A Helpful Guide to Using a Graduated ND Filter with Mirrorless Cameras

The graduated ND filter is one of the best things for landscape photographers to use.

A graduate ND filter is one of the most challenging types of filters to use. Slotting it into just the right spot can mean a big difference to the landscape photographs you make. Keeping them clean is also crucial to better final images. Landscape and seascape photographers often find these filters very useful. And with the transition from DSLRs to Mirrorless cameras in recent years, there have been significant changes. The addition of the exposure preview feature has changed the way we shoot, and having a graduated ND filter in front of the lens also affects things.

The most significant deviation has to do with the exposure preview. One would think that turning off the exposure preview and adding a graduated ND filter would render the scene to look the way it would with a DSLR. But that’s not the case. Instead, you need the exposure preview setting enabled. This way, you’ll be able to see the effects of the filter on the scene. You can use this to create a more balanced shot. I’d also look at the histogram and the overall exposure, and then consider your camera’s dynamic range. Some cameras shoot with sensors more akin to slide film, so there’s less tonality in the file. But some cameras have RAW files that can be pushed for forever. Give it a shot and always shoot in manual mode or aperture priority.

“The most obvious examples of their use are for horizon photos and images shot during the golden hour. When combined with a low ISO and a narrow aperture, they can also allow the photographer to capture long and dreamy exposures. Way before the age of digital photography, film photographers would use graduated ND filters before doing any sort of dodging and burning in the darkroom.”

– How to Use a Graduated ND Filter for Landscape Images

We also recommend locking your white balance. Some graduated ND filters say they’re color neutral. But we haven’t always found that to be the case. If you’re shooting a sunset or sunrise, white balance to daylight. If you want to dial in the Kelvin levels, set the camera to 5500 Kelvin. After that, you can fine-tune it however you’d like in post-production.

For the uninitiated, these filters are much different than variable Neutral Density filters. While Variable NDs control the entire scene, graduated NDs have control over a smaller area. They work in different ways, which is why Graduated NDs are great for high contrast scenes. If you’re shooting with the brightest brights and the darkest darks, then you’re going to have a tough time shooting. But the graduated ND filter makes things easier.

Where this becomes most challenging is when shooting with a Leica rangefinder. If you’re doing this, then switch the camera to Live View mode. You’re not going to see the effects of the scene through the viewfinder at all. Of course, if you’re using the EVF on the camera, you’ll see them. But either way, the exposure preview setting is necessary. Lastly, we recommend making long exposures: that’s where you’ll get the most use of graduated ND filters and also have the most dreamy images. Combine this with a high megapixel camera body, and you’ll have a picture worthy of a print. You can also do this to avoid having to do HDR imagery. Instead, you’ll get it all in a single RAW file. Cool, huh?

Also, be sure to check out our Lens Filter Guide. As always, the Phoblographer’s Cheat Sheets are made with Visme.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.