Santa Fe New Mexico Family and Children Photographer – David Moore» Blog Archive » Using a Neutral Density Graduated Filter – not just for landscapes

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This is the photography blog for photographer and writer David Moore. He's based in Santa Fe, New Mexico but speaks with a funny accent.


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    June 7th, 2012

    Using a Neutral Density Graduated Filter – not just for landscapes

    Normally thought of as a tool for landscape photographers, neutral density graduated filters (or ND grad filters) do a simple thing well. They reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor from one part of the image, their shading fading gradually to letting all the light in to the rest of the filter.

    This gradation normally means the top-half is filtered and the bottom half not (but there are lots funky ways of adjusting this using filter holders and stuff I won’t go into here.

    The classic usage is to darken the skies to keep detail there while getting a good exposure on the mountains in a landscape shot.

    But here in New Mexico it’s almost always sunny, and up here in Santa Fe (at 7500′ or so) the light has some serious intensity to ┬áit. Which means if it’s daytime and your shot includes some sky, unless your subject is in full sun (or you’ve got a Broncolor studio light with you), you’re likely going to have to blow the highlights in the sky.

    So why it’s taken me this long to get an ND grad filter I’m not sure, but in my first forays with it today I can see its worth. I got a 0.6 filter, which offers a 2-stop reduction in the light entering the lens, and while the change isn’t super dramatic (stronger filters are available), it’s definitely noticeable.

    Here are 2 images shot with exactly the same settings with my Fuji X-Pro1. They’re straight out of camera JPGs, and to be honest I’m impressed the Fuji managed to get any blue in that sky at all. But you can see the improvement in the version with the ND grad filter attached.

    Left is without the ND grad filter, right is with. Both shot with the same settings: ISO 400, f/4 1/250.

    The dynamic range between the girl in the shade and full cloudless sky is still substantial, but the shot with the grad filter is definitely better.

    So it’s not great for every use, but I definitely wouldn’t keep it just for landscapes. And while the gradation on my filter stops straight across the middle of the lens, with the large files that today’s cameras put out, a bit of creative cropping in post processing means you wouldn’t always have to keep the horizon in the middle of the frame.

    The original version of the image below had lots more driveway between myself and the truck, but the crop gives more sky relative to the foreground. Again, this is a resized jpg straight from the camera, and again, I think the X-Pro1 can take some credit for part of this nice blue sky – a RAW file wouldn’t have this much punch.

    So I’ll definitely be keeping my ND grad filter around, and not just for the rare occasions when I’m going out to shoot landscapes. Which is so rare, I’ve never done it.


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