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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Using Graduated Neutral-Density Filters

From polarizers to graduated NDs, filters are part of every outdoor photographer‚’s life. Try these techniques to help you enhance or correct your images in the camera.

Using Graduated Neutral-Density FiltersA graduated neutral-density filter balanced the sky exposure with the foreground lupines, but was positioned too low in the scene, making its use obvious.

Since so many scenes in nature contain a greater range of light than our cameras (film or digital) can record, graduated neutral-density (ND) filters are a staple in the landscape photographer’s bag.

Grad ND filters are generally used to darken a background that’s significantly lighter than the foreground. Common examples are sunrises and sunsets with bright skies and foregrounds in shade or mountain scenes where a snow-covered mountain is much brighter than the foreground.

But there are no rules saying you have to use the filter to tone down a background. Occasionally, a foreground is brighter than a background, especially scenes with a sunlit snowy foreground and a background of dark evergreen trees.

Following are 12 tips to help you get the most out of your graduated ND filters.


Using Graduated Neutral-Density Filters It’s easy to overdo the polarizer effect (bottom). The sky in the partially polarized shot at left looks more natural (top).

1 Use the depth-of-field preview to position a graduated ND filter.
Grad ND filters are great for controlling contrast in landscapes. The trick is in using them so that no one can tell you’ve done this. The first step is in choosing the right filter (one-stop, two-stop, three-stop; hard- or soft-edged). The secon and possibly more important step is in correctly placing the filter. If the filter is placed too high, the transition will be seen in the sky, too low, and the foreground will have an unnatural "shadow" across it.

The best way to accurately place a graduated filter is to press your depth-of-field preview button while looking through the viewfinder, which makes it easier to see the transition. Moving the filter up and down also helps.

Singh-Ray Split Grad ND Filters

Singh-Ray Split Grad ND Filters

Singh-Ray Split Grad ND Filters

B+W Grad ND Filter

2 Handholding graduated ND filters for speed and accuracy. Along the same lines, I find it easier and more accurate to handhold graduated ND filters. For one thing, it’s easier to move and place the filters handheld rather than struggling with a filter holder. Secondly, when the light is changing fast, I often need to switch filters quickly, and using a filter holder just slows me down.

Granted, this takes some practice, as you need to make sure that the filter completely covers and is also flat against the lens. The larger 4x6-inch grad filters available from Lee, Singh-Ray and others can make handholding these filters easier.

I use one hand to press the depth-of-field preview button and another hand to hold the filter. How, then, do I trip the shutter? I put the cable release in my mouth and use my tongue. No, seriously.

Another advantage of handholding a grad ND filter is that you can move it during the exposure. Sometimes you may need to further "feather" the transition. By moving the filter slightly up and down during the exposure, you’ll have even more control over how the transition area interacts with the scene. This is especially useful when you need a soft-edged filter, but all you have is a hard-edged filter.

Use a polarizer to cut glare from foliage. Polarizers are handy filters to have. They’re certainly the most versatile filters. The main use I find for them is to cut the glare from foliage, allowing all the colors to come through. I usually use polarizers in the forest on overcast or rainy days to take the sheen off leaves, needles and rocks. This is what makes those forest shots you see so green. Polarizers are essential filters for forest, stream and waterfall photography.

You’ll lose a few stops of light, requiring longer shutter speeds, but that shouldn’t be a problem if you’re shooting from a sturdy tripod.


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