Shoot balanced landscapes with a graduated ND filter
Use your graduated neutral density filters to the max
Shooting a perfectly exposed landscape without the help of a filter can be very difficult, especially on a bright, sunny day. If you expose for the sky your landscape is likely to be dull and underexposed, but if you expose for the foreground, the sky will be far too overexposed and washed out. When a sky is overexposed the detail in the clouds will be lost. This is where graduated neutral density (ND) filters come in.
Graduated ND filters are used to balance the exposure within a scene, typically between a bright sky and dark land. There are different variations of graduated filters that vary slightly in application – LEE filters have soft, medium, hard and very hard grads, all of which come in different strengths. Each type of grad comes in various strengths from 0.3 ND (1 stop) to 1.2 ND (4 stops). In order to know what strength to use, you must first work out the exposure of both the sky and foreground then calculate out the difference within one stop.
Step 1 Set up the camera
To ensure that your composition is just right, you should first position your camera on a tripod to keep it steady. Now make sure the camera is in Manual mode with a reasonably narrow aperture of around f14 and ISO 100 if it’s a bright day.
Step 2 Calculate your exposure
In order to pick the correct strength of ND filter to use you need to take a meter reading to correctly expose the foreground, then take another reading of the sky and work out the difference between the two
Step 3 Choose the filter
If for example the sky is three stops brighter than the landscape then you should choose a 0.6 ND (2 stop) grad. For our composition we have chosen a medium graduated filter because of the trees protruding into the sky.
Step 4 Attach the filter holder
Graduated ND filters are rectangular, so you need to also purchase an adaptor set to be able to attach it to the camera. The LEE filters 100mm system involves a filter holder and an adaptor ring that screws onto the lens.
Step 5 Position the filter
Now carefully slide the filter into the holder with the dark half at the top. You should be able to see the transition line through your viewfinder, but you can also use Live View if you find that easier.
Step 6 Take your shot
Once the filter is in position, set the exposure to the foreground reading from before. Some lenses may struggle with autofocus when the filter is in position so you may need to use Manual Focus. When you are happy take your shot then have a look at the preview.
ND filter types
ND grads come in both Hard and Soft variants. Hard grads have less feather on the transition from the opaque to transparent parts of the filter and are useful for darkening the sky equally from the top of your frame to the horizon. Soft grads have more feather and are better suited to scenes where lots of objects break the horizon line