Using a Graduated Neutral Density Filter

Lower Madera Canyon

Lower Madera Canyon – Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 24-105m f/4L IS USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 24mm, f/14 for 1/60th of a second at ISO 100 using a Singh-Ray warming polarizer and two-stop, soft graduated neutral density filter. Post capture processing was done entirely in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.
Click on the image above for a larger version.

Everyone knows I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy when it comes to getting the correct exposure “in-camera” as opposed to “in post”. For me, post-capture processing in Lightroom 3 or Photoshop CS5 is a matter of tweaking the RAW image to help recreate what I remembered seeing when I took the shot. A graduated neutral density filter is used to balance the exposure between the background and foreground of an image. As such, it is an essential tool that every landscape photographer should learn to use early in their career (or hobby). Yes, I know you could accomplish the same thing using a photo-blending technique like HDR but it’s much easier to do this “in camera” while you’re out in the field.

The way a graduated ND filter works is very simple, by reducing the amount of light transmitted through a portion of the filter to your camera’s sensor so that the foreground exposure more closely matches the background exposure. They are not perfectly matched mind you, just more closely. By positioning the graduated ND filter in front of the lens you can vary the amount of exposure “balancing” the filter does in each scene. You can position these filter by hand or by using a filter holder as shown in the image below.

This is my typical setup for a landscape shot with my 5D Mark II on a lightweight but sturdy tripod (Gitzo Traveller using an RRS ball-head) and a Singh-Ray graduated neutral density filter held in place by a Cokin “Z” holder, mounted on a wide angle lens. The graduated neutral density filter is generally a 2, 3 or 4-stop / soft ND grad made by Singh-Ray, a company that designs and builds the best quality photographic filters in the world.

Landscape Photography Setup

The purpose of the “ND Grad” filter used here was to “hold back” the bright sky to balance foreground exposure in this early evening shot of Madera Canyon. This allowed my DSLR to meter for the mid-tones without blowing out the bright highlights or losing all the shadow detail. The great thing about a graduated neutral density filter is that you, the photographer, have complete control over how much light the filter blocks by changing its position in the filter holder. Many photographers (myself included) prefer to hold the filter against the lens by hand, moving it to achieve exactly the effect we want.

On of my favorite landscape photographers Steve Kossack, is famous for teaching students “conscious control over colors and light” and a big part of his craft is in using the right filter at the right time. Steve’s also famous for hand-holding and moving his ND-Grad filters during the exposure so that each image is unique and one of a kind.

As Steve teaches, getting control of the colors and the light “in-camera” using a graduated neutral density is a great way to practice your craft in the field. Learning to properly use a few simple filters can extend your success and bring some much needed control to your landscape photography.

Landscape Photography – Using a Neutral Density Grad Filter

By now, everyone knows I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy when it comes to getting the correct exposure “in-camera” as opposed to “in post”. For me post capture processing in Lightroom or Photoshop is a matter of tweaking a RAW image to obtain what I remembered seeing when I took the shot. I’ve also fallen out of love with using HDR for landscape photography as I tend to think it interferes with the story the picture is telling rather than enhancing that story.

Since many of you reading this blog are relatively new to photography and perhaps to the use of filters, I thought I’d explain my basic setup for the Summer Nights shot I posted a few days ago. This also gives me a chance to showoff an image taken with my new Canon Powershot G10 P&S camera. BTW – I was amazed by the image quality this little camera can produce at low ISO speeds.

Neutral Density Grad Filter

Singh-Ray Neutral Density Grad Filter in Cokin “P” Series Holder
Copyright © 2009 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon G10 set on aperture priority (Av). The exposure was taken at 14mm, f/5.6 for 1/30th of a second at ISO 80 on Lexar Professional digital film. Post capture processing was done in Lightroom 2. Click on the image above for a larger version.

This is my typical setup for a landscape shot with my 5DII on a lightweight but sturdy tripod (Gitzo Traveller using an RRS ball-head) and a Singh-Ray graduated neutral density filter held in place by a Cokin “P-Series” holder, mounted on a wide angle lens. The graduated neutral density filter is generally a 2, 3 or 4-stop / soft ND grad made by Singh-Ray, a company that designs and builds the best quality photographic filters in the world.

The purpose of the “ND Grad” filter is to “hold back” the bright sky to balance foreground exposure as shown in this early evening sunset shot below. This allows your DSLR to meter for the mid-tones without blowing out the bright highlights in the sky. The great thing about a graduated neutral density filter is that you, the photographer, have complete control over how much light the filter blocks by changing its position in the filter holder. Many photographers (myself included) prefer to hold the filter against the lens by hand, moving it to achieve exactly the effect we want.

On of my favorite landscape photographers (besides Bill Neill and John O’Connor) Steve Kossack, is famous for teaching students “conscious control over colors and light” and a big part of his craft is in using the right filter at the right time. Steve’s also famous for hand-holding and moving his ND-Grad filters during the exposure so that each image is unique and one of a kind.

Getting control of the colors and the light “in-camera” using a graduated neutral density is a great way to extend your success and bring some control to your landscape photography.

Summer Nights

Summer Nights
Copyright © 2009 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 40D set on aperture priority (Av) using an EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 47mm, f/13 for 1/15th of a second at ISO 100 on Sandisk digital film using a Singh-Ray 2-Stop/Soft graduated neutral density filter. Post capture processing was done in Lightroom 2 and Photoshop CS4. Click on the image above for a larger version.