Some types of filters are indispensable for landscape photography. Circular Polarisers, for example; there is no way to reproduce their effect with post-processing as the amount of reflection and glare is baked into the image. It’s crucial to apply the filter correctly in the field to produce the results you’re looking for. Full NDs are equally hard to match. Some photographers say they have had good results from merging multiple short exposures in Photoshop, creating a pseudo-long-exposure. I’ve not tried this myself, but it seems that using multiple wave images together would be such a random selection that getting a smooth single flow would be problematic to say the least. The other workaround is to stop down the aperture to raise the shutter speed. However, going past f/16 will likely introduce diffraction and reduce the overall sharpness of the shot. Give me a good ND filter every time for that purpose! But when it comes to graduated filters, there is a perception that they are a relic from the days of film photography and therefore have no place in a digital workflow. With the ease of exposure blending techniques such as Luminosity Masks or Lightroom’s “Photo Merge to HDR” there’s nothing to stop you taking a set of filterless bracketed exposures and creating a single image to work from. That’s completely true, and I’m not about to argue against it. However, for myself, I do still see a grad filter as a vital part of my process. To dig into this I’d like to give some background with a few issues I’ve faced over the years
Dealing with High Contrast Scenes
As a lover of vibrant golden hour shots, I find myself shooting directly into the low sun more than I perhaps should. I love the glow through backlit plants and trees and, while a bit divisive, I do also quite like a sun star in my images from time to time. The challenge created by this style is the huge dynamic range in the scene; the sun is (obviously) incredibly bright, but there will also be deep shadows and silhouettes. I’m not a professional so can’t justify the expense of an upgrade to a high-end, full frame body. I’m shooting on the more-than-capable Canon 80D - which is excellent for most of the images I take - but the dynamic range isn’t as great as on other more advanced sensors. That said, even if I did upgrade, I’m not sure many cameras would be able to get this type of scene ‘in one’. As a result, when I’m taking these images I need to be mindful of the processing I’ll be doing when I get home; primarily I’m conscious of needing to capture as much data in the brightest and darkest parts of the scene as possible. If the sensor won’t be able to do that in a single shot, then I need to spread the contrast over a number of images (a technique known as Exposure Bracketing) and I’ll then use Lightroom’s “Photo Merge > HDR” to blend them.
Bright Exposure - The histogram is clear of the left (dark) edge, showing good detail in the shadows. However it is bunched up at the bright end, signifying burnt-out highlights.
Dark Exposure - The lack of a spike at the right hand side of the histogram shows that the bright sky has retained detail, but instead the loss of quality is in the dark areas
Exposure Bracketing - As the camera cannot capture the whole range in one shot, multiple exposures are used at different shutter speeds. These are the four additional exposures used (straight out of camera).
Generally, I bracket manually, and use single stop intervals as I have found this to give the best results. The only variable is how many bracketed shots I will need to cover the full range of the scene, and this changes on every shot. I use the Histogram in Live View and move the exposure from the brights to the darks to ensure I’ve captured the entire dynamic range of the scene. The downside of manual bracketing is that touching the camera introduces a small chance of wobbling the tripod - especially in marshy or peat locations. As such, each shot is taken on a two-second timer. I could get around this by setting the camera to take a bracketed set on burst mode, but this can be too easily thrown off with an incorrect base exposure, or a slight change in the light. As such, I’d have to check the histogram on all the images anyway, so it really doesn’t gain anything. It’s far safer to manually set my exposures. I should also note that I genuinely enjoy the feeling of working through this process manually: Take an image, adjust the shutter speed by 3 clicks, repeat - all the while watching the peaks in the histogram slide from one side of the range to the other to ensure I’ve captured everything. I feel strongly connected to the taking of the image. A long description, but all of it is simply to say that bracketing is a time-consuming process whichever way you approach it. Shooting into the sun creates another issue which must be addressed in the field - lens flare.
If the sun is out of the frame, it can be less of an issue - a
sturdy lens hood will keep the light off the front element
and you’re good to go. Stick our nearest star in the frame
and, while the effects can be beautiful, you’re often left with
uncorrectable smears of rainbow across the shot. The image
above shows an extreme example of this, and fixing this in
Photoshop is a non-starter. Correcting the fuzzy blobs of
colour and lost detail is a mammoth task and will result in a
degraded image, and one which will be structurally different
from the scene I saw at the time.
To avoid that an extra step is required in the field to allow a simple fix in the edit. I take a second copy of each image in the bracketing sequence, with my hand or a lens cap covering the sun. Working like a hood, this shields the front element of the lens from the direct light and prevents the flare. I’ll then blend these shielded exposures in Lightroom and copy the develop settings so the image matches the flared version. Sometimes a little negative dehaze and colour balance tweaking is needed for an exact match, but this gives me a clean overlay which can be very simply combined using a layer mask in Photoshop.
The full set of twelve RAW exposures used for the final image
A simple step in the field and an easy edit, but all told, this has now doubled the images taken - from the initial six to twelve in all. And after that long explanation of the process, this finally brings me to the primary reason I rely on a graduated filter.
These shots all used my Firecrest Pro 3 Stop Soft Edge Grad. Without those handy 3 stops of darkening of the brighter areas of the scene, it would likely take nine (rather than six) pairs of images to cover the dynamic range. With flare- shielding, that would be eighteen exposures in total. If clouds are scudding through a scene, or the light is changing fast, getting images as quickly as possible is vital. I am aware that my process in the field is already long-winded, but shrinking the range of exposures I’m working with is a huge help. It can make the difference between getting a second composition in a burst of light, or being able to take a backup set of brackets. I could take it further with a stronger filter, but there will be a point at which the grad creates an unnatural darkening of the tops of trees, mountains, buildings etc. There’s no point in using a filter which is going to adversely affect your image quality (and don’t get me started on colour casts from other brands...). I find that my trusty 3-stop grads (Both Firecrest Pro 100mm and Onyx 85mm) provide a good balance between reducing the dynamic range and impacting on the results.
A Grad isn’t just for Golden Hour
It is also worth noting that bracketing isn’t just for shooting into the sun. In blue hour for example, when the sun has just set and the horizon is still bright, we may still need to bracket shots to account for the dark, unlit foreground - as was the case with the image to the left (Higger Heather) Clearly flare isn’t a problem here, but the dynamic range is, and again, a grad helped narrow the range and reduce the number of images I needed to take in the falling light levels. But crucially, do not forget that, in many instances, the graduated filter will mean we can take a single image rather than bracketing - what can be more efficient than that!
A Grad isn’t just for Golden Hour
Sometimes bracketing isn’t an option at all, and the grad is vital to the exposure - this is especially true during long exposure photography. Given that bracketing works around taking shots where as little changes between frames as possible, working with seconds-long or even minutes-long exposures means that has to be abandoned. In this view from Win Hill (right), taken with my Onyx 10-Stop ND, I added the 3-stop grad to take the brightness of the clouds down a notch. The exposure was just over a minute in length, and the burst of light on the hills was fleeting. There was no way to take bracketed images in this situation, so the grad filter was vital.
There are other reasons a grad might be helpful in the field. On a DSLR, you can look through the viewfinder and your eye and brain deal with the dynamic range of the scene, allowing you to compose your image naturally. However, once you switch to live view and use the LCD screen, or if you are shooting mirrorless with an Electronic View Finder (EVF) you are then limited to the dynamic range of the sensor, and you may not be able to see all the detail in the preview. Adding a grad can give you a better in-camera feel for the scene as the dynamic range is lessened. On a more creative note, you can also experiment with some non-standard uses of a graduated filter. Last summer I had a very early start for a sunrise visit to Ramshaw Rocks in the Peak District. At dawn, I shot the above composition with the sun on the right side of the image so I set the grad to darken the upper right corner. Shortly after, I switched from landscape to portrait for another composition, but in my sleep-deprived state I forgot to rotate the holder to compensate for the new orientation. As a result, the darkening effect was now applied to the left of the image - the side away from the sun. This had the effect of accentuating the brighter glow on the right. I’m sure the specific conditions must have played a large part, but due to the mis-aligned grad, I saw something on the back of the camera which I liked
I’ve used this deliberately on occasion too - not all of my photography is so accidental! One summer’s evening, I was at Salford Quays (below) hoping to capture a display of Noctilucent Clouds above the brightly- lit buildings. I was over the moon when these beautiful, blue, ’night-shining’ clouds shimmered into view, but the images I was taking felt very busy. I wanted the viewer’s eye to be drawn to the top half of the scene and the clouds behind the tower blocks. The reflections in the water were far too bright and distracting, so I used an upside down grad to darken them slightly. In both of these cases I could have quite easily done the same at home in Lightroom - dropping a grad adjustment over the image is very simple indeed. But seeing the impact of the filter while shooting was a very tangible part of the process. I was able to get a much better feel for the result, and make other adjustments to the exposure and composition leaving me with more confidence in the files I was coming home with.
Overall, then, while it is completely true that it is possible to manage high-contrast scenes without a graduated filter, they can streamline the photographic process and help you get a better idea of the end result while composing the scene. To my mind they can still have a place in a photographer’s filter kit and they absolutely do in mine. They fit perfectly with the processes I use while shooting and ensure I can capture all the data I need to present the scenes I shoot.
Kieran works freelance as a Graphic & Web Designer, and describes landscape photography as a chance to be creative for his own brief. He was the winner of the Campaign for National Parks ’ 70th Anniversary photography competition in 2019 and is often found photographing the Peak District.