Are Graduated Neutral Density Filters Still Relevant?

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Graduated Neutral Density Filters (GND) are designed to reduce the dynamic range of the landscape photo you are trying to capture and allow you capture an high dynamic range photo with a single shot. So it is perfectly natural for us to get this question:

Do you prefer to use GND filters in the field or high dynamic range (HDR) processing in Photoshop?

Our answer is always the same… it depends“.  The important thing is to understand the advantages of each option and to know when to use one or the other… or both. If you know how to use a GND photography filter, you can produce the results with a GND filter that are very similar to a manually-blended image.

Take a look at the landscape photos of Mt. Adam captured in Mount Adams Wilderness in Washington. In the first image, I used our manual Blending with Light Photoshop workflow to blend two bracketed images using Photoshop layers and masks. The goal when blending images is to preserve the natural shadows and all the detail in the highlights. In the end, we want to create an image that is as close as possible to our memory of the reality of the scene.

  • Example of Manual Blended Landscape Photo from Trout Lake, Washington

    Landscape Photo 1: Manually-blended photo from Trout Lake, Mt. Adams Recreational Area, Washington (WA), USA

  • Landscape Photo created using a GND Photography Filter: Trout Lake, Washington (WA), USA

    Landscape Photo 2: Captured with a GND photography filter: Trout Lake, Mt. Adams Recreational Area, Washington (WA), USA

The second photos was taken in exactly the same spot – just a few minutes earlier. For this shot, Jay used a 3-stop GND filter. The filter successfully brought down the highlights in the sky so that the camera could capture the entire dynamic range in just one shot. You may notice that the trees at the base of the mountain are much darker in this image. That’s a result of the use of the GND filter.

In this case, the GND filter worked well to reduce the brightness at the top of the image, but it also darkened the trees more than we’d like. For this particular image, the manually-blended landscape photo is just a bit closer to the reality of the scene that evening. So does it mean that it is better than then one created using the GND photography filter? Not necessarily. For this particular image, the dead vegetation at the horizon was not appealing enough to call it a better image.

As you can see from the Mt. Adams example, we can easily replace a GND filter with a manually-blended landscape photo. So, why should one bother to purchase a GND filter?

Using a Graduated Neutral Density Photography Filter to create silhouette effect, Canon Beach, Oregon

Using a GND Filter to create silhouette effect, Canon Beach, Oregon

In the Mt. Adam’s photo above, it was not my intention to darken the vegetation in the mid-ground. However, there are times when I would intentionally choose to darken part of the landscape photo using a GND filter. This may be because the details in that part of the image do not make the image more appealing or I want to include a silhouette in my image.

In the landscape photo from Oregon, I used a GND filter to satisfy both these criteria to come away with a stunning shot from Canon Beach. In this case, having a GND filter allowed me to get it right in-camera and simplified my post-processing workflow.

There are times when we prefer to use a graduated neutral density filter over a manually blended landscape photo. Here is a short video where Jay explain why we carry a GND filter.

In the end, it’s all about understanding the options that are available. Take the time to experiment with GND filters and HDR processing. Find out what works best in any given situation. Most importantly, make the effort to understand WHY that approach is best. Each option has it’s place. We teach our students how to use GND filters during our on-the-ground workshops… and we teach manual blending techniques in video courses.

Check out the following tutorials on Visual Wilderness:

About Author Jay Patel

I could startoff like this – “Seeds of Jay Patel’s appreciation for beautiful places were planted early in his childhood….” but it would get boring really fast. I will just sum it up and say that I am a Landscape and Wilderness Photographer who loves to capture dramatic light. My photographs have been published in various magazines, calendars and advertising materials throughout the world.
Patience is a virtue...unless you are chasing your dreams