Graduated neutral density filter or graduated ND filter / GND filter.
It’s a piece of transparent glass or resin. Half of it covered in transparent black and the other in full transparency with a gradual transition in between.
It’s a very common piece of photographic accessory manufactured for one purpose:
To narrow the dynamic range of a high contrast scene.
We also know that we can bracket multiple exposures to create an HDR image which produces a similar result.
The question comes when:
ND filter vs HDR: Is ND filter obsolete?
Graduated ND Filter Vs HDR
Just to clarify, I do a lot of HDR with digital blending but I also enjoy using a graduated ND filter when I have time.
This article is not about which is better but what kind of scene works with the filter and when you should consider shooting for HDR instead.
The Art of Using A Graduated ND Filter
It used to be a landscape photographer’s best friend and no one will ever go out without one in their bag.
If you have a series of the ND filters, you may need a separate pouch to store the filter ring, filter holder and some sort of protective layer to keep the filters from getting scratched.
No doubt, a good quality ND grad filter costs. Besides, you often need more than 1 to prepare yourself for a different situation.
For beginners, it may take time to set it up before shooting.
What’s Good About Graduated Neutral Density Filters?
It’s an art to using them.
Experienced photographers often take pride in their work created with ND filters.
It also saves time during post-processing and I find the most rewarding part is the process of using the filters.
HDR Is The Name of The Game?
Digital technology has made our lives simpler than ever.
But at the same time, it makes us become more simple-minded.
We don’t read the light or try to understand what we’re shooting. Sometimes we bracket multiple exposures and figure it out later when we get in front of our computer.
But The Advantages of HDR Are:
You carry less gear, you don’t need to spend to buy filters and you don’t have to set it up or take it down after.
It basically saves time on shooting, money and also gives you more tonal control on your images. The trade off is you have to spend more time in post-processing.
Besides, if you choose the right image for HDR, you may get results that couldn’t be achieved with a grad ND filter.
The most challenging part of using a graduated ND filter is finding a suitable horizon.
I’m going to show you 4 examples of what works and what doesn’t with grad ND filters and HDR.
I don’t use graduated ND filters frequently so I don’t have many images with an actual ND filter applied. So, to illustrate my point, I used digital graduated ND filter in Lightroom.
1. Graduated ND Filter Is Easy On A Straight Line
A graduated ND filter is great when the horizon is relatively straight.
In the example above, the horizon is the line that separates the water and the sky + the hills.
It’s clear cut and straight with nothing sticking out into the sky or the water.
Using a filter, in this case, is simply the matter of positioning the transitional zone of the filter on the horizon.
Can this be done with HDR? You certainly can.
2. When An Object Crosses The Horizon
What if there’s a tree across the horizon?
The filter may have darkened part of the tree but it doesn’t matter because the tree is small in this image.
But if it was bigger, or occupying a significant part of the image, the effect may have been more obvious
Can this be done with HDR? Of course, and if the tree was much bigger than HDR may be a better choice.
3. The Complex Transitional Zone
The problem with a grad ND filter is when there’s a large object crossing the horizon, or the horizon isn’t straight enough to be covered by the transitional zone on the filter.
In this example, the trees are complicating the horizon. This didn’t help by the rock occupying most of the right half of the image.
You can see the top half of the rock is darkened by the ND filter, making it look out of place.
HDR, in this case, would’ve been a better technique to properly expose for the rock and darkening the sky at the same time.
4. Images With Silhouette
In other times, the situation might be similar like above with the only difference being that most of the image is in silhouette.
The grad ND filter has no doubt darkened the mountains in the foreground. But this doesn’t affect the image because the darkened part is a silhouette.
Can this be done with HDR?
Yes. But I think it can also be done by reducing the highlights in post-processing. Most parts of this image are midtones so there’s really no need to do HDR.
A graduated neutral density filter is definitely not obsolete in the era of HDR.
Spending a bit more time to use an ND grad filter may save you precious time in post-processing. You may also become a better photographer in the process by learning to read the light of the scene.
It’s easy to just shoot for HDR without planning.
In my opinion, selective use of HDR and consider using a graduated ND filter at the same time may save you time and effort to produce the best result.
For more tutorials on HDR photography, do check out the HDR resource page!