Soon after I got introduced to the use of filters in Landscape Photography I learned about Graduated ND Filters and the significant difference they can make to an image. When I purchased my first square filter system I made sure that I also purchased a Graduated ND Filter (these filters don’t work well as screw-in filters).

I remember it was a lot of money for me to spend but it made a huge difference for my photography; not only directly to my images but to my creativity and overall understanding of how the fundamentals work. It was an investment that has stood out years later.

I’m not going to lie and say that using a Graduated ND Filter will make you a better photographer overnight. It won’t. What it will do, however, is give you the opportunity to overcome certain hurdles that often separate beginning and intermediate photographers.

In this article, I’ll talk about when and why I use these filters for landscape photography and, just as importantly, when I don’t.

What is a Graduated ND Filter?

I’ve given a more detailed introduction to Graduated ND Filters for Landscape Photography in a previous article but let me recap some of the highlights for those of you who won’t take the time to read it:

A Graduated ND Filter (or GND) is a partially darkened filter which you place in front of your lens to increase the dynamic range. It’s in many ways similar to a Neutral Density filter but the main difference is that only the upper parts are darkened, while the bottom is completely transparent.

Graduated ND Filter

This filter is most commonly used to darken the sky when there’s a big contrast between the brightness of sky and land. I’m sure most of us have experienced photographing a beautiful sunset but to your frustration, the sky appears completely white or the landscape completely black: that’s where the Graduated ND Filter comes in. By placing it in front of the lens we’re effectively darkening a part of the image which gives us a well-balanced image where both the sky and landscape looks good.

When I Use Graduated ND Filters
Typical example of what an image might look like without using a Graduated ND Filter

These filters come in a variety of options but for more information on that, you’ll have to read the introduction to Graduated ND Filters…!

When I Use a Graduated ND Filter

Whenever I go photographing I make sure to always have a Graduated ND Filter in my backpack. Even though I might not always use it, it’s not unlikely that I’ll come across a scenario where I will.

I typically bring out the filter when photographing during either sunrise or sunset and the contrast between land and sky is significant. As we talked about above, these situations are hard, if not impossible, to capture in one single shot without the use of a filter. When using the filter, I’m able to darken the sky enough to create a well-balanced image.

There are a few criteria for using the filter, though:

  • The sky must be significantly brighter than the landscape, meaning I can’t capture it without a filter
  • My camera is mounted on a tripod
  • There aren’t any elements projecting above the horizon
  • If there are elements that go above the horizon, they shouldn’t be filling much of the frame

I’m less likely to use the filter if the situation doesn’t meet the criteria above. This means that I’ll use the filter when I’m photographing scenes that have a relatively flat horizon and my camera is mounted on the tripod.

When I Use Graduated ND Filters
I used a Graduated ND Filter for this image

It goes without saying that it is possible to use a Graduated ND Filter when you’re not using a tripod but personally, I don’t like it. It’s simply difficult to align the filter and horizon correctly when you’re photographing handheld.

When I Don’t Use a Graduated ND Filter

I already mentioned a few criteria for using the Graduated ND Filter so it should have given you a good indication of when I don’t use one but let’s look a little closer:

Graduated ND Filters aren’t ideal when there are elements (such as mountains, trees or buildings) that project above the horizon. Remember that its purpose is to darken parts of the image to create a well-balanced image. This is done thanks to the gradual transition between the dark part and transparent part of the filter. However, this transition is vertical and won’t take into consideration that there are elements above the horizon.

When I Use Graduated ND Filters
I would not use a Graduated ND Filter for a scene like this

What does that mean? Well, if the sky is bright and the landscape is dark, it means that the mountain projecting above the horizon is also dark. By placing the filter in front of the lens, we don’t only darken the sky but the mountain as well. In that case, we succeed in darkening the sky and maintaining a correct exposure in the landscape, except for the mountain which is now too dark.

This is the one downside about Graduated ND Filters. A common workaround is to capture multiple exposures and blend them in Photoshop for a greater dynamic range. This is a quite advanced technique, though, so we won’t be looking into that now.

If you’re somewhat familiar with these filters you might be saying “well, you could just use a Soft Graduated ND Filter”. You’re right. This could work but it won’t in all situations. This variation of the filter has a soft transition between transparent and dark and is made for situations similar to this. The problem, however, is that due to the soft transition it won’t be as effective in darkening the sky surrounding the lower parts of the mountain and the top of the mountain might still be too dark.

Things to Keep in Mind

There are a bunch of varieties to choose between. It might be a lot to wrap your head around to begin with (it might be an overwhelming amount of options) but there are options for almost all scenarios. You’ve got soft, medium and hard edge filters, you’ve got “standard” and reverse filters, horizon filters and then within each of these options there are different degrees of darkness.

I’ve tried a lot of GND Filters and currently own a 3-Stop Soft, Medium and Hard edge, as well as a Reverse Graduated ND Filter and the Horizon filter. Until recently I always brought both the soft and hard edge with me but today I only use the Medium Grad and Reverse Grad. In fact, I’ll use the NiSi Medium Graduated ND Filter 99% of the instances where I use one. I find that it’s the best alternative and is most flexible when it comes to the situations I can use it.

I capture multiple exposures and use Photoshop to blend them when using one is not the best option. Needless to say, this is much more time-consuming so I avoid doing it when possible. I prefer being as close to the finished product in the camera, when possible.