There are many ways to achieve balanced exposures in landscape photographs. Blending multiple exposures is popular, either using HDR techniques, hand blending or using luminosity masks in Photoshop. Some people also dodge, in camera, using a black card but my preferred method for the vast majority of my images is to use the Neutral Density Graduated Filter or ND Grad.
I am sure filters need no introduction to most readers but for any beginners that are reading this article, ND Grads are rectangular filers that slot into a filter holder that is fitted to the front of the lens via an adaptor ring. Most are made of optical resin and are clear, with the top third dyed neutral grey. B+W filters specifically are made with a multi-layer coating that provides dirt and scratch resistance. The ND grads come in hard and soft transitions. Graduated filters are an essential tool that I couldn’t’t do without. It speaks volumes that every single person that has been on a workshop with me has gone out and bought a set.
If we look at the two images here, the small image was captured without any filters. I set the camera to ‘Manual’ and then wound the exposure up until the foreground looked right on the live view screen (with exposure simulation turned on). Unfortunately, the result is that although the bulk of the image looks lovely, the sky is basically missing. The reason for this is that even the best modern cameras still don’t have a dynamic range that approaches that of the human eye. This means you can either have a perfectly exposed foreground and a blown out sky or you can have a well-exposed dramatic sky and a dark lifeless foreground. It is impossible to capture both on camera without using filters.
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The main image was shot using exactly the same settings but this time I used ND Grad filters to balance the exposure between sky and foreground. Experience allows you to make an educated guess as to how much filtration to apply but I often start with a 0.6 (2 stop) Hard Grad. After setting the exposure for the foreground I slide the filter downwards to cover the sky. I then evaluate the image to decide if the sky is still too bright, about right, or too dark and either apply more or less filtration accordingly. In this case I ended up using two 0.6 hard grads – four stops in total. One of them was pushed down so it started to cover the top part of the hills in the distance. I did this deliberately as I felt the slight haze was bleaching them out a bit more than I would have liked. The second filter was then pushed down to just cover the sky. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the summit (Roseberry Topping) is sticking up and consequently this is also clipped by the filter and darkened further. I could have recovered this small part of the image when processing the RAW file but I decided not to as to my eyes it looked fine, slightly silhouetted against the bright sky. This of course is only my subjective opinion, as is the amount of filtration to apply – other people might have preferred a different balance with a darker sky or lighter foreground.
To be honest, this is the main reason I like using filters in the field rather than blending later. It means that I can compare the image on the back of the camera to the view in front of me and decide if it does the view justice, capturing how it feels to be there. If it doesn’t, I can change the exposure to make the whole image lighter or darker or adjust the filtration to change the balance across the frame. I enjoy this approach. My preference is for natural looking images, and getting it as right as possible on camera, allows me to confidently say I achieved my goal. If I blend exposures, which I occasionally do for particularly difficult images, I’m always torn as to exactly how the two frames should be balanced and never feel completely happy with the end result. It also takes a lot longer than simply sliding a filter into its holder but that’s just my opinion. I am certainly not saying that blending exposures is wrong, far from it. I just want to sing the praises of the ND Grad as a simple and effective method of capturing images with well-balanced exposures.