Photography Cheat Sheet: Choosing the Right ND Grad Filter

Curious about using ND grad filters for your landscape photography? Here’s a quick photography cheat sheet to make sure you’re using the correct type.

Neutral Density graduated filters, or ND grad filters, are landscape photographers’ filters of choice for scenes with tricky lighting. These filters come in different types, so it’s important to know which is the correct one to use based on the scene. If you’re new to using ND grad filters for landscape photography, today’s photography cheat sheet has some tips to help you evaluate a scene and choose the right filter.

The cheat sheet below, by Digital Camera World, covers the essential tips for using ND grad filters: from what you need to know before you get an ND filter system, setting it up, and working out which filter type your scene requires. There are also additional tips on some best practices to make sure you get the best results.

First things first: it’s important to take note of the diameter of your lens before buying an ND grad filter system. You can find this on the inside of the lens cap, or check the number on the front of the lens next to the circular icon. If you plan to use ND grad filters with different lenses of different diameters, you’ll need to get screw-in adapters in their sizes as well.

Once you have your ND grad filter system on hand, you’re ready to practice shooting with it. If you’re settled with the composition of the scene and have locked the camera on a tripod, proceed to screw the bracket over the front of the lens and attach the holder. Make sure you can rotate the main body of the holder once you’ve secured it. Set the camera to Aperture Priority mode and point it at the foreground, then note down the shutter speed.

To determine which filter type to use, you’ll need to carefully evaluate the lighting of your scene. Point the camera at the sky and note the shutter speed reading. Compare this to the reading of the foreground and determine the difference in stops between the two by doubling or halving the shutter speed. Then, refer to the guide below:

Two stops: 0.3 ND or ND2 grad

Three stops: 0.6 ND or ND4 grad

Four stops: 0.9 ND or ND8 grad

It’s generally not recommended because it can affect the quality and contrast of the image, but if you want to experiment, use additional filters and stack them on the extra slot to amplify the effect. If your scene has a clear, straight horizon, as with a seascape, use an ND grad filter with a hard-edged gradient. Otherwise, a soft-edged gradient will be fine.

Next, slide the filter you chose into the holder, holding it by the edges and taking note to cover the bright area of the scene with the dark part of the filter. You can use your camera’s Live View to set it correctly or press the Depth of Field preview button so you can see the transition better in the viewfinder. Now, you’re ready to shoot. Take a test shot with your camera set to Manual exposure mode and Evaluative or Matrix metering. Check the histogram and adjust the exposure if it’s too dark or too bright.

Need more photography tips and tricks for your next shoot? We have loads more for you to browse from our photography cheat sheet collection!