Moving Beyond Graduated Neutral Density Filters

I fell in love with landscape photography about three years ago as I was building my technical skills and experimenting beyond the macro work that had brought me into my first camera purchase.  In much of my research efforts on the subject, I came across articles on Luminous Landscape, drooled over images in Outdoor Photographer Magazine of majestic scenes with surreal light.  As my interest grew I seemingly stumbled upon two resources that played a significant role in facilitating my early ambitions with landscape photography – Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light and the Singh Ray Filters blog. The stunning images within Galen’s book coupled with the instructional posts featured bi weekly on Singh Ray’s blog featuring photographers like Adam Barker,  I was swooning over the idea I could purse capturing great dynamic range in a single exposure with the aid of graduated neutral density (aka grad ND) filters.


‘Lowcountry Fireworks’ – 3 Stop Reverse Grad ND + Circular Polarizer.  This scene took additional work in post processing to maintain subtle detail in the trees while trying to balance the intense light from this dramatic display.

Early on I picked up some older, relatively inexpensive Hi-Tech graduated ND’s that I found sitting in a mixed box of filters at my local camera shop.  At the time I didn’t have the self confidence nor the funds to dive into a full set from a manufacturer like Singh Ray.  There was definitely a bit of learning curve and trying to figure out what filter works well for a given scene and trying to juggle switching them out as the light would change.  One of my biggest challenges was that I had preferred handholding for shorter exposures and in doing so the Hi Tech filters could be easily scratched if moved during the exposure or placed quickly in front of the lens.

graduated neutral density filters

‘Hallet’s Peak Alpenglow’ – the first real landscape image I took using graduated ND filters.  This was taken at sunrise and a 3 stop grad ND filter was placed handheld in front of my wide angle lens to balance the exposure.  Some work was still needed to balance out the image which was achieved through a dodging and burning layer in Photoshop.

After burning through a few of the cheaper variety I decided it was well worth the investment to push my money towards a full set of the Singh Ray filters.  It was hard purchase to swallow as an ‘investment’ towards my photographic progression at the time, dropping $850 on a mere five filters.  Through my travels from coastal South Carolina to the backcountry of Death Valley National Park, my grad NDs were always in my bag and a helpful tool in capturing dynamic range.  As I began to assist with photo workshop instruction and giving presentations to photography groups, grad NDs were a great resource to educate budding landscape photographers just starting out or those set on doing as much ‘in camera’ as possible with minimal work in post processing.  There were times though I was faced with trying to capture a scene in which either the dynamic range was still not obtainable in a single frame and his lead to me bracketing multiple exposures even while using my grad ND filters. I also found myself trying to capture a scene in which grad NDs weren’t useful and I didn’t have the skill set for post processing to take bracketed shots of what I was envisioning in my final product and successfully blend them together for a realistic image. As much as I wanted to continue to work with the ‘get it right in camera’ philosophy, the influence of  other photographers via social media and widespread publishing of post processing tutorials began to win out over reaching in the bag to grab my grad NDs as I was preparing to shoot.

A Change in Direction

In late 2012 I began diving into more complex post production techniques, mainly from the digital workflow and dynamic range tutorials from the likes of Sean Bagshaw and others of the Photo Cascadia group.  Sean is just one of many professional photographers publishing tutorial videos that cover a variety of post processing techniques ranging in complexity, covering the use of Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, and Photoshop.  With the availability of such content and the progression of processing techniques through my preferred methods of Lightroom and Photoshop, I found myself learning more about post production blending for dynamic range rather than strictly relying on filters to help me balance the dynamic range within a single exposure.  As I’ve spent time revising my workflow and developing more involved techniques, there has been less of a need for me to use the graduated ND style filters in the initial image capture.  Over the past year I cannot remember reaching in my bag for my graduated ND filters more than twice, so after much pondering I decided to part with those filters in lieu of my new post processing workflow.

Sean Bagshaw of Outdoor Exposure Photography has detailed videos highlight basic workflow to advanced processing techniques.  This clip showcases creating 32 bit HDR files that have a realistic look and contain a great amount of dynamic range.  For the vast majority of my workflow, I have utilized multiple exposures to cover dynamic range in lieu of using graduated neutral density filters in the field.

In addition to advanced post processing and readily available step by step tutorials, the technological advancements of the equipment we use is also making it easier to do more with a single file.  The progression in sensor technology for low light sensitivity and capturing greater dynamic range out of a single file, filters like the graduated ND are not as commonplace as they were 5 or 10 years ago.  So you might ask, why are these filters still around? Graduated ND filters have a place for many in landscape photography and is a wonderful tool in video work done with compact and DSLR cameras. These filters are exceptionally useful in seascapes where clean lines exist between the water and sky, leaving minimal work to do in post processing.  As I mentioned early on, many scenarios these filters can be used efficiently to capture the dynamic range in a single exposure versus bracketing and worrying about making it all mesh in the digital darkroom.  At the end of the day, it really comes down to personal choice for how much time you want to spend processing and the types of images you are trying to create.  There are scenarios in which multiple exposures for dynamic range are a must and filters cannot be applied, so advanced processing is a must.



Why you don't need graduated neutral density filters

A I mentioned earlier, in the field I bracket for multiple exposures, typically taking 3-6 photos for a given scene.  I pay close attention to my camera’s histogram to ensure I compensate for both the left (darks) and right(lights) to ensure detail is preserved at both ends. For this scene three photos are selected for editing in Lightroom and merged together in Photoshop’s HDR Pro through the steps mentioned in Sean’s YouTube video.  Once this is complete, the 32 bit file is accessible in Lightroom or via Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and there is 10 stops of exposure balance available to adjust the file.  Once basic local adjustments (for my workflow that’s exposure, shadows/highlights, lens correction/chromatic aberration) are complete, the file is opened for additional editing in Photoshop.

32 bit images in Lightroom

The final product of three files merged together, global adjustments in Lightroom, and major edits in Photoshop.  This process has constantly produced more realistic images while packing in detail in the shadows and controlling the blowout of highlights.  I have greater satisfaction with the final product with more time spent in post processing than I did trying to contain everything in a single exposure while using graduated ND filters.

So do I still need filters?

Filters in general are essential tools in landscape photography, there are aspects that just cannot be replicated by algorithms in post processing software.  In my work I typically shoot a substantial amount scenes that have water components and I rely very heavily on my circular polarizer, I couldn’t live without it.  Third party software such as Nik’s Color Efex Pro 2 offers a simulated polarizing filter, but it still does not come close to a real circular polarizer used in the field.  As I have moved away from the graduated ND filter kit, I am in the process of adding in a variety of ND filters for use in long exposures.  The dreamlike, smooth and drawn out exposures from these filters can be a wonderful creative tool when photographing water and to create dramatic movement in moving clouds.  The technology behind these filters is getting better, with reduced color casting as well as increased availability and high quality standards of some of the more coveted 10 and even 15 stop filters.

Filters are essential for most of the landscape photography demographic, but as camera technology gets better and processing ability evolves, many will find what is carried in the camera bag is quickly changing. The essentials of yesterday are no longer what the next generation of photographers will be lugging around in pursuit of wild light.

high dynamic range 32 bit lightroom image

(Above) – An example where graduated neutral density filters have no application but greater dynamic range was needed.  Nine images  of the above set taken for both depth of field and exposure were blended together for depth of field and exposure.  The exposure blending was accomplished using Sean Bagshaw’s tutorial on creating 32 bit HDR files that have a realistic look. Below is the final result after being edited in Photoshop CC.


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