At the 5 year mark of this blog, we are revisiting some of our most helpful instructional stories. Originally posted in September 2009, Adam Barker provides some excellent advice for choosing and using Graduated ND Filters. Also, be sure to check out our new video featuring Adam, Tony Sweet and Cole Thompson.
In the course of his frequent workshops, exhibits and photo trips throughout the West, Utah free-lancer Adam Barker talks with lots of photographers. "Since I started using, bragging about and writing blogs about Singh-Ray Filters," says Adam, "I've been getting many questions about which ND Grad filters are the most useful ones to start with. That’s always a tough question to answer, because there are many variables to consider. I always begin my answer by asking a few questions of my own.
"What type of outdoor photographs do you most often shoot: landscapes, action sports, lifestyle, architecture, or perhaps commercial projects? Where do you most often shoot: sea coast, desert, mountains, forests, or around the city? What types of exposure balancing challenges do you often find yourself dealing with? Do they most often involve moderate or extreme differences in dynamic range?
"What type of horizons do you most often encounter? Are they mostly straight across the scene and uninterrupted, or do they more often include uneven shapes such as mountains, rocks, tall buildings, or other protruding subject matter that could be adversely affected by a 'hard-step' gradient?
"By now, my reason for asking these questions should be obvious. Depending on where, how and what you intend to shoot, your ND Grad choices will likely differ somewhat from mine. I live and shoot a great deal in and around Salt Lake City, UT. This means lots of mountains, mountain lakes, streams, with vibrant sunrises, and sunsets. I also shoot a great deal throughout the greater American West -- think Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park, Arches, and Canyonlands. My filter set was chosen to answer my own expected needs when shooting in these areas.
"In addition to various kinds of landscapes, I shoot a great deal of active lifestyle, travel and action sports photography. I use my set of Singh-Ray filters for all of it -- even the commercial stuff. So please keep this in mind as I stick my neck out to try answering the one question still on your mind.
"In addition to Singh-Ray's LB Warming Polarizer, my idea of a good starter kit would include three types of Graduated ND filters: the 2-stop hard-step, the 3-stop soft-step and the 3-stop Reverse ND Grad. By using these three filters individually and in combination, you should be able to do most of the exposure balancing required for your outdoor photography. Once you have become skilled with these filters, you will know if and when you need to add others to handle special circumstances.
"You can see in this image of Devil’s Castle in the Alta Ski Area -- with its relatively straight horizon line and moderate range of exposure levels between foreground and background -- a perfect candidate for the 2-stop hard-step Graduated ND. The vignette caused by the (particular orientation of the) Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue polarizer was a welcome touch that added to the moodiness of this image and aligned perfectly with my vision for the final result. It helps to have an idea of how you prefer to post process the image as you’re shooting it.
"In this early morning image of Utah's popular Emerald Lake and Mt. Timpanogos hiking area, the dawn color in the clouds begged to be balanced by a soft-step Graduated ND filter. Compositions like this require practice, and a knowledge of how to use the filter in a way that gives you the best and most natural results. By holding the 3-stop soft-step grad at an angle over the sky, I was able to concentrate the densest part of the filter over the part of the image that needed it most. I often employ a dodging and burning technique when shooting images like this by moving the filter back and forth and up and down. This further reduces the chances the transition will be noticeable. In general, exposures with uneven or partial horizon lines are best handled with a soft-step grad.
The image appearing at the top of this story -- taken at Dry Fork Canyon in northern Utah -- is a typical example of when to use a Singh-Ray Reverse ND grad. I am always reaching for mine whenever I plan to shoot into the sun at sunrise or sunset. As I’ve discussed in previous blog posts, there are a variety of other important ways to use this versatile filter as well,
I hope these suggestions will help those photographers who are about to start using a basic set of ND Grads. I think most would benefit by having at least one hard-step and one soft-step filter -- of either two or three-stop density. It's worth remembering that you can readily combine two Singh-Ray ND grads together to achieve even greater density -- without losing any resolution or color quality of your image. The determining factor lies mainly in how different the filtered and unfiltered parts of your image are in terms of light value. For example, when you shoot lava rock seascapes in Hawaii, you will likely need more density to balance the very vibrant sunsets and sunrises with the dark lava surface in the foreground. By putting some thought into how and where you'll shoot most of your images, you'll be ready to choose the ND grads that will work best for you for many winning images to come."
You'll find many more examples of Adam's landscapes and outdoor action photography on his blog and website. Details on his Fall Foliage workshop and other projects are listed, too. Any social media fans can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.