m part of that newer breed of landscape photographer who likes to shoot with wide apertures in order to create more atmosphere for a soft, dreamy feel. During bright light, this can be a challenge since my shutter speed will often max out, especially when I’m in a super bright place like the beach where the water reflects the sun.

This is where the variable ND really shines for me. Twisting it onto my lens suddenly opens a backdoor, giving my camera the ability to use slower shutter speeds. It feels like magic. I can’t believe it’s taken me so many years to discover this tool and I know it will be a constant in my camera bag from now on.

It’s almost like changing the time of day without needing to wait for true golden hour.”

Smoothing Textures

Of course I had to dabble in some long exposure photography now that I have the perfect tool in my arsenal. My favourite long exposure shot from this trip is of Shark Fin Cove, in Davenport, where the enormous waves were crashing against the shore in an absolute fury. Though it was still a few hours till sunset, to my amazement, I was able to shoot an 8 second shutter speed, slow enough to smooth those choppy waves into dreamy wisps. ND128 for the win.

Shot with a Canon 6D camera, a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 24mm, and a Gobe Variable ND8-128 filter at ND128.

I know it will be a constant in my camera bag from now on.”

Long Exposure Tips

Now that I was getting into long exposures, I wanted to experiment with them during my day at Point Reyes Seashore. Unfortunately the weather had other plans and a ranger told me wind gusts were being reported up to 68mph. I could barely stand up straight, let alone set up a tripod! One sneaky workaround I found is to set up the tripod on the passenger seat of the car and shoot out the window. It didn’t work every time since the car can shake in the wind, but in between gusts I was able to snag some cleaner shots. Definitely worth a try in high winds. 

The photo below is a composite of two images, one taken with at ND128 to smooth the choppy water, and one taken without the ND filter in order to have a fast shutter speed for a sharp self portrait in the wind. 

Both composite images shot with a Canon 6D camera, a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 70mm, and one image with a Gobe Variable ND8-128 at ND128.

Final Words of Wisdom

Now that I’m no longer an ND novice, I’m excited to get more experimental with this newfangled piece of magic. Here are a few parting words of wisdom:

1. Twist the filter to various stops and figure out which shutter speed looks best in a given situation – it may not be what you think from the outset! 

2. Lens cloths are your best friend, especially since adding filters means more glass.

3. If you like softer colours like me, try popping it over your lens during those scary daylight hours. It’s almost like changing the time of day without needing to wait for true golden hour.

You can shop Gobe’s Variable ND8-128 here. 

Shot with a Canon 6D camera, a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 70mm, and a Gobe Variable ND8-128 filter at ND8.

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Caitlin Fullam

Caitlin is a travel and outdoor lifestyle photographer living in Boulder, Colorado. She inspires wanderlust and tells stories of awe through creative self portraiture and whimsical dreamscapes.