Graduated ND filters for landscapes, should you use them?

graduated ND filters, photo filters, photographic filters, ND, landscape, snow, winter, cold, snow drifts, snowdrifts, Alberta, Dan Jurak,

Gadgets. I have found photographers, amateur and professionals alike love their gadgets.

There was a running joke where I worked that two of the photographers had to have the latest of everything only to sell whatever they bought a few months later for a bargain price.

Been there. Done that.

Many years ago I kept seeing very dramatic skies and wondered what I was doing wrong because my skies never looked like the ones on the internet or in magazines. Stupid me, reading a photography magazine saw an article of the wonders of  graduated ND filters.

Unlike a regular neutral density filter a graduated one is just as described. Usually full density to reduce light passing through near the top and gradually diminishing until the filter was clear.

The theory was that skies are usually brighter than the ground so if you used one of the filters the sky would receive less exposure than the ground below and become darker and more dramatic. No more washed out skies.

So, with my new found knowledge I found out which were the best filters at the time or most highly regarded and spent a few hundred dollars on a set of graduated ND filters and special adapter to fit on my wide angle Nikon 14-24 lens. I bought not only neutral, grey filters but coloured ones to make my sunsets more colourful.

It didn’t take me long to realize that I was oversold on the merits of the filters.

The filters had no place in a digital world. In the days of film when shooting transparencies they might be a suitable alternative but with digital I found that the filters were actually ruining my skies. They introduced more density and colour than I intended and once a scene was taken with them it was very difficult if not impossible to revert back to a neutral sky.

The image at the top is one of my regrets. We had a wicked winter blizzard a few years ago and the moment the wind stopped I grabbed my gear and made my way out of town.

I was greeted with these long tailing drifts crossing the road. Having 4 wheel drive really helped me as I was able to 4 wheel it through the drifts. I had to get out on the roads before the snow ploughs came out and cut through the drifts which meant ruining them for my photos.

The photo here has the sky over darkened and because I used a magenta graduated filter, the sky took on too much of a hue, more than I wanted.

I know that in Photoshop it would have been easier and have allowed me much more control to have done this digitally.

I sold those filters a few months later and aside from the solid ND filters which I use in my long exposure photographs (up to 10 minutes) I am completely filter free.

Digital photography offers so much more control that many of the gadgets that we think we need actually hamper our photography and not help it.

Happy shooting,



~ by Dan Jurak on January 23, 2018.

9 Responses to “Graduated ND filters for landscapes, should you use them?”

  1. Great post. I have been off and on with graduated filters for years. I pulled the hard grads out of my bag last week for the first time in ages to shoot a sunrise. The results weren’t bad and they certainly helped dampen the intensity of the sun and provide a more balanced single exposure. However, the photos I took still require a lot of processing and still will require me to blend different exposures of the same scene to get the desired result (which is what I normally do.) In the end, I probably didn’t need to bother using them. As you said, there is probably little need for them now in the age of digital photography.

  2. I owned several filters as you describe, and I used them for video work. They were great for that. But for still photography, I agree there’s a better way, and that is blending exposures. It’s pretty easy to fire off a bracketed set of shots and then blend in PS. Also, I found that using ND filters slows me down. It takes time to attache the matte box, slip in the filter and adjust the grad line where you want it for the horizon. Sometimes that time is readily available, other times, you’re rushing to get the shot during magic hour and the delay in mounting the filter can cost you the shot. But, some people love them.

  3. Thanks for your comments on filters, and the reasons why you would, or would not, use them. This photo has a lovely mood and colour.

  4. Hi Neil, I agree that using filters slows you down. I also agree that whatever the filters can do, we can do quite easily and with more control in post processing.

  5. Digital photography is a powerful tool. Here is the “but.” We traded the art of capturing the shot primarily in camera for the art of Photoshop. They aren’t mutually exclusive concepts. The tools just changed the art and how we view art.

    When a first say the photo, I really liked it. I feel a little sad that you feel it isn’t good. You made a good choice with that filter combination. While the result wasn’t what you intended, it is beautiful scene. Happy accident. Not digital perfection.

  6. Hi Dan,

    while I would generally agree with You, that one does not need ND-Grads in order to achieve any particular effect nowadays, I thought I would offer up my reasons for still using them a lot in my photography:

    While I process all of my landscape images (some more extensively than others), I get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing a closer representation of the final image on my camera’s LCD immediately after pressing the shutter. When I have found a composition I like, sliding that ND-Grad into the filter holder and seeing the Image on the LCD transform into something special really gives me a lot of satisfaction, and I can’t wait to get home and give the image it’s final touches. Even a couple of years after taking these photos, I still vividly remember the excitement of creating them.

    Eventhough I have quite a few landscape images taken without ND-Grads that I liked a lot after processing them, I was rarely sure I had captured a “keeper” after reviewing the image on the LCD. Consequently, with those images, I don’t feel the same excitement at the thought of processing them, as I am not at all sure I have captured something wothwhile.

    I guess in the end, at least to a certain degree, it comes down to a lack of skill in previsualisation on my part, but as I photograph for the enjoyment it gives me, ND-Grads still very much have a place in digital photography for me.

    (Additionally, from a technical standpoint, one could argue that an ND-Grad gives you cleaner shadows, although with modern sensor technology that advantage seems to be becoming less and less relevant.)

    Having said all that, my use cases for ND-Grads are basically limited to times around sunrise and sunset and compositions with not too many and only solid elements protruding into the sky. Anything else just gives me headaches in postprocessing.

    Finally, I wanted to agree with what “badcatholicpodcast” wrote about Your Image at the top of the post: I actually really like it and was a little sad when I read that You don’t.

    Thank You for Your Posts, they are often food for thought and cause me to reflect on my own motivations and choices regarding photography and sometimes life in general, too 😉

    Best wishes from Germany,


  7. Well said Chris,

  8. As a beginner to photography i think blending exposures is a better (and cheaper) option

  9. I think that you are right! 🙂

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