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The Basics of Using ND Grads to Improve Your Landscapes

For this image, I used a 4-stop hard-edged ND grad to hold back the sky.  I also used a 5-stop ND filter to slow the exposure enough to get the water silky smooth. 6 seconds, f/16, ISO 100. EOS 5D Mark III with EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II.

For this image, I used a 4-stop hard-edged ND grad to hold back the sky. I also used a 5-stop ND filter to slow the exposure enough to get the water silky smooth. 6 seconds, f/16, ISO 100. EOS 5D Mark III with EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II.

As I’ve written before, the hardest part of landscape photography is retaining detail in a bright sky with a darker foreground.  There are several ways to deal with this issue. The newest ways involve various post-processing techniques in Photoshop or Lightroom, or using High Dynamic Range photography to blend several exposures together, retaining both shadow and highlight detail from these exposures.  There is nothing wrong with these techniques, and in fact there are times where these may be the best method for keeping detail in the sky. There are issues with both blending and HDR.  HDR tends to have a very processed look to it when not done well, and blending takes time to do well. I am not one who likes to spend much time in Photoshop with my images.  In addition, you still need to be sure that you somehow capture enough information in the sky that you are not simply darkening down white pixels.

On the left is a 2-stop, hard-edged ND grad.  On the right is a soft-edged 2-stop ND grad.

On the left is a 2-stop, hard-edged ND grad. On the right is a soft-edged 2-stop ND grad.

To ensure you’re capturing enough detail, the use of graduated neutral density filters is needed. Graduated Neutral Density Filters (ND grads, for short), are pieces of glass or photographic resin that are half clear, and gradually gets darker as it moves to the other end.  This darkening begins in the middle of the piece of glass.  First of all, these filters come in two forms.  The first of which is a typical screw-on filter that screws onto the front of the lens. While this style is fine for polarizers or skylight filters, it’s problematic for ND grads, because the horizon can’t be repositioned.  The other way these filters come is in 4×5 or 4×6 inch glass or resin.  These pieces of glass are then placed in holders, and the horizon can be repositioned as needed. The biggest advantage these filters have over the screw-in kind is the fact that they allow you freedom of composition to put the horizon where you want.   The most popular holders and systems for this type of filter are the Cokin systems, which come in various sizes, and the Lee system, which typically accepts a 4″ wide filter.  The Cokin systems tend to be a bit cheaper both in terms of cost of the holder and cost of the filters.  The Lee system is a bit more expensive on both fronts.

Once you’ve decided on which system to use, there is then the choice of which ND grads to choose. There are several companies that manufacture these filters, from  Cokin for their systems, to Lee, to to Formatt Hi Tech, to Schneider Optics, among others.  The prices vary, depending on whether you’re buying photographic resin or glass.  Resin filters tend to be cheaper while glass is most expensive. Resin doesn’t break when dropped but can scratch more easily than glass does. ND grads are available in various densities, including  2 stops, 3 stops, and 4 stops.

The selection doesn’t stop there, however. In addition to choosing which density you need, you also must choose how gradual the density is. Graduated neutral density filters come in both hard-edge and soft-edge graduations.   You would use hard-edge filters when you have a clear horizon and no object in the foreground intersects it.  You would use soft-edged filters when there is an object that intersects the horizon.  Soft-edge filters have a much smoother gradation, which allows it to look more natural when used in a photo.  A hard-edged filter will create a more definitive line between light and dark in the image.

These filters have become some of the most important tools in my bag when creating landscape photos. If you’re just starting out, get an inexpensive set of filters- there is no “one size fits all” to ND grads.   However, if you can only start with one, I’d suggest a soft-edged three stop ND grad. The hard-edged can be limiting at times, and two stops never seems to be enough on its own.  I often stack ND grads to get the effect I’m looking for.

Happy shooting!

Because Haystack Rock stood above the horizon line, and was quite a bit darker than the sky behind it, I had to use a 3-stop, soft-edged ND grad filter here. 1/20, f/16, ISO 100. EOS 5D Mark III with EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II.

Because Haystack Rock stood above the horizon line, and was quite a bit darker than the sky behind it, I had to use a 3-stop, soft-edged ND grad filter here. 1/20, f/16, ISO 100. EOS 5D Mark III with EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II.

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in New York, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick's work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page.

  • http://flickr.com/gsimmonsonca Gary

    Great article Rick.

    This is one topic that I go ‘back and forth’ on… An ND filter is an invaluable addition to everyone’s kit… because the tricks it can do CANNOT be done in post processing.

    But while I’ve always been a proponent of using grad filters for landscape shots, lately I’m back to doing multiple exposure with manual blending/HDR. The grad works of course, and it saves time in the long run. But many times I prefer the extra control of just shooting different exposures and bringing them together myself.

  • Dilla

    Question- in the situation like the last image, where there’s a big body that is not-the-sky above the horizon… do you just allow it to be darkened by the ND filter as well, even if you really only want the sky darkened a few stops? Or is this a judgment call on whether to use an ND filter at all? I’ve always wondered about this, even in using ND gradients in LR.

    Thanks in advance, all.

  • http://www.donaldsonphotography.com Neil

    I have gravitated away from using an ND grad on these types of shots. It looks odd when the reflection is brighter than the object. I would rather blend two or more exposures.

  • http://thomasmthurston.com Thomas Thurston

    Hi Dilla,

    If your ND filter darkens your subject matter that’s above the horizon, you can try taking a second exposure that could be used to blend only that part of the frame in post.

    You’re right though, it depends on if you’re willing to sacrifice some detail. Each choice is perfectly acceptable and it ultimately comes down to what you want to highlight in your photograph. Hope this helps.

  • Ray Rhodes

    If you are going to use a second exposure to balance the light on a feature above the horizon …. why not save the cost of the filters and bracket …. seems like a no brainer to me …. but maybe it’s just me

  • http://thomasmthurston.com Thomas Thurston

    That’s another viable option, Ray.

    From my experience, pure bracketing certainly has its place in post and there are times that call for it (think packing light), but at the cost of time for manually blending those multiple exposures. If you’re looking to save on cost for filters and/or space in your pack, then sure, manually blend.

    Otherwise, time spent with filters to get your exposure 95% normalized will greatly increase your productivity.

  • http://www.rickberk.com Rick Berk

    As I explained, the soft-edged filters will work better when something crosses the horizon, as in the last shot. yes, it will still darken the object some, but you can adjust the placement of the filter, and a little post-processing dodging can help with that as well. It certainly takes less time to do that than it does to blend multiple exposures.

  • http://thomasmthurston.com Thomas Thurston

    Well said, Rick.

  • http://500px.com/elindaire/ Elindaire
  • http://blog.pedromendes.com Pedro Mendes

    This is a great explanation of ND filters. I’m looking more closely into landscape photography, and this article really will let me make a more informed choice when I buy a filter.
    Todd and Susan Sisson go into detail on all things landscape photography in DPS’s most recent book, “Living Landscapes”. Here’s my review: http://blog.pedromendes.com/landscape-photography/
    Hope you find it helpful.

  • Jim Hammond

    Great tutorial Rick and beautiful images. Have you ever used the technique of exposing for the sky and foreground and then blending them in post in PS?

  • Rick Berk

    Thanks Jim. Yes I have used that technique at times- in fact I wrote a tutorial about it here on DPS back in April I believe. Check my profile. It was the one about the desert road at night.

  • Jim Hammond

    Thanks, I’ll have to go take a look at it.

    I’ve just been looking at your FAA website, lots of beautiful images there. I’ve got some images posted there, but not built a website yet Have you had good luck with your site at FAA? http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/james-hammond.html?tab=artworkgalleries&artworkgalleryid=229329

  • Jed Roxas Daroy

    Hello Rick,

    Before I run across this site, I was quite aware of Filters and such and then Thanks for this site and your tutorial, I become more familiar of the Filters esp. ND and CP.. Great Points to help me get a better landscape photos, I just recently purchase an ND but I decided to bought the Variable ND for I have already lots of filters in my bag! :D

    I just have one question… does Variable ND is way much better than the single one?! I quite get confused how to use it but some how I produced reasonable shots using with it.. I even ended mounting the CP and ND together! Does this damage my camera?!

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    could we use timing to replace ND – filters?

  • Rick Berk

    Only if you plan on blending two separate shots. The idea of the ND Grad is that there is such a difference in the exposure for the sky and the exposure for the foreground, that the filter evens that out. Changing your exposure time won’t do that unless you take two separate shots, each one exposing for a different area of the image, and then blend those shots together. Or you could go for a full-blown HDR image, which would require 3 or more shots.

  • Amie schmidt

    I have done the same image with and without a ND. Boy, was ever glad I had that filter!

  • mina

    It would be improved if the harness could be zipped away behind a panel
    and a normal shoulder strap attached as an option when a backpack look
    is inappropriate.
    ????? ??????? ?????????? ?????

  • http://goku46.wix.com/skylineimage Gazi Asif Rahman

    I was wondering if you could help me with my own home made ND filter with a less dark welding glass……I am not sure What stops to use??? It would be very much helpful if you suggest me how I can get the photos I desire with my home made ND filter

  • Bakir Ali

    why dont you try making a camera also at home?

  • http://goku46.wix.com/skylineimage Gazi Asif Rahman

    Well….I am not a camera manufacturer….neither I have any wish to do so….

Some older comments

  • Pedro Mendes

    August 21, 2013 12:39 am

    This is a great explanation of ND filters. I'm looking more closely into landscape photography, and this article really will let me make a more informed choice when I buy a filter.
    Todd and Susan Sisson go into detail on all things landscape photography in DPS's most recent book, "Living Landscapes". Here's my review: http://blog.pedromendes.com/landscape-photography/
    Hope you find it helpful.

  • Elindaire

    July 26, 2013 10:56 pm

    Love my LEE filters.

    http://500px.com/elindaire/sets/landscape

  • Thomas Thurston

    July 7, 2013 05:51 am

    Well said, Rick.

  • Rick Berk

    July 7, 2013 05:48 am

    As I explained, the soft-edged filters will work better when something crosses the horizon, as in the last shot. yes, it will still darken the object some, but you can adjust the placement of the filter, and a little post-processing dodging can help with that as well. It certainly takes less time to do that than it does to blend multiple exposures.

  • Thomas Thurston

    July 7, 2013 05:12 am

    That's another viable option, Ray.

    From my experience, pure bracketing certainly has its place in post and there are times that call for it (think packing light), but at the cost of time for manually blending those multiple exposures. If you're looking to save on cost for filters and/or space in your pack, then sure, manually blend.

    Otherwise, time spent with filters to get your exposure 95% normalized will greatly increase your productivity.

  • Ray Rhodes

    July 5, 2013 07:37 am

    If you are going to use a second exposure to balance the light on a feature above the horizon .... why not save the cost of the filters and bracket .... seems like a no brainer to me .... but maybe it's just me

  • Thomas Thurston

    July 4, 2013 01:23 am

    Hi Dilla,

    If your ND filter darkens your subject matter that's above the horizon, you can try taking a second exposure that could be used to blend only that part of the frame in post.

    You're right though, it depends on if you're willing to sacrifice some detail. Each choice is perfectly acceptable and it ultimately comes down to what you want to highlight in your photograph. Hope this helps.

  • Neil

    July 4, 2013 12:36 am

    I have gravitated away from using an ND grad on these types of shots. It looks odd when the reflection is brighter than the object. I would rather blend two or more exposures.

  • Dilla

    July 3, 2013 04:49 am

    Question- in the situation like the last image, where there's a big body that is not-the-sky above the horizon... do you just allow it to be darkened by the ND filter as well, even if you really only want the sky darkened a few stops? Or is this a judgment call on whether to use an ND filter at all? I've always wondered about this, even in using ND gradients in LR.

    Thanks in advance, all.

  • Gary

    July 3, 2013 04:39 am

    Great article Rick.

    This is one topic that I go 'back and forth' on... An ND filter is an invaluable addition to everyone's kit... because the tricks it can do CANNOT be done in post processing.

    But while I've always been a proponent of using grad filters for landscape shots, lately I'm back to doing multiple exposure with manual blending/HDR. The grad works of course, and it saves time in the long run. But many times I prefer the extra control of just shooting different exposures and bringing them together myself.

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