I get asked all the time what filters I carry. And many times, whenever I recommend filters on one of my online training courses, people will comment on my lack of recommending Graduated Neutral Density filters. So I thought I’d set the record straight on why grad filters are dead to me. I’ve taken all grads out of my camera bag and haven’t actually used one in at least 2 years (if not longer).
NOTE: This article is about GRADUATED NEUTRAL DENSITY filters mainly used for darkening a sky. It is not referring to NEUTRAL DENSITY filters which are typically used to extend the shutter speed time for longer exposures. I believe a ND filter is still absolutely necessary in today’s photography and will produce an image in camera that cannot be created (or created as well) in post-processing.
First let’s look at what grads are meant to do for a landscape photographer. When we’re out shooting, if we expose for some of the darker areas in the foreground (trees, rocks, bridges, etc…), the sky typically get’s overexposed since it’s much lighter than everything else. So the darker grad filter was a way for a photographer to darken the sky in camera. Without a grad filter, this is something along the lines of what you’d see in camera in a photo with a bright sky.
There’s indeed detail and color up there, but you can’t see it. So we need to fix this and grad filters have traditionally been used over the front of your lens to help darken the sky. As you can tell from the title, I’m not a fan. Here’s why:
1. It’s the Old Way Of Doing Something
I think we’ll all agree that most people have moved on past film. The Digital vs. Film arguments have all but vanished right? So we know that the way we used to do it (film), has given way to the way we do it now (digital). But a grad filter was a film tool. It was a tool we’d use to get the photo right in camera because we had to. But things have changed. We now have tools in post that are meant to do this. It’s their sole purpose. And these tools do a great job, and usually better than we could do it in-camera.
Here’s an example. When we shot film, if you wanted a black and white photo you used black and white film. Today though, very few people set their camera to B&W mode to shoot black and whites. Instead, we do it in post. It’s something you could do in camera, but we’ve moved on and we know that the B&W conversion plug-ins are better than what our camera can do. It’s the same concept with a grad filter. The post-processing techniques are better than what you can achieve with a piece of plastic/glass in front of your camera.
I guess my point with this first one here is try not to get caught up thinking you need to use a tool from the past, just because some one who used to use one, said you have to.
Update May 2016: Speaking of new ways to do things, Sony has a killer app that basically does all of this in camera (and puts out a raw file). It’s called Sky HDR and I did a quick video on it here if you’re a Sony shooter.
2. It’s More Gear to Carry and Worry About
I love filters. In fact, in my outdoor photography I’d say I have a filter on at least 50% of the time. It’s usually a circular polarizer or a neutral density filter. But you know what happens every time I put those filters on. The level of complexity increases. The more gear, the more things to think about while shooting, the less you’re concentrating on being creative and actually making a great photo and composition. So I’m not saying abandon filters all together because we can do it all in post. I’m suggesting that you abandon the filters you don’t need anymore. You can’t recreate the effect of a polarizing filter for removing glare off rocks, trees, leaves and water. Once that glare is there, it’s there. You can’t recreate (or at least recreate well) the effects of long exposure photos taken with neutral density filters. But you can recreate the effects of warming and cooling filters. And those filters are all but gone. Ten years ago, I’d always see people using them. But today, I couldn’t even tell you the last time I saw one on some one’s camera.
The grad filter is just one more piece of gear to worry about. And when you’re using either of the two other filters I mentioned above (polarizer and/or neutral density), now that complexity get’s even worse because you’re stacking filters on top of filters which gets hairy. So stick to the filters that you absolutely need, and leave the ones you don’t to post processing.
3. The Results Are Better Without A “Graduated” ND Filter
I didn’t write this blog post on a whim. When I give up a piece of gear and stop using it, it’s because I’ve researched, experimented, researched some more and experimented some more to get to my final thoughts. I can tell you that I’ve taken the same photos with the grad filter on, and I’ve taken the photos with it off and done many comparisons. If you simply just want to darken the sky in a graduated/feathered way, then the results are exactly the same. But to me, those results aren’t good enough. Unless you’re shooting at the beach to a perfect horizon line with nothing in front of you but water and sky, chances are you’re going to darken something that you didn’t want to. Here’s an example. I used the Grad Filter in Lightroom to darken this sky. The sky looks pretty dead-on to what I saw. But I can tell you that there was a lot more detail in the cliffs and rocks in the distance then there is now.
(click to see the image larger)
So these results, to me at least, aren’t acceptable. So what do I do? Well, if I had shot this with a grad filter in camera, it’d be pretty hard to pull out detail from those rocks without it getting really noisy and grainy. And I’d be stuck with it. No delete key. No eraser brush. Nuttin’. But since I’m doing it in post, now I can just adjust the Shadows slider to compensate. Since the sky is bright, it won’t be affected by any shadow adjustments and only the darker rocks in the distance will be.
(click to see the image larger)
And if you really want to get fancy, why not just take two exposures. One with the darker sky that’s well exposed (but really dark foreground), and one with the well exposed foreground (but really bright sky). Then you can use layers in Photoshop to put the to together to get the best of both worlds. You’re essentially using Photoshop to create what you saw in real life – not what your camera saw with it’s limited tonal ranges compared to your eyes. And with Photoshop’s selection technology as good as it is, you wouldn’t believe how simply these changes can be.
So when I say they’re better, trust me… they’re better. I’ve done the research and tests. And any photo you see of mine in the last 2-3 years hasn’t had a grad filter used on it.
What About Getting Perfectly Right In Camera?
Back in the film days you had to get it right in camera. But we’re not in the film days any more. So I’m really not even going to try to debate this one. Folks, to me, a good photo is a good photo. I don’t care how you got there. Not one bit. I don’t lose respect for you if I realize it was a composited image, a replaced sky, or even a fake sky altogether. To me, if it’s a great image then I’m a fan of it no matter how you got there. If you’re of the mindset that you want the photo completely done in camera, right after you press the shutter, then go for it. I know that I’ll never convince you otherwise and I don’t hope to. I wrote this only for the people that don’t mind doing a little post-production on their photos. People who may be unnecessarily making things more difficult for themselves because they heard from “some guy”, who said that they absolutely HAD to use a grad filter – and that the Lightroom/Photoshop trickery was non-sense and didn’t produce a good enough image 😉
Thanks for stopping by. Have a good one!