Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filters can instantly transform your landscape images by reducing the dynamic range of a scene.
Our tips for buying a GND filter for landscape photography
Tip one: A GND filter should look like this*
* Hand sold separately. Hand shipping may not be available to your country or territory due to its perishable nature.
A GND filter for landscape photography should not look like this:
Circular shaped ND filters are next to useless for making interesting landscape images. Think about it for a moment. In order to get the gradient effect where you need it you will always need to compose where the filter 'tells' you to.
That's the tail wagging the dog, the cart coming before the horse and the arse about the face all in one hideous photographic metaphor. Not to mention that the gradient split is always in dead centre (no more rule of thirds compositions). And you will need a different filter for each sized lens (or mess around with adaptors that always get lost and seize up in the field). And screwing one of these onto a polarizer will cause vignetting on the corners of images made using ultrawide lenses...
I'm going to say this again. Don't buy circular screw-in type GND filters. Some of you still will so please feel free to purchase them by clicking the above Amazon.com image - I may as well clip the ticket on your regretful mistake ;-)
Tip two: The 'N' in GND stands for Neutral
Not all GND filters deserve the N in their acronym. Quality GND filters result in accurate (neutral) color rendition after light has passed through the dark portion of the filter. Cheap GND filters appear to have been made from the discarded tinted windows of 1982 Ford panel van - freaky colors will ensue.
Tip three: buy quality
I won't tell you which brands to avoid (rhymes with smokin') but I will tell you which ones we like:
Singh Ray make the very best GND filters (IMHO) and we have used them for years on both film and digital cameras. They do add the slightest hint of red on long exposures but it always looks great. We use the following two models (named after photographic legend Galen Rowell):
Our first ever proper GND filters were made by Lee - we bought them 20 years ago and they were hard to come by, stocks were limited and it was nearly impossible to figure out their range. Fast forward 20 years and Lee filters are hard to come by, stocks are limited and it is nearly impossible to figure out their range. I'm told it's a British thing.
Despite this, Lee make fantastic, optically superb GND filters that are possibly even a little more neutral than the Singh Rays (we preferred the slight warm tinge of the latter though).
We own a soft edged three stop and the soft-edge is far too wide to be useful - I would recommend the hard-edge option instead (although I hear that Lee has a bit of quality control variability due to their 'handmade' nature).
Due to my confusion as to sizes and specs I have just provided a link to all of the Lee GND Filters on amazon.com. Actually, after reading all of the above, I think it is prudent to skip Lee and take a look at:
Although I have never owned a Hitech filter I have seen excellent results from my friend Rob Packer who owns a full set of these beautifully crafted filters. Hitech are made in Wales and as the name suggests, they use high tech modern production processes to ensure high quality products (no handmade variability for Hitech). Hitech used to be significantly cheaper than Singh Ray but as their reputation has grown so have their prices and Singh Ray have cut their retail price to meet the challenge. We all win.
This is a Neutral Density (ND) filter. Please note the missing 'G' - it's important...
ND filters such as this Formatt-Hitech 10 Stop monster cut light to the WHOLE image - there is no Gradient (G). ND filters do not reduce the dynamic range of the scene it just slows your shutter speed by 10 stops - so if you have a bright sky and dark foreground the sky will still be fried if you expose for the foreground. ND filters may be fantastic for photographing:
ultra-long exposures of moving subjects (e.g. clouds and water)
studly, scantily clad men welding steel beams (I put that one in just for the ladies)
nuclear warhead tests
But they are useless for extending dynamic range in landscapes.
I hope that this has helped you in your search for a GND filter. Be sure to check out our related article How to use a GND filter.