The graduated neutral-density filter has been a longtime choice of landscape photographers for high-contrast lighting. Half clear and half tinted, this filter evens up the light between a bright sky and a shadowed landscape. Shooting such a scene unaided, the resulting photo will show the sky as totally washed out or the landscape as way too dark and muddy-looking.
In recent years, however, grad filters have fallen out of favor. The reason is the High Dynamic Range (HDR) technique, which involves shooting multiple exposures and then combining them in the digital darkroom for a single well-exposed image. While a grad filter demands a landscape-sky combination with a horizon, HDR works for all sorts of contrasty scenes, horizon or not.
However, some top pros still carry grad filters - even ones who are avid HDR practitioners like BetterPhoto instructor Tony Sweet. Why?
"Well," says Tony, "using grads render a more natural image, if that’s the goal. Also, HDR takes time, and if the goal is to get very smooth flowing water and a natural sky - and the clouds are moving - the resulting effect is called 'ribbing.' That's where the clouds have moved through the exposure series, so the clouds are in a different position on each file. In that case, you will have to spend time painting in parts of, or even the entire, sky. And it still may not look right. When shooting landscapes that include sky with clouds, I will always go to the grad filters. In my opinion, Singh-Ray makes the best out there, and the larger 'Lee' size are the ones you want."
More info on grad filters: Along with Singh-Ray, there are less-expensive brands available too. But whatever you buy, shape matters. With a round grad filter, you are stuck with placing the horizon in the middle of the picture. Instead, a rectangular version allows room for the filter to move up and down. Special holders are available for the rectangular filter, although many veteran grad users simply hold it in front of the lens.
In addition, grads come in various densities and in two styles of tint-to-clear dividing lines: soft edge (which involves a gentle gradation to handle uneven horizons with, say, trees or mountains) and hard edge (designed for more distinct horizon lines).
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