When the GND Doesn’t Help

Read Between the Lines - Varina Patel

Take a look at this shot of the Toadstool hoodoo from Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. The light was really nice – the sky was changing color a few minutes before sunrise, and very soft morning light kissed the orange rocks in front of me. The sun was getting ready to rise over my left shoulder – and the scene was pretty evenly lit, since I wasn’t shooting into the sun. The problem was that I couldn’t capture the entire range of light in a single frame without a Graduated Neutral Density filter… and I didn’t want to use one.

Why not? Well, as you can see, the horizon in this shot is not straight. GND filters are perfect when the horizon is relatively straight. We use them for sunset or sunrise shots – where the sky is bright and the ground is dark. The filter can slide up or down to allow the photographer to adjust for the position of the horizon. They are incredibly useful little buggers if you enjoy landscape photography.

Unfortunately, in this photograph, the line between sky and ground isn’t straight. A GND filter would have made a dark line across the top of the hoodoo. No good. So I bracketed exposures instead. I took two photographs from the same spot – using a remote release to make sure the camera didn’t move at all between exposures. The first shot was exposed correctly for the sky – so the sky looked great, but the ground was too dark. The second shot was exposed correctly for the ground – which meant the sky was too bright.

I used layers and masks in Photoshop to combine these two images and create a final photograph that represents the scene as I remember it.

About Author Varina Patel

There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks… Brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow… Silent snowfall and raging summer storms… Each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph, and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.

  • Mohit


    Firstly, kudos to you and Varina! I have been following you both on Google+, going through your photographs and blogs for quite sometime now and needless to say I feel very inspired seeing your work. Varina’s blog about your Iceland trip was great and it is helping me prepare for my first photography trip ever abroad (to Iceland). I’m a beginner (been 6 months since I’ve been into Photography) and I have taken it up as a very serious hobby.

    I have a question about ND filters:

    #1: In the pic above, would it have helped using a plain Non-Graduated ND filter? Say ND-2 or 4, etc? It would have helped bring the skies to the right exposure and then for the foreground either a second manual exposure to get it right (without the filter or a lower stop one) and then manually merging both the background/foreground in Photoshop.

    The reason I am asking is that I am planning to buy the Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo filter (http://www.singh-ray.com/varinduo.html) and wanted to understand how I could use that to get (say) the same shot.

    #2: Have you used or know about Singh-Ray filters? Any suggestions?

    I am aware and have done HDR processing too during the past 6 months … and I know I can always fall back to that technique and avoid using the filter altogether.

    #3: Am I right on this?

    Thank you in advance…. and keep up the fantastic work both of you are doing! Wish you travel to India too and make your Photo tours, workshops available for us.


    • Thanks, Mohit. We appreciate the kind words. Let me see if I can answer your questions – though I know that they were intended for Jay. Unfortunately, he’s been very busy this week, and hasn’t found time to respond.

      You suggest using a neutral density filter to adjust the exposure. Although your suggestion would work, I could do the same thing without any filter at all, simply by adjusting the shutter speed for the image. Either way, I’ll need two exposures to handle the entire dynamic range, and then I’ll need to blend the images later for a finished image. I think it makes more sense to work with the settings that are available to you right on your camera, rather than fiddling with extra equipment when you don’t need it. That said, there are lots of cases where a neutral density filter is useful. Here is a link to one of my posts on Google+ – this might help give you an idea of a situation where a graduated neutral density filter would be useful.


      We often use ND filters when shooting waterfall, waves, and lakes… or when rapid cloud motion might give us an interesting motion effect in the sky.

      Sometimes I shoot early in the morning or late in the evening – while it is still relatively dark out – in order to get the same effect.


      As for Singh-Ray filters in particular – we don’t recommend any specific brand at this point. Singh-Ray makes good filters. So do Hi-Tech, Cokin, and B&H.

      I hope that helps. Good luck with your own photography! We do hope to make it to India someday soon. 🙂

    • I completely agree with what Varina had said…and wanted to add couple of more points: First Vari-ND Filter are expensive and often times create diffraction artifacts. Second they are pretty expensive. So, while in theory it is possible to use Vari-ND and blend 2 images together, I don’t see any practical purpose for doing it. Thanks for the comment on our work.

  • I am so glad I found your images, and am in awe as to your expertise with photography. Having said that, I am so far away from where I want to be in photography, but I am not discouraged because life is one step at a time and so should my development in photography be one degree of glory to another. My passion is mainly landscape photography and I live in Idaho, so I have a lot of gorgeous scenery around me. I especially love how nature at times explodes right before my very eyes and I can’t get enough of it.

    My question is on bracketing images in high contrast scenes. Do you meter a high contrast scene. Do you meter in manual mode or do you meter in an aperture mode in your camera, or do you take the time to meter your scene at all. Many photographers just compose and bracket on either side of middle to take their shots. Some meter the light and dark portions of the scene and then do the math to try and come close like in horseshoes and hand grenades. I appreciate how much you offer to those of us who look up to photographers like you and your wife to fill in the gaps in our photographic journey Thank you.
    John Beliera
    Boise Idaho

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for the kind words about our photography. We meter the scene manually….After taking the shot we check the histogram to make sure that we have enough information in the highlights, mid tones and shadows. If we don’t we have to adjust our exposure to get the correct amount of details. Having said that there are tools in today’s camera (some not ALL) that will allow you determine exactly how much metering should be appropriate before you even press a single shot. This is one of the technique we concentrate on during our workshop.

      Our next 2 workshops are in your backyard: Glacier and Yellowstone in case you are interested. Good luck with your photography.