Graduated Neutral Density Filters

Unlike a neutral density filter, which most photographers and filmmakers use to remove overall light from an exposure, a graduated neutral density filter only darkens a portion of your image. Typically the sky of a landscape photo. These filters are manufactured with varying densities of darkness or stops. They have soft or hard edge blends where the exposure coating meets the untreated area of the filter. 

Grad filters are being used less and less as cameras’ dynamic ranges are improving. Photographers are also blending exposures in software to create a similar effect. There are two reasons that I prefer the actual graduated neutral density filter. First, I think a photo looks more realistic when using a grad filter. Second, it is less work to create the photo in-camera.

A Brief Graduated Neutral Density Filter History

The modern-day graduated neutral density filter was born around 1990 when the late photographer Galen Rowell approached Bob Singh of Singh-Ray filters about a design change to the graduated neutral density filter concept. 

It wasn’t that the graduated neutral density filter wasn’t around in the early 90’s, it just wasn’t around in the form Galen Rowell wanted it to be. The grad filter has actually been manufactured since the 70’s, but as a circular filter with the gradation occurring directly in the middle of the circle. 

Rowell wanted the filter to be position adjustable so he could move it to where he wanted the horizon in his composition. The way he and Bob Singh achieved this was by creating a rectangular filter that covered more than the entirety of the lens face. The rectangular filter can be shifted up or down to align perfectly with the horizon in your composition. This is important because typically the exposure difference that occurs in a photo happens where the sky meets the ground.

An original Fujichrome Velvia Film photo using a graduated neutral density filter to darken the sky.

Graduated Neutral Density Filter Why

The high contrast films of yesterday—Fujichrome Velvia and Kodachrome, had only about an 8 stop latitude. If your sunset scene possessed more dynamic range, and it typically did, you needed a tool to balance that exposure out. 

Today, most digital cameras have 12-14 stops of dynamic exposure range, but a sunset scene may have upwards of 18 stops. A lot of photographers now take one exposure for the sky, one for the foreground, and blend them in a software like Photoshop. My editorial clients don’t allow me to do that. They are looking for truth in advertising. So what do I do? I use a graduated neutral density filter in-camera. 

Once I import my DNG file into the computer, I can make adjustments to my file via Lightroom Classic CC. These adjustments include contrast, exposure, color, and even noise & sharpening. I could opt out of using the graduated neutral density filter in the field and apply one in Lightroom. However, I have found that my photos look better if I use the filter in the field. I will sometimes add more adjustment in post as well.

Enter the Breakthrough Photography Graduated Neutral Density Filter

IN GLASS! I used to use Singh-Ray graduated neutral density filters like many outdoor photography pros. Over the years though, I would quickly destroy them. The coatings on Singh Ray’s polarizers always seemed to get pitted. In addition, their graduated neutral density filters are made of resin, so I scratched the shit out of them. 

Then Breakthrough Photography came along. I gotta say that I was very hesitant to try yet another filter manufacturer after going through so many of them over the years. Then a friend told me to try his Breakthrough Polarizer. Not be cheesy here, but it was a breakthrough—and yes, that was cheesy. The quality of the filter, and the effect it had on my photos, was the best I had seen to date. I think it was the fact that Breakthrough was using high-end SCHOTT optical glass—it’s German. Think Porsche and Leica. Wink.

The Ultimate Grad Filter

Then one day the peeps at Breakthrough told me they were working on a grad filter out of the same glass. Can I try that? They sent over a filter and a new filter holder that they were working on. I completely discounted the filter holder until they explained more about it. I always hand-held my grads in place for speed. This holder was magnetic though and it allowed for a magnetic polarizer to be dropped in and adjusted in addition to the grad filter. So I decided to give it a try too. 

I actually love the precision filter placement I can obtain when using the filter holder. Though I don’t always use it, I have found it most beneficial during exposures longer than 8 seconds.

If speed is crucial, I will still handhold my graduated neutral density filters. Now I have a solution for just about every situation that I encounter in the field though.

From a recent shoot in Moab, Utah using a new Breakthrough Photography 3-stop Reverse Graduated Neutral Density Filter.

What I Carry Now

I am carrying less filters than ever in an attempt to pare-down the crap in my camera bag. All of my filters are now from Breakthrough. All are glass as well.

  1. 82mm X4 CPL Circular Polarizer
  2. Magnetic X4 Dark CPL 3-stop (this filter polarizes and removes 3-stops of exposure)
  3. Soft Edge 100mm x 150mm X4 GND 3-Stop (I use during reflection landscapes)
  4. Hard Edge 100mm x 150mm X4 GND 3-Stop (I use during most general sunset landscapes)
  5. Hard Reverse Edge 100mm x 150mm X4 GND 3-Stop (I use when shooting landscapes directly into sunrise or sunset)
  6. X100 Filter holder with 82mm Adapter (this isn’t anything like the old Cokin P holder which was plastic and crap, this all metal and well thought out)

You may be thinking that 5 filters are a lot! This is nothing compared to what I used to carry. Which would have included graduated neutral density filters in basically all stops and steps, multiple polarizers in multiple sizes for multiple lenses, additional neutral density filters, and color modifying filters. I have probably dropped 75% of the filters that were in my bag at this point.

There are other filters that I use on occasion. I just don’t carry them with me all the time.

In addition, the main reason that I am only carrying 3-stop graduated neutral density filters, is because my camera has really good dynamic range. If an exposure only needs a density of 1 or 2 stops added to the sky to darken it, I will make that adjustment in Lightroom. I will also do the same if the exposure is opposite needing 4 or 5-stops of adjustment—use the 3-stop filters in the field then add more density in Lightroom after.

The Little Trick

When I am using a graduated neutral density filter in the field I use my back LCD for easier placement. 

If you are shooting a DSLR, you will need to turn live view on and see if the live view on your camera has an exposure simulation setting. If you are shooting a mirrorless camera, make sure the back LCD is turned on and that you are using the simulate exposure setting. 

The simulate exposure setting is very similar to the old school depth-of-field preview button, with one major exception. The electronics within your camera properly adjust the exposure you see based on the settings you have chosen. So no more looking through the darkness of the depth-of-field preview button. You have got to love technology.

Final Thoughts

The graduated neutral density filter is an amazing tool that allows the photographer to create a more dynamic and dramatic photo. The latest digital cameras get us closer to producing an almost perfect shot right out of camera. It’s typically when those clouds light up or the sun is just touching the horizon that we need a little extra push to make the photo that much better. In my opinion, you cannot beat Breakthrough’s glass grads for that moment in time.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks Jay. I have been wanting to buy some neutral density filters and now I don’t have to wade through all the options.


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