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Graduated Neutral Density Filters: How to Use them

Even if you’re using a DSLR, the lighting of your foreground and your background are not always perfect. Using optical filters like graduated neutral density filters can help you balance the contrast between your foreground and your background. Usually, this is used to tone down a background that is too light, or a foreground that is too dark. The key is to use a graduated ND filter properly that the photo still looks natural. If you’re a landscape photographer, graduated ND filters should be staples in your accessories kit.

Neutral Density (L) vs Graduated Neutral Density (R) Filters

What they are essentially

If you’ve never seen a graduated ND filter before, the simplest way to describe them would be darker pieces of glass which you put over your lenses so that the distribution of light is more evenly done. There are also neutral density filters which are of just one tone, and these are usually used to tone down the general brightness of a scene. However,  graduated neutral density filter is darker on one end, and it gradually goes lighter as the glass reaches the other end of the rim. It is best for you to purchase graduated density filters from your camera’s manufacturer so that you can be sure it’s the perfect fit.

Types of graduated neutral density filters

You can choose from a variety of “grades” when it comes to these filters, but the main categorizations are soft edged and hard edged filters. Basically, soft edged filters have softer transitions from light to dark and vice versa. Hard edged filters have graduations which are more abrupt. Your choice between soft edged and hard edged filters is totally up to your artistic photographic taste. Some photographers like to minimize the polarization of their scenes because they want a more natural effect on their photos. However, others purposefully use hard edged graduated neutral density filters to create an unnatural but beautiful effect on their photographs. It’s really a toss between realistic and expressionistic aesthetics—rendered in photography.

How to use filters properly

If you want a more realistic neutralization of your foreground and background, you should put the darker side of your graduated neutral density filter on the part you would like to “dim”. Some photographers use filter holders which are attached to lenses, while others prefer hand-held filters for better control. It’s really up to you. Just make sure that you’re placing the filter correctly so the graduation is not too obvious, and there is no line which could go against the horizon of your photograph.

Canon 5D III & Cokin Z Pro Graduated Neutral Density Filter

Again, it was stressed that graduated ND filters are not always used to dim or tone down the background. Sometimes, it’s used to increase the polarization of contrast of the photos. If you want this unnatural but definitely artistic effect on your photograph, all you have to do is to put the darker part of the filter over the darker parts of your photograph to emphasize the brightness of the light source. When done right, filtered photos like this can create stunning sunset and sunrise photographs. You may use a soft edged filter if you want a subtler polarization which is still unnatural and artistic but perhaps not over-the-top.  Again, placement is the key.


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