I Can’t Live Without My Neutral Density Filter!

Photography is all about controlling the light. It is fairly easy to do in a studio, but outside in the real world of landscape photography, it can be a challenge.

Imagine you are standing in front of a breathtaking vista and you want to make a photograph. You set up your tripod (yes, you use a tripod to get the best possible image). You begin to compose your photograph. Then you notice that the sky is much brighter than the land. If you expose for the sky, the land will be too dark. If you expose for the land the sky will burn out. Welcome to the landscape photographer’s challenge.


What are your options?

  1. You could take two different exposures of favoring the sky and the other favoring the land. Then you could merge them in Photoshop. Its a pain, but you could do it.
  2. You could apply a graduated neutral density filter in software like Photoshop or Lightroom.
  3. Or, you could use a graduated neutral density filter on your lens.


A Graduated Neutral Density Filter can improve your photography.

I prefer to go for option #3. I am one of those photographers who believe that you always want to get the best possible image in the camera and tweaked in software.

Option #1 is not a bad option because you are able to capture all the information in two photographs that you can later combine to make one final image. It just takes time to do the merging. If you are shooting a lot of exposures of the scene, you have a lot of merging to do to see which is the best image.

Option #2 is the least favorable. You end up making a compromise exposure so you don’t overexpose the sky and underexpose the land. What you usually end up with is a “blah” image. If you expose for the land and use the software filter, you can only retrieve so much of the sky. When something is overexposed or underexposed you lose data. You cannot retrieve lost data. Once it is gone, it is gone.

How Does It Work?

A graduated neutral density filter goes on the front of your lens and has a full strength density on the top then gradually lightens up to clear at the bottom. They are available as a screw on filter or a rectangular filter that goes on a filter holder on your lens. There are advantages and disadvantages to either kind.

  • Screw on filter
    • Advantages
      • Convenient to use. You just screw it on and you are good to go.
      • Easy to carry. You only have one filter to worry about.
    • Disadvantages
      • The point where the lens goes from neutral density to clear is usually halfway down the filter. This means that you almost have to shoot the horizon dead center in your image.
      • The circular filter is not adjustable to fit multiple lenses. You have to buy a filter for each lens that requires a filter.
  • Rectangular filter
    • Advantages
      • Using a filter holder you can move the filter to add more or less of the neutral density portion in the image. So if you are shooting an image and want to show a big sky, you can have the neutral density portion cover all the sky before the clear part begins. It gives you much more flexibility in your composition.
      • The filter holder can have adapter rings so you can use it with multiple lenses.
    • Disadvantages
      • It requires a special filter holder.
      • It is larger than a circular filter and may have its own special carrying case.

My Preference

I went with the Rectangular filter. It has provided me with the ability to create great images.

I cannot live without my graduated neutral density filter because it helps me to get the best possible image in my camera.