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A graduated ND filter, also called GND or graduated neutral density filters, are handy tools for making better landscape images and other types of photos. If you have looked at them and wondered when to use a graduated ND filter and what the different types do, please keep reading.
Graduated ND filters for landscapes are found in three main styles: Hard-Edge Graduated ND, Soft-Edge Graduated ND, and Reverse Graduated ND filters. We’ll cover what the differences are and in what situations each type helps.
Soft-Edge Graduated ND Filter
photo by Ignacio Ruiz Casanellas via iStock
This is probably the graduated ND filter I end up using the most often primarily because it is very simple to employ and there are so many situations in which to use one. All graduated ND filters are dark in part and clear in the other, it’s the transition area that changes among the 3 types.
A soft-edge graduated ND filter has a very gradual transition from clear to dark, making the placement of the filter a simple thing. Take a look at the image above to how gradual the transition is.
I use a lot of Haida M10 Filters from Ikan Corp in my landscape photography work as they are high quality and have beneficial features. You use the filters in a filter holder which can hold several filters at once.
The graduated ND filters are rectangular instead of square or round so that you can adjust their position in the holder as needed and the holder can spin around the axis of the lens, too so your placement of light to dark can be precise.
When do we use a graduated ND filter with a soft-edge transition? Any time we have a scene with a large dynamic range that we want to balance out in exposure, we can block out some light intensity from one part of it.
A scene with a bright sky and relatively foreground is one example that springs to mind. When there isn’t an element within the image with a distinct boundary between light and dark, a soft-edge ND filter is the answer.
This can apply to more than landscape photography, cityscapes, architectural, even product photography might benefit. Remember also, the transition area for any graduated ND filter doesn’t have to be a horizontal line. It can be in the vertical plane or even diagonal.
Hard-Edge Graduated ND Filter
Any time the transition in the scene from light to dark is narrow or perhaps a line is when to use a graduated ND filter with a similarly narrow transition. These are labeled hard-edge graduated ND filters. By the way, there are also medium-edge ND filters, but I find them not as useful as either hard or soft. You might find that you prefer the medium-edge, though.
All of what we discussed about soft-edge graduated ND filters applies to hard-edge filters except for the placement of the transition line. With a hard-edge graduated ND filter, a straight line such as a horizon, a wall, a shoreline, a building edge, and so on is the prime spot for where to place the transition.
Remember, it can be horizontal or vertical, but it’s probably more likely to be a horizontal line. Using the graduated ND filters in a filter holder system makes it a simple operation for exact placement since you can spin the filter holder around and slide the filter from side to side or up and down.
As just one example of when to use a graduated ND with a hard-edge transition is an ocean or lake scene with beautiful clouds in a relatively bright sky. In order to keep detail within the cloud formations while not underexposing the foreground or anything else that’s not bright sky, we place the ND part over the sky with the clear part underneath and the transition line on the horizon.
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Reverse Graduated ND Filters
I have found the perfect use for when to use a graduated ND filter with the variation from light to dark reversed, sunset and sunrise. As a disclaimer, I didn’t invent that use, I read it in a photography blog years ago and quickly put it into practice myself.
If you look closely at the image of the reverse graduated ND filter above, you will notice that the transition from clear to density is a hard edge but it’s different from other hard-edge ND filters in that the darkest density is right at the transition and then it gradually lightens towards the outer edge.
This is perfect for a sunset or sunrise with a sky above the Sun full of beautiful colors or those colors in clouds above the Sun. In order to capture those colors without washing out the exposure and still get detail in whatever is on the ground or ocean, we need to subject light value selectively by using a reverse graduated ND filter.
There is an even more extreme type of filter for sunrise and sunset or other similar lighting conditions, the horizon ND filter. This filter is probably a little too much specialty use for most of our photography that needs a graduated ND filter, but when you do run into that specific situation, it is probably the only filter that will do exactly what we want to accomplish.
Filter Holder Systems
The best way to make use of any of these graduated ND filters is in a filter holder system. A system like the Haida M10 professional filters we've been highlighting allows for the most versatility of exact filter placement.
A filter holder system consists of a holder with adapter rings to mount to various size lens diameters and round, square, and rectangular filters that can fit in the holder, often several at once. This lets you use a C-POL filter along with a GND, for instance, when capturing that mountain scene or sunset at the beach.
A filter holder system also makes sense for using professional filters since you only need to buy one size of each type of filter because the adapters let you use them on all your lenses. So instead of investing double or triple purchase for each lens, you can make the most of your filter budget.
These filter holder systems with full ND filters are also perfect for 4K video since we can have more control over the rolling shutter and lens apertures to capture exactly what we want to capture.
Once we have these filters, we will find many ways to use them in all sorts of photographic and videography situations.