The Benefits Of A Reverse Gradient Neutral Density Filter

The Benefits Of A Reverse Gradient Neutral Density Filter

Sunset and sunrise can be tricky times for photography. While the tone and strength of the light coming from the sun is perfect for warming skin tones and adding contrast, shots taken directly into the sun can be a challenge. We’ve all seen shots like the one below. It was taken at 18mm, ISO 100, f/16 and 1/50th of a second. Gorgeous sunset and I wanted to make sure I could see the driftwood.

Now do some editing in Lightroom, but not wishing to spend a lifetime at the computer, and something like this is the result.

Yes, I could bracket the shot and then work magic in the computer (did I mention not wishing to spend a lot of time there?) but what about when people come into the scene? That’s when a Reverse Gradient Neutral Density filter is worth more than its weight in gold. What is this filter of which I speak? It looks like this.

Can you see the difference between this and a typical gradient neutral density filter? For those who might be scratching their heads, this filter is three stops darker in the middle and then very quickly fades to clear at the bottom and to one stop dark at the top. This particular filter is a Singh-Ray version I purchased on the suggestion of fellow photographer Jon Cornforth.

This type of filter beats the pants off of the standard gradient tool in Lightroom because it fades in both directions, which is exactly what is required for sunset and sunrise photos, when the sun is close to the horizon. To give an example of the change, here is the same shot above except with the filter in place. A minor amount of foreground Adjustment Brush was used to balance out the light.

A standard gradient filter would make the sky at top too dark while possibly not darkening the sun enough.

Interestingly, these shots were both taken with the same settings. When using a filter like this it is important to meter the light on the foreground objects and then put the filter into place. Different filters will be appropriate for different amounts of light and I have found the 3-stop version to be fairly reliable in a variety of opportunities.

Positioning of the filter is important and is one reason why I chose the Singh-Ray brand. The filters are over-sized lengthwise, making adjustments easier when the horizon is not in the center of the frame. The key with most gradient filters is to use your depth of field preview button to stop down your aperture, thus making the transition zone of the filter easier to spot. Moving the filter while finding this split also helps.

First, the shot with the filter off and the image only adjusted to increase exposure by one stop.

Here is what happens when the filter is too low.

Moving the filter up to be in line with the water is what works best, but in this shot you will see it still keeps the people on the beach too dark.

Now if I take the filter and angle it so it only covers the water as it moves up to the right, this is the result (with just a bit of saturation added to the sky and two minutes spent with the Adjustment Brush to balance the foreground ever so slightly).

While bracketing shots and combining them in the computer certainly has an amount of appeal and works in many cases, using a filter to shape light during capture can often lead to better results in less time. The balance of the equation? You have to buy and carry the filters, which can cost $120US or more.

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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