How to Use a Graduated ND Filter Like a Pro

You might think of neutral density filters as dinosaurs in the world of high dynamic range cameras and photo editing tools like Photoshop and Lightroom. But for purists looking to capture a higher dynamic range in-camera— or for those who don’t like to spend a lot of time processing their images—the graduated ND filter is still a necessary tool:

What is a Graduated Neutral Density Filter?

A graduated ND filter, unlike a solid ND filter, is one that is clear at one end and dark at the other. That means it will stop light at one end but allow all light to pass through at the other. It’s termed neutral because it stops light of all wavelengths.

graduated ND filter

Graduated ND Filter

When Should You Use a Graduated ND Filter?

In some conditions, such as at sunrise or sunset, your frame isn’t uniformly lit. A nature photographer frequently finds the sky to be much brighter than the ground, which means the exposure is always skewed. You can either expose for the sky or for the ground. With the grad ND filter, however, you can get the best of both worlds.

using a Graduated ND filter

With and without a graduated ND filter

What to Look for in a Graduated ND Filter

Here are a few things to consider when buying a graduated ND filter:

Density. Density refers to how many stops of light the filter will block at its darkest end. So a two-stop filter will block two stops of light. Therefore, a 1/400 second exposure will become 1/100 second, giving you more time to capture a properly exposed foreground.

Hardness. Simply put, a hard filter has a hard transition from the dark to the clear side. A soft filter has a softer transition. They both have their uses.

types of grad ND filters

soft vs hard grad ND

The image on the right (above) was created using a hard graduated ND. The one on the left was created using a soft graduated ND filter.

Reverse Graduated ND Filters. There is also a type of ND filter known as a reverse graduated ND filter. These filters have their darkest point toward the center of the filter and they transition into a clear edge towards the top. These filters are ideal when the brightest part of the image is towards the center of the frame. A sunset for example.

reverse grad ND filters

Reverse Graduated ND Filer

Size and shape. Graduated ND filters come in circular and rectangular shapes. The rectangular filers are more versatile. You can position them to relate to the scene, push them down if you need to block more light, push them up to open up the exposure, rotate them, or stack multiple filters.

how to use a grad ND filter

Rectangular ND Filter

Rectangular filters are recommended when you want to use the same filter across all lenses and conditions. Just ensure that you buy a filter that covers the width of the largest lens you have.

Have you used graduated ND filters? Do you think they’re a necessity in this day and age?

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