The partial eclipse of the Sun, as seen from Europe, was not spectacular, but allowed me to test how stacking Manfrotto’s ND filters works to get the job done.
Viewing the Great American Eclipse from Europe was not the unique event millions of people experienced from the West to the East coast of the United States of America, but it had to be approached with the same caution, meaning you had to use special protective filters to look directly at the Sun, and also to photograph it.
Photographers have two – most common – ways to approach the problem: either using a special solar filter over the lens, or using Neutral Density filters. Using NDs may well be the most logic choice for photographers, but there is a problem with that option, as most NDs people buy and use do not offer the needed level of light reduction, meaning you can damage your sensor and, if you look through the viewfinder of a DSLR camera, your eyes.
In fact, most people buy either a 3 or 6 stop ND filter, which are not enough to point your camera directly at the sun. Many ND filters, especially those bought because they are a bargain, also have a problem: they tend to have a colour cast, one that gets worst with stronger filters. Although sometimes this can be corrected at the editing stage of the image, it is better to have a ND filter that is really neutral, or at least as close as possible to neutral.
I’ve used a nine stop ND filter from Breakthrough Photography for my regular long exposures, and one aspect of the Breakthrough Photography filter that I like much is its neutrality, meaning I can use a filter that really offers a strong reduction of light and have no colour cast. Still, this filter on its own is not enough to photograph an eclipse, so you need to find another solution.
While some people doubt that the light from the Sun will damage a sensor (something I don’t want to try, anyway), there is no doubt that looking at the Sun, directly or through your viewfinder, can damage your eyes. So, even a nine of 10 stop ND filter is not enough, especially while the Sun is high in the sky. There are some NDs in the market that claim to be for solar photography, but most people point to one filter from Hoya, the ProND-100000 Neutral Density 5.0 Solar Filter, which has 16 3/5 stops of light reduction, and that’s the one photographers were after for this total solar eclipse.
The Hoya filter offers the needed level of protection – as its name implies – but created a problem to many photographers. Browsing through online forums about the eclipse I found people suggesting they were going to give up photographing the eclipse because they could not justify spending money on a filter for a single event. What some seem to forget is that ND filters are no longer limited to the values we’ve grown used to – 3x, 6x and 9x – but are going all the way up to 15x, as the Lee Super Stopper demonstrates. I believe this happens because there is a market for such filters. Still, investing in a filter you don’t use much is not a very good idea, but thanks to technology, there are other ways to achieve good results, and that’s what I share in this article.
I’ve used Manfrotto ND filters for a while now, and tried them for some of my photography projects associated with long exposure times. Manfrotto offers three filters, the ND8 (3 stops) ND64 (6 stops) and ND500 (9 stops) a series I think every photographer should own, because they allow complete control over exposure and can be used for creative purposes. Usually, the 3x filter is pointed as the one for many landscape photographers, while the 6x is the filter of choice, apparently, for people wanting to create silky seascapes at the end of day. The 9x filter is mostly pointed to as something for very special situations.
As I like to explore long exposures during the day, for my photography, I’ve used the 9x filter many times, and I must say it is the one I will pick up for a lot of my daylight photography, as it allows me to go to extremes in terms of either wide apertures or long shutter speeds. Now, one thing we can do with modern ND filters, like those from Manfrotto, is stack them, something I would not dream of doing years ago, because of the colour cast usually associated with ND filters.
The Manfrotto ND filters are, in practical terms, almost neutral, so it is easy to stack them and still get results that are editable without much trouble. I’ve used them this way in different types of situations, and I like the results, so I can suggest them as a viable choice. If you want to try your hand at long exposure techniques, then buying the whole family of Manfrotto NDs is a good option. Although I know the investment on three filters is high, I believe it is a more logic option that to go for a 16 or 18x filter, which offers you lots of light reduction, but is limited, in terms of creativity.
Stacking Manfrotto’s ND filters, I was able to go all the way up to 18 stops (3x+6x+9x) without having problems with colour cast, and if that has worked for my long exposures it should work for the eclipse of the Sun. In fact it does, and in the end I felt that using only the ND500 and ND64 was enough, as it offered me 15 stops of light reduction. I also tried to use the 9x ND Manfrotto filter with the Breakthrough Photography 9x ND and it worked, although 18 stops were more than I needed. But I am glad I’ve tried it, because that’s something I had in mind and can use for other subjects.
The eclipse in Europe happened at the end of the day, when the Sun was already setting, meaning the view, from my window, was not very clear, as the light from the Sun travels through the low levels of the atmosphere. A line of clouds in the horizon also meant that the last segment of the eclipse could not be seen, but I had time to capture some images of the partial eclipse (with the Moon covering only 19% of the Sun) and to create a short video of the last moments.
Using the Live View of my DSLR after placing the filters in front of the lens meant I could look at the Sun without problems. And with the sensor protected, I took a series of photos, before moving on to make the video, captured in the last minutes, with the Sun already low on the horizon.
This solution, which can be used for many other subjects, not because of protection, but for extending exposure times, in the case of photography, is the reason why I believe buying this set of three filters is a good option, creatively more dynamic, than buying a single filter. If you don’t want to invest in the whole set, buy at least two, the 3x and 6x, as they can be stacked to give you 9 stops of exposure variation. That’s a lot. And because these Manfrotto filters are practically neutral, you can stack them without problems. If you think you’ll want to photograph the next eclipse of the Sun, then buy the three, as they will offer you the means to capture the event.