3 Reasons Why Graduated Neutral Density Filters Are Dead To Me

second_beach

I get asked all the time what filters I carry. And many times, whenever I recommend filters on one of my online training courses or shows/webcasts, people will comment on my lack of recommending Graduated Neutral Density filters. So I thought I’d set the record straight on why grad filters are dead to me. I’ve taken all grads out of my camera bag and haven’t actually used one in at least 2 years (if not longer).

First let’s look at what grads are meant to do for a landscape photographer. When we’re out shooting, if we expose for some of the darker areas in the foreground (trees, rocks, bridges, etc…), the sky typically get’s overexposed since it’s much lighter than everything else. So the darker grad filter was a way for a photographer to darken the sky in camera. Without a grad filter, this is something along the lines of what you’d see in camera in a photo with a bright sky.

Grad Filter

There’s indeed detail and color up there, but you can’t see it. So we need to fix this and grad filters have traditionally been used over the front of your lens to help darken the sky. As you can tell from the title, I’m not a fan. Here’s why:

1. It’s the Old Way Of Doing Something
I think we’ll all agree that most people have moved on past film. The Digital vs. Film arguments have all but vanished right? So we know that the way we used to do it (film), has given way to the way we do it now (digital). But a grad filter was a film tool. It was a tool we’d use to get the photo right in camera because we had to. But things have changed. We now have tools in post that are meant to do this. It’s their sole purpose. And these tools do a great job, and usually better than we could do it in-camera.

Here’s an example. When we shot film, if you wanted a black and white photo you used black and white film. Today though, very few people set their camera to B&W mode to shoot black and whites. Instead, we do it in post. It’s something you could do in camera, but we’ve moved on and we know that the B&W conversion plug-ins are better than what our camera can do. It’s the same concept with a grad filter. The post-processing techniques are better than what you can achieve with a piece of plastic/glass in front of your camera.

I guess my point with this first one here is try not to get caught up thinking you need to use a tool from the past, just because some one who used to use one, said you have to.

2. It’s More Gear to Carry and Worry About
I love filters. In fact, in my outdoor photography I’d say I have a filter on at least 50% of the time. It’s usually a circular polarizer or a neutral density filter. But you know what happens every time I put those filters on. The level of complexity increases. The more gear, the more things to think about while shooting, the less you’re concentrating on being creative and actually making a great photo and composition. So I’m not saying abandon filters all together because we can do it all in post. I’m suggesting that you abandon the filters you don’t need anymore. You can’t recreate the effect of a polarizing filter for removing glare off rocks, trees, leaves and water. Once that glare is there, it’s there. You can’t recreate (or at least recreate well) the effects of long exposure photos taken with neutral density filters. But you can recreate the effects of warming and cooling filters. And those filters are all but gone. Ten years ago, I’d always see people using them. But today, I couldn’t even tell you the last time I saw one on some one’s camera.

The grad filter is just one more piece of gear to worry about. And when you’re using either of the two other filters I mentioned above (polarizer and/or neutral density), now that complexity get’s even worse because you’re stacking filters on top of filters which gets hairy. So stick to the filters that you absolutely need, and leave the ones you don’t to post processing.

3. The Results Are Better Without An ND Filter
I didn’t write this blog post on a whim. When I give up a piece of gear and stop using it, it’s because I’ve researched, experimented, researched some more and experimented some more to get to my final thoughts. I can tell you that I’ve taken the same photos with the grad filter on, and I’ve taken the photos with it off and done many comparisons. If you simply just want to darken the sky in a graduated/feathered way, then the results are exactly the same. But to me, those results aren’t good enough. Unless you’re shooting at the beach to a perfect horizon line with nothing in front of you but water and sky, chances are you’re going to darken something that you didn’t want to. Here’s an example. I used the Grad Filter in Lightroom to darken this sky. The sky looks pretty dead-on to what I saw. But I can tell you that there was a lot more detail in the cliffs and rocks in the distance then there is now.

(click to see the image larger)

Grad Filter

So these results, to me at least, aren’t acceptable. So what do I do? Well, if I had shot this with a grad filter in camera, it’d be pretty hard to pull out detail from those rocks without it getting really noisy and grainy. And I’d be stuck with it. No delete key. No eraser brush. Nuttin’. But since I’m doing it in post, now I can just adjust the Shadows slider to compensate. Since the sky is bright, it won’t be affected by any shadow adjustments and only the darker rocks in the distance will be.

(click to see the image larger)

Grad Filter

And if you really want to get fancy, why not just take two exposures. One with the darker sky that’s well exposed (but really dark foreground), and one with the well exposed foreground (but really bright sky). Then you can use layers in Photoshop to put the to together to get the best of both worlds. You’re essentially using Photoshop to create what you saw in real life – not what your camera saw with it’s limited tonal ranges compared to your eyes. And with Photoshop’s selection technology as good as it is, you wouldn’t believe how simply these changes can be.

So when I say they’re better, trust me… they’re better. I’ve done the research and tests. And any photo you see of mine in the last 2-3 years hasn’t had a grad filter used on it.

What About Getting Perfectly Right In Camera?
Back in the film days you had to get it right in camera. But we’re not in the film days any more. So I’m really not even going to try to debate this one. Folks, to me, a good photo is a good photo. I don’t care how you got there. Not one bit. I don’t lose respect for you if I realize it was a composited image, a replaced sky, or even a fake sky altogether. To me, if it’s a great image then I’m a fan of it no matter how you got there. If you’re of the mindset that you want the photo completely done in camera, right after you press the shutter, then go for it. I know that I’ll never convince you otherwise and I don’t hope to. I wrote this only for the people that don’t mind doing a little post-production on their photos. People who may be unnecessarily making things more difficult for themselves because they heard from “some guy”, who said that they absolutely HAD to use a grad filter – and that the Lightroom/Photoshop trickery was non-sense and didn’t produce a good enough image ;-)

Thanks for stopping by. Have a good one!

  • Frieda

    Thank you — I never had good “luck” with them since film so didn’t use them. This confirms I’m not stupid :-)

  • Glenn

    Takin’ a stand, I like it! I have one, never really used it, stays in the drawer, LR works great just as you said. I bracket at least 3 so I have all the digital detail I need.

    Does one of your KelbyOne classes teach the two photo blending technique? I know the basics, it’s that line where one selection meets the other I’m not sure I know how to best do.

    • http://www.mattk.com/ Matt Kloskowski

      I’ll have to check Glenn. If not, it sounds like a great course! :-)

  • DestructoTex

    “Back in the film days you had to get it right in camera. But we’re not in the film days any more. So I’m really not even going to try to debate this one. Folks, to me, a good photo is a good photo. I don’t care how you got there.”

    Exactly. This is something I’ve wrestled with as I’ve learned and accumulated gear. And in the moment out in the world, I don’t want to be messing around with one more piece of gear – one more moving part – that is taking me away from shooting.

    Camera raw (and Lightroom processing) has gotten so good that it’s usually not even an issue anymore. I used to be ashamed of “fixing it in post.” Now I know that if I can get it close in-camera, that’s typically close enough to reproduce what my eye saw in post.

    And once I found out that even Ansel Adams did most of his work in post, I stopped stressing about it altogether.

    • http://www.mattk.com/ Matt Kloskowski

      You said it great. “One more moving part”
      It’s not like it’s heavy gear or something that takes up a lot of space or is hard to use. It’s just one more moving part in the mix of a lot of other moving parts. And if its a part I can get rid of, then I will.

  • http://commercialphotoservices.com/blog Alexandra’s Corner

    I have one, and I only used it once in a kitchen where the windows were so bright I needed to tone them down some how…never used it outside yet! After this, I doubt I’ll ever will….I’ll to my 10 stopper…LOL

  • Bill Caskey

    I could not agree more.

    • http://www.mattk.com/ Matt Kloskowski

      I knew I liked you Bill ;-)

  • http://commercialphotoservices.com/blog Alexandra’s Corner

    “IF we’re not in the film days”, then how come all or 90% of the “filters & plugins” out there resemble, or want to make us get the film look still? Matt? your thoughts? (I am pointing this out because we could create many more “looks” in photoshop without replicating the film looks at all).

    • http://www.mattk.com/ Matt Kloskowski

      I’m personally not a fan of the film looks. It’s part of the whole retro movement, which again, I’m not a huge fan of. But hey, to each their own. Some people (actually many people) must like it because that’s what people seem to be making.

      • http://commercialphotoservices.com/blog Alexandra’s Corner

        Honestly, back in film days when I was shooting film I never got those “looks”! I am not a fan either; I mean, I have a perfectly good photo, and then I make it look all overcooked and noisy? After my noise reduction works hard to remove the noise! Makes no sense to me. I like nice and clean looks, free of noise and clutter and scratches etc. Matter of fact, if I put film in my old kodak now I doubt I’de be getting any scratches….LOL maybe some dirty looks from the Walgreens rep…hahahah

      • http://www.leapinglodge.com Jim Lee

        Matt,
        I am not a fan of the retro look either. It is funny that for decades the industry has been improving quality and improving quality. It is amazing the tools that we have today vs. when I started in commercial photography. I get excited every time I get to work with new tools. Now, the movement is to degrade quality by adding a retro look? I don’t get it. I guess many people like the vintage look and I can understand that viewpoint. Maybe it is the popularity of phone photos and trying to mask crummy photography? I don’t know, the iphone can do quite a bit (within reason) in the right hands. And so many of the LR presets are vintage look? No thanks. Guess I am getting old (as my wife keeps telling me).

  • http://www.leapinglodge.com Jim Lee

    Matt,
    This is a great blog post. As a photographer for over 40 yrs. I couldn’t agree more. Those of us with film backgrounds have a hard time giving up some of the old concepts. We know how to do it “the film way” but it is so hard to “forget” that the old concept doesn’t really apply anymore. I am no longer afraid to wait for post production. I get so tired of hearing “get it right in the camera”. Don’t hear me wrong, get it right in the camera is extremely important, but some things are done better in post. The masters sure did a lot in post.

    • http://www.mattk.com/ Matt Kloskowski

      I agree Jim. There’s thing that you can’t substitute getting right in camera. Great light, great composition, great subjects and even sharp photos. If it’s really blurry, or HEAVILY over exposed, no matter how much post there is, it won’t change a thing. Thanks.

  • http://commercialphotoservices.com/blog Alexandra’s Corner

    “Camera raw (and Lightroom processing) has gotten so good that it’s usually not even an issue anymore. I used to be ashamed of “fixing it in post.” Now I know that if I can get it close in-camera, that’s typically close enough to reproduce what my eye saw in post.”

    Sorry, I have to reply to this: The thing about “fixing in post”…needs to disappear, because:
    1. If we go out and we have “things” in our photos that we don’t want to have in our photos then we have to address it later.
    2. The camera sensor does not see the same way as our eyes see; so we have to address certain things in post
    3. What’s the big deal? at least you’re sitting comfy on a chair, rather than dig your hands half way into chemicals!

    I never go out thinking “I am going to get it all in camera”! That’ll never happen in my case, there is always “something” that I don’t want to see in my photos…it could be sensor dust or a whole person…

    Photoshop is not our savior, it is our tool that helps us deal with the “realities” we find on various places we shoot in! No need to feel inferior/shame, or anything else about it. Think of it like the jack you carry in your trunk! If you have a flat tire, you take it out, put the car on it, and replace the tire. It helps you get back on the road.

    I cannot live without PS…and that’s because everywhere I go, there is always something I don’t want in my photos!

    • http://www.mattk.com/ Matt Kloskowski

      If there’s something I don’t want Alexandra, I just kick it really hard :-)

      • http://commercialphotoservices.com/blog Alexandra’s Corner

        LOL! Looks like we have something in common, even though I know you can do that “literally”…..I resort to words…LOL BTW I need to email about something (PSW) else, is that email still good?

  • http://scottwyden.com/ Scott Wyden Kivowitz

    Definitely an interesting take on it. I do not always bring my GNDs with me but sometimes I get the urge to play more and see what can be accomplished with them in addition to my standard NDs.

    • http://www.mattk.com/ Matt Kloskowski

      Resist the urge Scott… resist!!! ;-)

  • Dennis Smith

    Well… I agree. In the “old days” there have always been three parts; the shooting, the processing and the printing. Digital didn’t change that. Before the GND, you had to suck it up, then a new thing came along, GND and we used the tool. So, now we have a newer tool, better than the hard line GND filter.

    Were we needs to be careful is being sloppy. Did I change the sky because I was too lazy to wake up or go at the golden hour, or because I never going to be in Fiji again, it took me three hours from the hotel to this great spot with great light on the rocks with over blown skies?

    • http://www.mattk.com/ Matt Kloskowski

      Thanks Dennis. I agree (kinda). Again, a good photo is a good photo to me. So if it’s shot at high noon, but is a great photo, all the more power to ‘em. That said, I think we can usually spot a photo taken during the golden hour and one that’s not.
      Thanks for the input :)

  • Lilithay

    just a big LOL

    • http://www.mattk.com/ Matt Kloskowski

      :-)

  • Jan Hebel

    If you expose for the foreground, the sky will be really light, not really dark…other than that I totally agree :-)

  • Rich23

    Thanks Matt, great article. Was looking to buy some filters and now, after seeing this, will only get the BIG Stopper & some ND’s. All makes perfect sense.

  • Harmeet Gabha

    I’ve also never invested in these expensive filters and holder systems, just purely that adding a 1-stop or 0.5-stop GND filter is much faster and safer in Lightroom then fiddling around with the glass.

    Only filter I use is ND for long exposures. This is hard to do in post.

  • Richard Olson

    Interesting article! I use GND’s a lot, but thought, “what am I giving up?” I’d look at my results at home disappointed a few times because the GND line’s in the wrong place, sections of the photo to dark and missing detail, etc. I guess for me, I’ll need to capture images with the filter and without plus become proficient in post processing. Matt, watching your videos online and love ‘em

  • Dennis Zito

    Hey Matt,

    Excellent post! I’ve never owned GND even when I shot film. However, I never processed my film so I never had the need for GND. However, with digital it’s a whole new concept. I do try my best to get it as good as I can in the camera, but knowing full well that I’ll need some post processing away. First, get the shot and not worry about every little detail! My challenge is to cut down the amount of time processing an image. I’ve set my goal to try and get it done within 15 minutes. There are times when It take a little longer because I have to go into PS to remove something or use a certain plug in. I guess the people that just have to do in camera probably don’t use cell phones or computers either. :-)

    Dennis

  • Mike Wilson

    Can one not shoot two exposures and then use the Ps HDR process t blend the two images? It would beat the need to repaint along the tonal borders with a brush. And (for me at least) I need to repaint, fix the times I don’t “color inside the lines,” and repaint again and again.

    For Glenn: Open the two adjusted images into Ps. Drag and drop with the SHIFT key held down one of the images onto the other. Create a mask with the Create a Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers flyout window. (circle inside a square) Open a soft edged brush (B) and paint in the area you want to bleed through the top image. You may need to check the Set Foreground Color tool in the TOOL BAR. You can use the X key t do that. Practice makes perfect.

  • http://www.ronnevinkx.nl/ Ronne Vinkx

    Completely agree. And I think if you’re willing to spend time and money on working with a good grad filter, you’re better off buying and learning Lightroom which you probably already have.

  • Tony

    I can just feel the teeth grinding and clenched fists now! I agree 100%. Actually I came so late to the game that I have never owned a GND filter. Not planning on buying one now!

  • Jary Högnabba

    Thank’s Matt! I tought i was doing something wrong. Now i know better : )

  • Greg H

    Photographer or digital artist – I guess it boils down to how one identifies oneself. For me, I’d much rather stand outside (yes, even in inclement weather) and work to craft my best work there, rather then spend time in post. For me, I like the slowing down in the field, the close inspection as I adjust everything – being thoughtful.

    I’m not arguing my way is better – and I’m not getting that Matt is either. I suspect I wasn’t the only one to shoot lots of images, only to spend considerable time at the computer fixing things that should have been better captured.

    • http://www.mattk.com/ Matt Kloskowski

      Hey Greg – I guess I’d say that I’m not sure doing it in post makes you a digital artist rather than a photographer. The image is all digital no matter what you do whether it’s in camera or in post right? And who’s to say what “should” have been captured? Just because that’s the way it used to be captured doesn’t mean it’s correct, right? I mean, to me it seems kinda archaic to take the digital image, that’s saved to a digital card, that goes to a digital computer and gets shown on a digital device or printed through a digital printer and introduce a piece of plastic into the equation to darken the sky. The entire process is digital, so why can’t darkening the sky be as well?

      Lots of people liked the darkroom. That was part of the process of the photo to them. Why can’t your time on the computer be the same. I know I actually like to play “photographer”, “digital artist” or whatever you want to call it, even after the photo is taken. Its enjoyable for me to work an image in post and craft the vision that I really had for that image between dodging and burning, the sky, trees, etc…

      Just something to think about. I don’t think using a filter makes you any more of a photographer than not using one.

  • Corey Hardcastle

    I also agree Matt. Haven’t used a grad filter since I purchased the d800. It is amazing how often one can work just a single photo without even having to blend exposures. Gotta love a big dynamic range!

  • Marc

    Yes, and it’s also time consuming.
    I have a Lee set and now use it scarcely.
    I’ve noticed that fiddling with filters in the field takes far longer that simply bracket 5 exposures. We could even say that if you have a limited time frame to shoot on location, replacing filters will go against inspiration because you’re concentrated on screwing the holder, picking the right filter, hard or soft, try reverse GND when the sun almost sets, etc..
    Better time spent is working the scene or change lens/focal length.
    Or just go to the next spot.

  • Rick

    Awesome, I was just about to go to the WPPI Expo this week and get a ND filter. Now I think I will continue without one, may even skip the whole expo. I live in Vegas haven’t gone to WPPI because some of the classes seem really basic….

  • Brian B.

    Great article Matt…

    I have a technical question on how you use a polarizer with your Lee system.

    Do you attach the polarizer before the Lee Holder, or do you use the huge 100mm polarizer that the Lee holder requires. I am just wondering how you avoid/minimize vignetting with your particular set up.

    Again, thanks for the article.

    Brian

    • http://www.mattk.com/ Matt Kloskowski

      Hey Brian – easy answer… I don’t :-)
      When I use the big stopper I don’t use a polarizer. And if I did, there would be no way to avoid vignetting other than fixing it in post.
      Good luck! :)

  • Rodney Dugmore

    Kind of agree Matt but where you have got contrast ranges exceeding the cameras range you have to either use a ND grad else blend two exposures. (No HDR for me) If there is movement along the transition line then the ND filter is by far the best option Personally I enjoy using the grad filter and despite it being an old time approach I will contine to get great results with it as do many Top landscape photographers worldwide

  • Matt Donovan

    This post put a smile on my face, Matt! I know so many photographers who only got into photography after the film days and have been taught by old school shooters that they must use a GND. They never questioned it? And I’ll be honest, I’m kind of over seeing perfectly exposed foreground and sky images that have a silhouetted structure above the horizon where the filter has darkened it. How realistic is that?

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  • Matt Payne

    Interesting perspective and I mostly agree. I’m not really a huge user of ND filters, mostly because I don’t own my Lee kit any longer and my fotodiox kit takes forever to put on my 14-24; however, there are some shots in my portfolio that would have been impossible to reproduce in post without the grad ND… but for the most part, RAW files can take a good beating.

  • Jonas Hellsén

    You are so right! Again. The only filters I use are in post. Often within ColorEfex Pro. The only filter that use that actually is a physical filter, is the ND filter. Especially when you want that special depth of field on daylight images. Keep it simple and make it beautiful are my rules. :-)

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