Exposed to perfection
Filters are a failsafe way of getting great landscape and travel shots in-camera. James Abbott shares some essential filter tips for perfect exposures every time
The quickest and easiest way to improve your landscape photography is to invest in a filter system that will allow you to take full control over the exposure of the sky, exposure duration and the way light itself is recorded. Here we’re talking about ND grads, ND filters and polarising filters. If you’re serious about landscape photography, filters really will help you to take the shots you’ve always dreamed of. All you need to know is when and how to use them correctly.
Neutral density graduated filters, most commonly called ND grads, are the filters you need – say goodbye to washed out, featureless skies and hello to detail and exposure balance between the sky and ground. ND grads are most commonly available as drop-in filters that slot into a filter holder on the front of the lens. This has the advantage of allowing you to not only adjust the horizontal position of the filter to match that of the sky and ground for a seamless blend, but you can also rotate them to deal with side light and even brighter foreground in some situations.
ND grads are generally available in light-reducing densities of 1, 2, 3 and 4 stops, with some manufacturers quoting these as 0.3, 0.6, 0.9 and 1.2, respectively.
So how do they work? Quite simply, these filters have a light-reducing coating at the top of the filter that graduates to no effect in the centre of the filter. The graduation can be hard, medium or soft, each designed for use with different landscapes. For a correct exposure of the sky, you simply meter for the sky and then the ground, and the difference in stops between them will suggest the density you need.
Hard ND grads
Hard ND grads are designed for use in situations where the horizon is virtually flat. These filters have an extremely short graduation from full to no effect, which makes the blend from brighter sky to darker ground seamless with straight horizons. Hard grads can sometimes also be used as ND filters when positioned low enough in the holder to cover the lens fully.
Medium ND grads
Medium ND grads are best used for landscapes where there are a number of elements such as trees, rocks or hills protruding into the sky area of the frame. Medium grads sit between their hard and soft counterparts with a medium graduation, from full to no effect, that occurs over roughly 2cm. This type of ND grad is most commonly used.
Soft ND grads
Soft ND grads are best used in mountainous regions where there are many ground elements in the sky area of the frame. These grads often need to be stronger than hard or medium grads because their graduation can be as much, if not more than, 5cm from full to no effect. They’re also great for combining with medium grads.
Reverse ND grads
Reverse ND grads are used to shoot sunrise and sunset when the area above the horizon is the brightest part of the scene. In the centre (moving down) they have a hard graduation to no effect like a hard grad. But moving up the filter they have a soft graduation from full to a reduced effect to deal with the sky at the top of the frame being darker than the horizon.
When used well ND grads will improve the details and exposure balance of your landscape shots