graduated neutral density filters

Graduated Neutral Density Filters 101

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Have you ever taken a landscape photo only to be disappointed at how washed out the sky looks or how the foreground is underexposed? While you might not have a problem taking a good landscape photo during a blue sky with little shadow around the same can’t be said when there is a lot of contrast present, such as during a sunset or a sunrise.

This happens because the dynamic range modern camera sensors can handle falls way short of what the human eye can see. For example, during a sunset, the human eye has no problem clearly seeing the bright sky (which looks vivid) and the foreground. You can also easily make out the bark of a tree while there is a bright sky behind the tree. A camera sensor cannot (yet) handle the dynamic range of light present in these situations. If you try and take a photo of these you’ll either get a washed out sky and a developed foreground or a vivid sky and a silhouetted foreground.

All is not lost, however. You can fix the problem.

Below is a sunset photo I took with a 2 stop soft grad stacked with a 2 stop hard grad:

huangshan, china sunset by me

There’s a couple options. You could, for example, delve into the world of HDR photography. It’s free (if you have the camera that supports exposure bracketing, used a tripod, and have the software) and fairly easy. However, HDR  has a certain “look” that some people either like or don’t like. But if complete “realism” or at least the verisimilitude of realism is your goal, then it’s best to pursue the other option: graduated neutral density filters (also called GRAD filters). Grad Filters are one of the best kept secrets of landscape photography out there. Quit frankly, for most situations where you get that beautiful dynamic light that makes landscape photos so appealing, it’s almost impossible to achieve a properly exposed (read: beautiful) photo without the use of grad filters (or HDR though you will get a processed look). So if you don’t have grad filters as part of your landscape kit, you are crippling your landscape photography.

So What are GRAD filters?

These are basically plastic filters that are darker in one section and lighter in another section. The filters are placed over the front of the lens with the darker section of the filter positioned over the brightest section of the photo (usually the sky) while the clear sections are aligned with the less-bright sections of the photo (usually the foreground). The darker sections “hold back” the exposure from anywhere from 1 to 4 stops (and more if you stack grad filters together). This helps to bring a high contrast photo back to a balanced contrast, but with both the sky and foreground balanced. Basically, you can have a vivid sky and a well exposed foreground — no washed out sky and nicely developed foreground.

grad filter before and after

If you are into landscape photos, using Grad filters are pretty much a must. As I’ve stated, you “can” opt to go with HDR photography, but you’ll get photos with an artificial look to them, even if you dial back some of the settings to keep the photos looking realistic. I’m personally not too much of a fan of the surreal landscape photos, which is how bad HDR usually ends up looking. I’m not going to get into a “should you HDR or not” but suffice to say it’s good to have another option.

grad filter images

Types of Grad Filters

There are a number of different grad filters available, each filling a different role. The painful thing about using GRADs is that you need to pretty much have a collection of different ones for different circumstances. There is no “one-size-fits-all” grad filter. Here are the main types of grads.

graduated neutral density filters

Soft Grads

These are the grads you’ll most likely use. They gradient between the dark section and the clear section is subtle, moving from the darkest at the top of the grad to less dark torwards the middle. Soft grads are used when there are tall objects in the photo (i.e. there is NOT a clear gradient between the sky and foreground). For photos with mountains or other objects that jut into the sky, soft grads are the type of grad to use. You can get them in 1 stop, 2 stop, 3 stop, and 4 stop.

soft grad filter

Most landscape photographers will tell you the 2 Stop grad filter will be your most used grad. I find this is true, some of the time. Typically, there will be a 2 to 4 stop lighting difference between the foreground and sky during a sunset. You may find you need a 3 or 4 stop to get a completely balanced foreground and sky during a strong sunset, but for weaker sunsets (yes folks there are different kinds of sunsets), a 2  stop soft grad will probably suffice. For general landscape photos, a 2 stop should be enough to give you a vivid sky and well balanced foreground.

The problem with soft grads is that you sometimes end up with parts you don’t want dark, darker than they would normally be. For example, you might take a landscape photo with a mountain in the backdrop and while the sky might be perfectly exposed and the foreground might be perfectly exposed, the mountain might have half of it darker than it would be “naturally” and half of it lighter. So you have to be careful how you position the grad filter with your composition. You can minimize or alleviate this problem by positioning the Soft Grad filter at an angle (in some compositions) or by adjusting the exposure settings of the camera to minimize this, but there are times when you can’t avoid this problem all together.

Hard Grads

Hard grads are grad filters with half the filter dark and half the filter clear. There is no graduation between the dark and light parts of the filter, as there are with Soft Grads.

These are useful for compositions in which there is a CLEAR horizon visible with not objects breaking the seperation between sky and foreground.  Some examples might be unbroken pictures of the sea or pictures of open plains. For sure, if you take a lot of “ocean/sea” shots, you’ll want to have a Hard Grad Filter with you. There usually won’t be a big difference in contrast between the sky and foreground during the non-magic hours, but you can still use a weaker Hard Grad to bring out that vivid sky. And certainly during the magic hours/twilight, a Hard Grad is a must for a balanced photo.

hard graduated filter

 

For hard grads, a 2 stop or 3 stop will do you just fine. I would say you’ll probably get more use out of a 2 stop for most situations, though having a 3 or 4 stop will give you more options during strong contrasting lighting situations (say a very powerful sunset).

Reverse Grads

These are special grads that are sort of a cross between a hard grad and a soft grad. The dark part of the filter is smack in the middle of the filter, with the top and bottom sections of the filter clear with the darkest part of the filter right in the middle. The dark part gets lighter as you move from the center towards the ends.

The reverse grad is very useful for sunset/sunrise shots when the sun is RIGHT on the horizon. Since the darkest part of the filter is in the center, you get a better balanced shot with this filter. It’s a great filter to have in your kit if you are a fan of sunset/sunrise photography. You won’t always use this filter for a sunset/sunrise shot, but for those shots where the sun is just touching the horizon, it’s the best filter to have.

I would recommend using a 4 stop Reverse Grad. The reason is that the darkest part of the filter (i.e. the part of the filter that holds light back by 4 stops) will be right smack in the middle of the filter — the area where the sun will be. This means you don’t have to worry about the non-bright parts of the photo getting underexposed (which can happen if you use a hard grad or soft grad).

A Breakdown of Grad Features

Grad Sizes

Typically, there are two sizing options: 4×6 inches (a rectangular shape) and a 4×4 inch square. I highly recommend you go with the 4×6 size because it gives you the flexibility to hand hold the grad, if you need to. You also have more leeway if you want to rotate the filter. The 4×4 size works with the Cokin P filter holder while the 4×6 sizes work with the Cokin Z filter holder or the Lee Filter holders. Of  course, you can simply hold the filter directly against the lens too (I do this).

grad filter sizes

Grad Shapes

Most grad filters will be either square (in the case of the 4×4 size) or rectangular (in the case of a 4×6 size). However, there do exist circular grad filters. Some of these work just like any circular filter would that you screw directly onto your lens. I don’t recommend the circular grad filters that screw onto your lens — you don’t have the flexibility of adjusting the grad to fit your composition! There are also some circular filters that are made to screw into the Cokin filter holder.

Grad Strength

1 Stop — Weak, effect barely noticable

2 Stop — Good for most situations

3 Stop — High contrasting light situations

4 Stop — Very very high contrasting light (rare)

Note that each filter company will attach their own “number” to each grad.

What’s Brand of Grad Filter to Choose?

There are only a handful of choices when it comes to grad filters.  The 4 best companies that produce these filters are:

  1. Singh-Ray
  2. Lee
  3. Hi-Tech
  4. Cokin

The best of the best and the most expensive are Singh-Ray. Expect to pay over 100 bucks for a filter and more for higher stop filters. Lee is a good compromise between quality and price. They are less expensive than Singh-Ray but offer pretty much the same quality that I’ve seen. About 80-100 bucks for a filter. Hi-Tech are you quality with a budget company, so if you don’t have the money for a Singh-Ray or a Lee filter, get Hi-Tech. Cokin are the cheapest and I personally don’t recommend their filters as there does seem to be a magenta cast to the photos because of these filters. You can, however, use the Cokin filter holders to hold your Singh-Ray, Lee, or High Tech filters to your lens, however.

How to Hold the Grad

Two options here: use a filter holder or hand hold.

Use a Filter Holder

Filter holders are big, awkward to use and adjust, but you get the best quality (since you are not touching the lens which creates vibration) and you won’t scratch your filters. Lee offers a filter holder with a bunch of options and Cokin offers a filter holder (4×4 grads used with the Cokin P holder and 4×6 grads with the Cokin Z filter holder). I personally recommend the Lee filter holder because it’s way higher quality than the Cokin filter holders and it has different setups you can use for holding the filters. But if you are on a budget, Cokin Filter holders are way cheaper.

cokin z filter holdergrad filter holderscokin p filter holder

Hand Hold the Filter

This is your most convenient option. You simply compose your picture then hold your filter over the camera while looking through the viewfinder, keeping the darker part of the filter right over the sky. Take your shot, keeping the filter held in the final position you chose. Keep in mind after a while you may introduce small scratches onto your filter which might affect the quality (it takes a LOT  of them to do so, however). You also might introduce some extra vibration into the camera, slightly lowering the image quality. Some people use rubber bands to hold the filter against the camera or some soft putty to eliminate the vibration/scratching issue.

With a Point and Shoot camera…

If you use a point and shoot camera, then you’ll have to hand hold.

With a DSLR without “Live view”…

Follow the hand filter guide

With a DSLR with Live View…

You don’t need to look through the viewfinder. Simply position the grad onto the lens and activate your live view. You will now ‘see’ the final picture as it will look. Live view works great with grad filters because you can “see” your final result without having to take the picture. No need for a bunch of estimation or guess work!

If you want more information about how to use grad filters, we suggest you take a look at our How to Use Grad Filters guide.

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