Graduated Neutral Density Filters; To Use Or Not To Use

There are two schools of thought in landscape photography. Those who use filters and those who do not. The only real gray area is with the Circular Polarizer, everyone agrees there is a time and a place for those. But start a conversation about Graduated Neutral Density filters and you have opened a can of worms. My thoughts? Glad you asked…

First off, what is a Graduated Neutral Density filter? A clear square of acrylic or glass where the top is dark and it gradually transitions to clear by the half way mark. It is used to balance the brighter sky with darker foreground elements. The alternative is to take two images at very different exposures and then blend them in Photoshop. But as with most things, the devil is in the details. Exposure blending in Photoshop is an art unto itself with no two pictures following the same set of steps. Here is an image I took at Bryce Canyon National Park with a Graduated Neutral Density filter…

Bryce Canyon Amphitheater at dawn.
Bryce Canyon Amphitheater

Properly used there is no darkening of the foreground. In reality there is always a slight darkening of the foreground. If you look closely at my picture you might convince yourself that you can see where the gradient ends. I’d say at about 33% from the top. But who is counting. My other shots from Bryce Canyon were done with exposure blending. Why? I dropped my Graduated Neutral Density filter on the ground and it got a scratch on it.

I like filters. Equipment odds and ends are exciting to buy. My D800 can take multiple exposures and blend them together almost completely removing the need for a regular Neutral Density filter. So what did I buy today? A four stop neutral density filter for my new WonderPana system and my Tamron 15-30mm lens. PS, at 145mm these round filters are freaking huge.

So for the record I am a fence dwelling, middle of the road photographer. I take pictures both with and without filters. Depends on the scene. I carry them with me most of the time but only use them when the situation calls for it. There are scenes that are excruciatingly hard to exposure blend, like bare tree branches against a bright sky that I use my filters for. But in general I don’t use the Graduated Neutral Density filters. I get more natural results with exposure blending when I can get it edited right. That and I don’t own the adapter for my WonderPana system to use Graduated Neutral Density filters. Yet.

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