The process of correctly using Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filters for landscape photography is really very simple but can be a bit hard to grasp at first. We have been using GND filters for the best part of 20 years and we share a few tips and tricks in this short article - including a little video that shows a GND in action.
Tip one: select the correct GND filter for the job.
We carry two GND filters these days (we used to carry four):
The term soft-edge / hard-edge refers to how quickly the filter transitions between dark and clear. Soft-edged filters obviously feature a longer, smoother transition than a hard-edged filter. Which type of transition you select will depend upon how sharp the division is between the light and dark portions of the particular scene.
Moeraki boulders New Zealand. Because the transition between the light sky and darker clouds is so well defined I opted to use a 3 stop hard-edged GND filter for this scene. Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark II Lens: EF17-40mm f/4L USM Shooting Data: 16, 3.2, 100
Tip two: don't bother with a filter holder for GND use
Most GND filters (Singh Ray included) are sized to fit into a cheap and cheerful Cokin filter holder. This seems like a good idea until you try screwing adaptor rings into the filter thread of a circular polarizer during a sunrise spectacular like the one above.
Filter holders slow you down, they often end up being visible in frame (as vignetting) on ultrawide angle lenses and they don't really prevent your GND filter from being scratched anyway. We just handhold our GND filters - you can see this in action in the following video.
Please note that I used a 3 stop soft edge GND in this scene due to the complex transition between light and dark in this scene. Unfortunately the Nikon D800 has such an awesome dynamic range that it actually captured the scene in a single frame - I have had to alter the frames to illustrate when and where a GND is a great option.
Tip three: Learn how to use a GND using LiveView
Liveview is a great way to visualise and understand the effects that a GND filter is having on your image - simply slide the filter down until it looks right and then activate the shutter. We don't use Liveview ourselves as we find composing easier through the viewfinder - which leads to our final tip...
Tip four: use Depth of Field Preview when composing via the viewfinder
When you are looking through the viewfinder your camera has the aperture wide open in order to let as much light through as possible. You will most likely be composing your landscape image 'stopped down' to a narrow aperture setting such as f/11 in order to maximise depth of field (DOF). The problem is that the wide open setting doesn't accurately show where the graduated filter transition will be placed once the lens is stopped down during exposure resulting is some weird images. In order to compensate for this simply hit the DOF preview button while composing through the viewfinder - things will go dark, but your eyes will rapidly adjust - then move the filter into place and hit the shutter button. Simple!
I hope that has been of some assistance to you - feel free to ask questions in the comments section below.