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Up for Discussion – Using Graduated Neutral Density Filters

Recently I was lent some Cokin Z Pro Series filters with the filter kit and I’ve been trying them, and talking about them here.  I know lots of people are bit confused about filters and how to use them and I was thinking of doing  a post on it myself when Adrian. , made a comment and I asked if he would be interested in writing something for us here.  He doesn’t use the Cokin filter systems, so I want to add that the filters I’ve been using have been great, however, no matter what brand of filters you are using much of what Adrian has to say is relevant to you. If you don’t don’t have any, this will help you realise why you need some.  

Using Graduated Neutral Density Filters

There are a few essentials that no landscape photographer should be without. There’s the camera of course and almost as importantly, there’s the tripod. Third on the list of landscape photography essentials is a set of Graduated Neutral Density Filters. Neutral Density filters are also useful although not essential so I’ll be mainly talking about ND Grads in this article suffice to say, neutral density and graduated neutral density filters are your camera’s equivalent of a pair of sunglasses. They cut down the amount of light reaching your camera’s sensor and whenever you cut down the amount of light reaching your camera’s sensor, whether it’s by stopping down the aperture or using a filter, exposure time is affected.

Trebarwith Strand

Neutral density filters cover the whole of your lens and therefore cut down the light hitting the whole of the sensor.  These are useful in extending exposure times allowing you to achieve that lovely silky water effect in rivers and waterfalls.  These come in a variety of strengths right up to the now very popular 10 stop Neutral Density Filters.  These allow just a tiny fraction of available light to enter the camera allowing you extend exposure times significantly allowing you flatten and smooth the ocean or achieve the silky, smoky water effect even in bright sunshine.  These 10 stop filters are so dark it’s not possible to see through them so it’s necessary to compose your shot and focus before attaching the filter.  Ten stop filters are often used by architectural photographers to simply make people disappear from busy buildings.  All the time people are moving, they will not show up in a long exposure.  There is a lot more I could say about using filters like the Lee Big Stopper but I’ll perhaps save that for another article and get back to my favourite filters of all, the Graduated Neutral Density Filter or ND Grad.

Early MIst After

ND Grads are used to balance exposures. The sunglass effect is graduated such that skies are darkened leaving foregrounds unaffected. One sure fire thing that will let your photographs down from a technical standpoint is blown highlights and lost detail in shadows. These are very basic faults and the easiest ways to avoid them is to pack a set of ND Grads. If you have a bright sky and darker foreground, some of it in shadow, without filters you have two options, expose for the sky and you’re going to lose details in shadows; expose for the foreground and there is a good chance you are going to blow out the highlights in the sky. Strictly speaking you have a third option and that is to use exposure compensation and bracket a series of shots but I’ll get to that.

Camera plus Filter

Once highlights are blown there is nothing in post processing that will allow you to bring them back.  Conversely, modern sensors are very good at garnering every ounce of detail from any scene you are shooting but if your shadows are just too dark, attempts to recover them in post will give you blotchy unattractive results.  You can’t make detail appear that just isn’t there and believe me I’ve tried.  Attempts to do so look very messy indeed.

Lee Hard ND Grads

ND filters normally come in sets of 3.  The filters are labelled differently depending on manufacturer but a set will usually allow for a 1, 2 or 3 stop exposure compensation.  The table below relates to both ND and ND graduated filters.

table

It’s important to note I think at this point that it’s worth spending a few pounds on these filters and avoiding the cheaper options you see on websites like Amazon. You can easily find a set of ND Grads for under a tenner if you look but anything you put in front of your lens will degrade your image. Why spend hundreds of pounds on a decent lens and then put a cheap piece of glass or worse, plastic, in front of it. These filters will last a lifetime if treated well so it’s worth saving a little before taking the plunge and buying a set.

number 10

I use Lee filters because I think they are arguably the best and I have no affiliation with Lee. Hitech filters are right up there however and I’m hoping to put that to the test. Both of these companies offer 100mm filters with holder systems. When using my Nikkor 14-24mm lens, I use the Lee Super Wide system and 150mm filters. The bigger sizes really come into their own if you’re using wide angle lenses. Cokin Z-Pro filters are also 100mm I believe but I have no experience or knowledge of those. The first set of filters I had were of the smaller Cokin variety and I used to have to crop my wide angled shots rather defeating the object This was because the edge of the filters were picked up by my Nikkor 24–70mm lens at 24mm but if you’re on a budget, these are an ideal choice, certainly to get you started.

Another point to be made in favour of spending a few pounds or dollars is that Neutral Density Filters and ND Grads are so called because they have a neutral impact on the colour of your images, or at least they are supposed to. Not all ND and ND grad filters are created equally. Colour cast can be a real issue with cheaper filters and even with the more expensive ones when you get up to 10 stops. It can be corrected, using colour balance tools, but it’s best to try and keep things truly neutral from the start.

Bedruthan Steps

For most landscape shots, I like to keep my aperture constant at f/11 for maximum depth of field.  You need to choose the right ND Grad to get the right effect.  The sky is naturally brighter than the ground so you want to keep it that way.  To achieve the most natural looking result you need to choose the right ND Grad to correct exposure difference to within 1 stop.

Therefore, if I point my camera at the sky, not the sun, and take a light reading and my light meter suggests a shutter speed of 1/200sec and I then point my camera at the foreground and take another light meter reading and my light meter suggests that to properly expose the foreground I need a shutter speed of 1/125 sec. This would be two stops and I would choose my 1 stop filter which would be my 0.3.

I would of course have the option of keeping my shutter speed the same at 1/200 sec. and opening the aperture from f/11 to f/9…  This would still be two stops and I would still need my .03 filter to even the exposure.

Likewise, if my light meter suggested that to properly expose the sky at f/11, I would need a shutter speed of 1/250 sec. and to properly expose the foreground I would need a shutter speed of 1/125 sec. this would equate to three stops.  I would therefore use my 2 stop .06 filter to darken the sky enough for me to shoot at f/11 and 1/125 sec. This would ensure I wouldn’t lose any details in the shadows and highlights wouldn’t be blown out in the sky.  A balanced exposure in other words.

Wheal Coates from Chapel Porth

ND Graduated filters, as well as coming in different strengths as it were, they also come in hard and soft varieties.  The hard and soft relates to the graduation between the darker glass and the lighter.  Soft filters have a much more gradual division between the two halves.  My recommendation would be to buy a set of hard ND Grads.  It may be tempting to go for soft thinking this will allow for easier blending of the filter effect.  The problem with soft grads is that often times you end up pushing the filter so far down the filter holder it’s nearly out the other side to darken a bright horizon.  Having darkened the sky above the horizon sufficiently, because you’ve pushed the filter in so far, you end up with the area below the horizon being adversely affected by the filter.

The graduation on a hard ND Grad is not as stark as it at first might appear. You’re not going to see a hard line across your horizon unless of course, you set it too high but this is less likely because the hard edge also makes it much easier to set the filter in the right place. It’s not always easy to see through the lens, especially with the 0.3 filter, exactly where you need to set the filter. It soon becomes evident when you try and process the picture if you’ve set it in the wrong place however. A dark smudge right across your landscape does not look good. A dark sky with a bright strip just above the horizon doesn’t look good either but you’ll soon get the hang of setting the filter in the right place.

1AT_0689

I had hoped to show some ‘with filter’ and ‘without filter’ photos to demonstrate just how effective these filters are in properly balancing an exposure but we have had thick fog in Cornwall for the last five days and with no let-up in sight, I’ve run up against my deadline for this article but please, take my word for it; with a set of these filters in your kit bag, you’ll be able to tackle shots you just might not be able to manage otherwise without under or over exposing one part of the picture or other.

On this note, I’ll come back to bracketing as another way to balance awkward exposures.  Bracketing can be very effective and when weather conditions make the use of filters awkward, I use this technique myself.  But, bracketing is going to give you a whole lot of work to do in post that you just won’t have to do if you use filters.  You can use programs like Photomatrix to make light work of merging bracketed shots but in my experience, this is difficult to do without getting an HDR like effect, even when using the ‘exposure blending’ rather than the ‘HDR’ option within Photomatrix.  Filters are the best, and in terms of workflow, by far the most efficient option in my opinion.

St Michael's Mount

As well as balancing exposures, you can also use a darker ND Grad than your light meter suggests for creative effect.  I’ve peppered this article with photos I’ve taken where the use of a filter was essential in order to get a proper exposure and others where I’ve used a darker filter than was necessary to create drama or to otherwise enhance the sky.

With a decent set of filters and with these pointers in hand, the best advice I can give is to get out there, take photographs and experiment.  For the added effort of a few minutes setting up, you’ll be amply rewarded, your landscape photographs will improve enormously and you’re going to look very professional to boot.

I would like to thank Adrian/Chillbrook for writing this informative post for us.  He is also going to answer any questions you might have.  Don’t forget to go and take a look at his blog , and check out his amazing seascapes that he takes along the Cornwell coast, they are stunning.

I am going to put his wonderful images into a gallery for you now as well.

68 Comments
  1. Wonderful post! I agree a definite must have for any landscape photographer.

    Tamara

    October 31, 2014
    • Thank you very much Tamara! 🙂

      October 31, 2014
  2. The tech is above my level of skill, the equipment beyond my pay-grade, but I do write, and no article this well-written should be sitting here without any comments, so in that regard, I offer that which I have to offer. Your work is spectacular, and I am very glad that I chose to follow your Blog. Keep up the great work, and just so you know, I am learning more than I would have thought possible – and finding ways to adapt some of it to methods I can afford – and I look forward to each new post. Take care, and see you soon.

    October 31, 2014
    • Thank you Chris! Appreciate that very much!

      October 31, 2014
  3. Great information on Graduated ND – a staple from the days of film that is still useful in the digital kit…

    October 31, 2014
    • Thank you Robert! Very useful indeed!

      October 31, 2014
  4. Thanks for posting this article. Very informative. I am looking for a set myself and have been looking into the Lee filters. They seem to be one of the best brands out there.

    October 31, 2014
    • They are expensive but I agree, definitely one of the best. Thanks for your comment!

      October 31, 2014
  5. Jeezz!! Amazing pictures Adrian, especially the one with the rainbow!

    I bought a reasonably cheap filter from Hoya, but i must say that i started lowbudget anyway. So i can see what you’re saying with the expensive lenses, you should not save money on the filter, but for me it’s all about learning to work with the material first.

    Perhaps one day i’ll make the step and buy a more expensive camera and lenses, but for now it’s fun to play with manual focus – since my AF is broken.

    Great info on using the ND, i’ll read this one some more when i’m more concentrated lol

    Cheers!

    October 31, 2014
    • Thank you Pieter! There’s absolutely no harm in giving things a go with one of the cheaper options, just not too cheap! 😉

      October 31, 2014
  6. Beautiful images ….great information …thank you both :))

    October 31, 2014
  7. wow!!!! stunning post and I have never use filter before it make me want to try my hand on these filter and I will have to save up for the better one to get a better effect on my landscape photos.
    thanks for this post……

    October 31, 2014
    • Thank you very much Cattan! Definitely worth saving a bit and getting the best you can afford!

      October 31, 2014
  8. Thanks Leanne and Adrian. Very useful post which confirms for me it is time to add this to the tool kit. 3 ND Grads and a Big Stopper coming up soon! I suspect this will transform what I do☺️ Chris

    October 31, 2014
    • Thank you Chris! I think you’ll enjoy the effects very much!

      October 31, 2014
  9. Great article. Another thing to think about…. Maybe after I’ve trained myself for tripod use.

    October 31, 2014
    • A tripod is definitely a good place to start! Thanks for your comment! 🙂

      October 31, 2014
  10. Very nice discussion on the value of neutral density filters, with good example images. Thanks!

    October 31, 2014
    • Thank you Larry! Much appreciated! 🙂

      October 31, 2014
  11. I love my variable ND filter, Leanne!

    October 31, 2014
    • That’s great to hear Robyn, I’m sure I am going to love them too.

      October 31, 2014
  12. Rist #

    it’s amazing picture!

    October 31, 2014
  13. Fantastic post! I just spent a few days in San Francisco shooting landscapes and wish I had had your post to read before going. I’m actually going to print it off and put it in my photo bag to have as a reference until I’m able to understand the ins-and-outs on my own. Thanks, Adrian and Leanne!

    October 31, 2014
  14. Your articles are absolutely brilliant. I have just started using a good camera and am not really good at technicality and am a real beginner but you have a way of explaining things that makes it easy to understand. Besides your photographs are breathtaking. I’m a complete fan. 🙂

    October 31, 2014
    • Thank you so much. That’s very kind and very nice to hear! I’m glad you found this easy to follow. When I started out, I was very confused by the different numbering systems and some of the sites I visited seemed to make things very much more complicated than they needed to be. I wanted to demystify filters as much as possible as they are such useful tools and really very accessible.

      November 1, 2014
      • Job done! 🙂 I’m going to the Salon de la photo in Paris this friday, and try to get my hands on a filter to start learning. Your advice will be very useful. Thanks again!

        November 13, 2014
      • You’re very welcome! 🙂

        November 14, 2014
  15. poppytump #

    A brilliant article/tutorial which will , once put into practice as with most new learning experiences make sense and more importantly will bring a dimension to your landscape photography you’ll be wanting to see either for the creative side , or for a balancing of the light conditions.
    Rising for those dawn shots armed with your kit plus filters, particularly if you’ve never had the incentive to try it before will have you wearing a big smile seeing the results .
    I’m still learning heaps about photography cameras and everything … I’ve some ND Grad filters and recently added the Lee Big Stopper . It is serious fun experimenting with it .. and a need to be patient to see the results on the LCD screen… as Adrian says it’s minutes and not seconds for exposure at times .
    Thanks to ChillB and Leanne 🙂

    October 31, 2014
    • Thank you Poppy! I know you’ve had some fabulous results with your filters and those dawn shoots, as you say, can be a little taxing but when you see the results, it makes it all worthwhile. I really appreciate your comment.. 🙂

      November 1, 2014
  16. Thank you so much, Adrian and Leanne. This is exceptionally well written post, very clear and easy to understand.

    October 31, 2014
    • I’m glad you found it easy to follow. Thank you! 🙂

      November 1, 2014
  17. vastlycurious.com #

    How simply beautiful!

    November 1, 2014
    • Thank you so much! 🙂

      November 1, 2014
  18. Great article and shots. Filter wise, I’ve only ever played about with a circular polariser, but it sounds like these would be more useful.

    November 1, 2014
    • Thank you Stevie! A polariser can be useful but I think a set of ND Grads are definitely more so. You can of course use your polariser with your graduated filters. This is something I have done many times.

      November 1, 2014
  19. Thank you so much. That’s very kind and very nice to hear! I’m glad you found this easy to follow. When I started out, I was very confused by the different numbering systems and some of the sites I visited seemed to make things very much more complicated than they needed to be. I wanted to demystify filters as much as possible as they are such useful tools and really very accessible.

    November 1, 2014
  20. Wow this is so full of information! I’ve only tried long exposures a couple of times. For some reason I could never get things dark enough and I have a 9 stop filter and I covered my lens cap. My camera’s f stop only goes into the 20’s though and I’m wondering if that’s why. They are gorgeous photos! I can imagine what you could do here in SF with those filters. 🙂

    November 1, 2014
    • It sounds like you need to set your camera to ‘bulb’ Laura. This setting is best used with a remote control on which you can set a time. You can get these very cheaply from Amazon. On the bulb setting, when you press the shutter or your timer opens the sutter, it will stay open for as long as you are pressing the shutter or until the timer runs out. This way you can keep your shutter open for mintues at a time. Most cameras only go to 30 seconds, beyond that you use the bulb setting. Take a look at your manual. It should explain the bulb setting in more detail. Thank you for your comment and the best of luck! 🙂

      November 1, 2014
      • Well I did try bulb but it still was too light. I could barely get 10 seconds. Of course this was a long time ago and I wasn’t as knowledgable about the camera. I’ll give a whirl again sometime soon and see what I come up with. Thanks so much for the tips.

        November 1, 2014
    • I meant to say Laura it would be wonderful to give the tilers a try over there in SF one of these days, Such stunning scenery to capture. I hope you can get the filters working for you. 🙂

      November 2, 2014
      • Thank you Chillbrook. Well we got over there but I could not find my viewfinder cap anywhere. I tried blue tape to cover the finder but it didn’t work. I took other pics though and it’s close so I can always go back once my new viewfinder cap arrives that I just purchased on ebay. 🙂

        November 2, 2014
  21. You did get some dramatic results. I’ve recently purchased Sing-Ray Vari ND filter and am looking forward to testing the new additions.

    November 1, 2014
    • Thank you very much! Good luck with your new filter!

      November 1, 2014
  22. those clouds and the light are fantastic!! I especially love the clouds over the trees and the light in that!

    November 1, 2014
    • Thank you very much! That was one of those quite rare occasions when the light is like that. 🙂

      November 1, 2014
  23. Wow these shots are truly inspiring, great info on filters I have never used them before, but I think I’ll be looking at getting a set. I must admit most of my photos are taken from my phone on auto and play around with after filters…..but I am heading overseas soon and would love to bring out images like these. I think its time to get a real camera again and maybe look at some filters too

    November 2, 2014
    • They are good to have as part of your kit Julie, and I will certainly be working on getting myself some as well. The phone is good, but it does struggle in certain conditions. I love what my DSLR can do, though there are also some fantastic point and shoot cameras out there as well. Good luck with it, overseas, how wonderful, I’m hoping to go OS next year too. Thanks

      November 2, 2014
      • I have actually just now ordered some filters, and dug out the DSLR, will be playing with some snazzy filters soon 🙂

        November 3, 2014
      • What did you order Julie? What brand? Would love to know how you go with them.

        November 3, 2014
      • I bought some Hoya UV lenses, I also ordered Hoya 52mm ND variable. I figured I would try a variable to start with. I can always get individual ones at a later stage. I also bought a new Nikon dslr too. My old camera just wasn’t cutting it

        November 3, 2014
      • You will have to let me know what you think of them Julie. What camera did you order? I got a parcel from Nikon this morning, 3 lenses, but not mine to keep, they lent them to me for my workshops this weekend. They sent the 35mm, a 10-24mm and a 40mm macro.

        November 3, 2014
      • I got a d5300 with a 18-55mm & a 50mm 1.8 macro. Where do you run your workshops I’d love to do one

        November 3, 2014
      • Wonderful Julie, you will have so much fun. I am running the workshops up in the Mallee, I’ve been thinking running some down here, but won’t be until next year. Have you seen the Social Snappers, they might be perfect for you. http://socialsnappers.com/, check them out and let me know what you think?

        November 3, 2014
      • Great thanks. I have checked them out. I might sign up for one

        November 3, 2014
      • They are great, I run them Julie, so it would great if you could come along to some.

        November 3, 2014
      • Ok cool. Lol xmas sounds like fun

        November 3, 2014
      • I think it is going to be, I love photographing the city at night, and Christmas is even more fun.

        November 3, 2014
  24. This a very late comment, of course:(. Still, thank you Leanne for exploring a variety of topics that are important for every “budding” photographer. I really learn a lot from your discussions/introductions. Thanks again!

    November 4, 2014
    • Never too late Svetlana, I learn a lot from these as well, it is wonderful. Even more so when I hear that other people like them as well.

      November 4, 2014
  25. Superb article, Adrian. It’s about time I invested in a set of ND Grads and this article has given me the final push to think seriously about them and when they might be useful in the images I tend to take.

    November 5, 2014
    • You might need to do that Andy, I am really enjoying using them.

      November 5, 2014
  26. Almost immediately after getting my first Nikon DSLR I had to go out and get an ND filter as I’ve always been drawn to the long exposures of water. After doing some shots of sunrises and sunsets and trying HDR I’ve always wanted to get a set of ND grad filters as well. So needless to say, that’s the next thing on my list is the LEE ND grads. I also want to pick up the Big Stopper and Little stopper. Another thing I have on my list are the Singh-Ray Mor-Slo ND 15-stop and 20-stop filters as I would like to do some long exposures with clouds during the day for some interesting high contrast monochrome photos without having to stack filters. Thanks for the great article!

    November 18, 2014
    • Sounds like you have lots of plans Justin, I look forward to seeing the results when you get them.
      We can’t get the Singh-Ray filters here, and the Lee ones are very hard to get.

      November 18, 2014
      • Lee used to be very difficult for me to find but now there are all sorts of kits available on amazon.

        November 18, 2014
      • Doesn’t help with us the postage is SSSOOOOOOO expensive to Australia now from the US, very suss.

        November 18, 2014

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