Comparison – HDR Versus Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

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If you’re a landscape photographer or even someone who occasionally dabbles in landscapes, you likely already understand the difficulties present in high contrast scenes. As you’re aware, cameras are not capable of recording a scene the same way you see it with your eyes. For example, if you are looking at a sunset, you are capable of seeing the full range of detail in front of you.

Comparison - HDR Versus Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

HDR Image (left) and Graduated Neutral Density Filters (right).

Unfortunately, the contrast ratio between a bright sky and a dark foreground will often go well beyond the capabilities and dynamic range of your camera. In jpeg mode, your camera is designed to record images in the manner of color negative film. This means that the image you see on your LCD reveals between three and five stops of exposure latitude. If you shoot in Raw (and you should) you will, of course, have access to the full dynamic range that your particular camera sensor is able to capture. This makes it possible for you to manually adjust an image in post-production so that the full dynamic range available to you is present in any given image.

However, this process is not infallible, nor does it come without acquiring a dedicated skill set.

This is where two particular techniques for landscape photographers come into their own. They are High Dynamic Range (HDR) and the use of Graduated Neutral Density filters (GND filters). The point of both of these techniques is to reduce the contrast ratio in parts of your scene so that the detail in your image more closely resembles what you saw with your eyes.

What is HDR?

High Dynamic Range is a technique that blends multiple exposures together in post-production. The idea is that you create a series of images where each accurately exposes an individual part of your scene. For example, your first frame will be taken to correctly expose the foreground and the second frame will be taken to correctly expose the sky. You then blend these images together using specialist software (often Photomatix or Lightroom).

The most common way to get a set of exposures to blend is to use the bracketing tool in your camera at a 1 or 2 stop interval. For example, if you take an exposure based on your camera’s meter, you could then take three bracketed exposures one, two and three stops overexposed, followed by another set of bracketed exposures one, two and three stops underexposed. This would give you seven exposures to blend.

What is a Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filter?

Comparison - HDR Versus Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

Graduated neutral density filters achieve similar results at the time of capture. These filters are designed to block a certain amount of light over parts of your image. They come in different strengths, but the most common are the 1-stop, 2-stop and 3-stop varieties. Fitted to the front of your lens with an adaptor, they allow you to control the contrast ratio and dynamic range in your image as you create the image.

Comparison – HDR to GND Filters

Both techniques have their place and they are both indispensable tools for the landscape photographer. The aim of this article is to place both techniques in a side by side comparison so that you may decide which, if either, of these techniques, is best for you.

*Please note that the software used to blend HDR exposures in this article was Adobe Lightroom.

*Also note that this article does not cover in any way the use of tone mapping. That aspect of HDR imagery should be considered separately.

HDR – Pros

Cheap

Comparison - HDR Versus Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

As a photographer, you probably already pay for access to Lightroom or Photoshop. This means you already have software that can blend HDR exposures for you. If you do, however, want to use a dedicated third party solution, Photomatix only costs a one-off fee of $99 for the Pro version or $39 for the Elements version. Or you could take a look at Aurora HDR by Macphun (soon to be available for Windows as well).

Effective

HDR software has come a long way since its inception. The short of it is that it works, very well. It can struggle when you have moving elements in your scenes, like water and clouds, but apart from that, you will often have little trouble blending your exposures.

Control

Comparison - HDR Versus Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

Blending your bracketed exposures in the post-production phase gives you full manual control over every aspect of how your final image will look. Do you prefer more details in the shadows? No problem. Do you prefer less? No problem. The choice is yours and you can fine tune your images to your exact personal taste.

HDR – Cons

Learning Curve

Comparison - HDR Versus Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

From learning how to properly take your bracketed exposures all the way to the myriad of intricacies of the software, very little of the HDR process is intuitive. It will take a lot of studying and lot of practice before you start to see results that you’re happy with.

Time Consuming

HDR is the very antithesis of getting it right in camera. Not only do you have to take your time in order to ensure that your bracketed exposures are perfectly exposed and aligned, you then have the prospect of coming back to your computer for a lengthy post-production process. If you are blending a lot of exposures into a single frame, the blending process can take a significant chunk of time.

Inconsistency

Comparison - HDR Versus Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

This might be the most infuriating aspect of HDR. For the most part, you will able to predict what the end result will look like, but not always. Too many times, the software will present you with a result that looks nothing like what you had in your head at the time of capture. It’s not as hit and miss as some techniques, but it can be frustrating.

Ghosting

When there are moving elements in your scene, they don’t tend to line up in your bracketed exposures. Blending software has gotten quite good at detecting and fixing ghosting, but it’s not perfect. At times, you will have to fix some of these artifacts manually in Photoshop which leads to even more time in post-production.

Graduated Neutral Density Filter – Pros

It’s Easy

Comparison - HDR Versus Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

When you need to fit a GND filter to your lens, all you have to do is attach the adaptor via the filter thread, slot the filter into the filter holder and then attach the holder to the adaptor. This process can take as little as a few seconds as long as you are practiced and prepared.

Once attached, it’s only a matter of looking through the viewfinder and lining up the filter with your horizon (or other elements in your frame) so that it affects the area that you want to be darkened.

Straight out of the camera

Comparison - HDR Versus Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

The biggest advantage of using graduated neutral density filters is that the effect is created at the time of capture. The amount of time this saves in post-production is immense. It also means that you will have an accurate idea of how your final images will look without having to predict how the software will react to your images.

Consistency

Comparison - HDR Versus Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

Unless there are drastic changes in your light, the effect GND filters have on your scene will be consistent from frame to frame. Once you put your filters in place and take your first image, you know what to expect in any subsequent images.

GND – Cons

Expensive

Comparison - HDR Versus Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

The biggest drawback to graduated neutral filters is their cost. A full set of filters can set you back hundreds of dollars. Lee Filter’s Digital Starter Kit, which includes a single 2-stop GND, a 2-stop ND, the filter holder and a pouch costs $320. That doesn’t include any adaptor rings to fit your lenses.

There are cheaper filters on the market, but with all the sincerity of experience, please don’t buy them. They tend to be made of cheap plastic and are of a very poor quality; causing both severe color casts and unwanted flaws like lens flares and softness.

Read these dPS articles on different filter kits: 

Fragile

Because of the materials they are made of, filters scratch and break easily. There is few more gut wrenching experiences to a photographer than finding a 3 inch scratch across the face of a $110 filter that has been used twice.

Horizons

Comparison - HDR Versus Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

If you are photographing scenes with flat horizons, like seascapes or midwestern fields, your GND filters will line up to the horizon and work every time. However, the moment you add a building or mountain to the horizon, things get a bit trickier. Because the gradation in the filters follows a straight line you will have to rotate your filters or add additional filters in different positions to compensate.

Side-by-Side

Below are a few comparisons of images made using HDR and images made with GND filters. All of the images were taken minutes (or less) apart without moving the tripod. HDR images were blended in Lightroom with the end goal of appearing as a straight image (no tone-mapping). Apart from minor adjustments in the basic panel and Camera Calibration in Lightroom, no other adjustments have been made.

Scene #1

Comparison - HDR Versus Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

HDR Version

Comparison - HDR Versus Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

Graduated Neutral Density Version

Scene #2

HDR Version

Graduated Neutral Density Version

Scene #3

HDR Version

Graduated Neutral Density Version

Scene #4

HDR Version

Graduated Neutral Density Version

Scene #5

HDR Version

Graduated Neutral Density Version

Combination

Alone, both of these techniques are powerful. What happens, however, when you combine them? If you start with your GND filters and bracket your exposures as you would for HDR, you can combine both techniques to help ensure that all of a scene’s dynamic range is available in your image. This can be useful when shooting directly into the setting sun.

Comparison - HDR Versus Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

Summary

As you can see, both techniques are more than capable of getting results. For ease of use and consistency, graduated neutral density filters have an edge. However, for versatility, HDR offers you absolute control over the exposure and tones in your blended image.

Is one technique better than the other? Not in my opinion. That said, your choice will come down to personal preference. For example, I will always prefer the GND filters as I am happy to sacrifice some control to avoid the extra time sitting in front of a computer.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

John McIntire is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography at Leeds Metropolitan University. He is obsessive with photography and is always trying to learn something new. You can find him on Instagram as @johnwhitneyphoto for portraits and @macjw2 for landscapes and travel.

  • PJB_NUFC

    Great article, John, thanks for posting it. HDR seems to have a stigma attached to it but I suspect that is the result of some crazily overdone post processing making the final images look unrealistic. When used sensibly it can yield excellent results as you have demonstrated. I see some experimentation in my immediate future 🙂

  • Tom Linton

    A third option is to do graduated ND filtering in post processing by taking 2 or more exposures, layer them and use a graduated layer mask so only the desired exposed sections show through. Now you have control of both layers for touch up. Once learned, it is easy, consistent, cheap, and no ghosting.

  • John McIntire

    Hi Tom, thanks for your comment and that’s a great point. That is absolutely a viable option. I chose not to include here as I thought three techniques might be a bit too much to chew on. Thanks for pointing it out!

  • John McIntire

    Thank you and you’re welcome. I agree completely. I think the stigma that HDR has is mostly down to over the top tone-mapping. I’m not saying photographers shouldn’t do whatever they like, but for my personal taste (and many others) that’s why I avoid tone-mapping as much as possible. Good luck and I hope your experiments go well!

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