Posted by: David Vernon | November 6, 2008

Those Other Landscape Filters

The Tree 49We’ve talked about the beloved Polarizer filter. In my book there is another filter that is invaluable for landscape photography. Allow me to throw in for the awesome neutral-density filter (and its fraternal twin sister – the graduated neutral-density filter).

An ND filter does exactly what it advertises. It filters neutrally across the entire piece of glass. Its only purpose in life is to make what you see “darker” by reducing the amount of light getting to your sensor. The why will come in a minute. ND filters come in different flavors indicating the amount of light reduction they provide: 1-stop, 2-stop, 3-stop, etc. The nice thing about them is that they can also be combined. Put a 2-stop and 3-stop together – and BOOM! – you’ve got a 5-stop ND filter.

Now the why. Imagine that great waterfall shot. The one you overslept and missed. At 5am, you could easily shoot at two seconds at f/22. Now, at noon, the best you can do is 1/30 at f/22. Well – pop your new five-stop ND filter(s) on the front of your lens. And suddenly you are 1″ at f/22 – you’re in the ballpark and you can make a cool image. A cool image requiring a slow shutter speed in the brightest part of the day.

There are – as always – a few catches. When you have five stops of ND on the front of your lens – looking through the viewfinder is tough – it’s dark. You may want to compose and focus first – add the filters and meter second. But if you know you just need to compensate five stops from where you metered with the filters off the camera, you really don’t need to meter at all after putting the glass on the glass. The other catch? The more filters you put on the front of your camera, the more vignette you will see as the “barrel” gets longer and longer.

But for those extra hours of sleep – it’s worth it. For you. I’m out there at 5am. Lazy bums.

The graduated ND filter plays a slightly different role. Like its name suggests, this filter starts dark at the top and by the time it’s reached the middle it has gone clear. Typically these filters are rectangular and fit in a special adapter on the end of your lens (aka the system from Cokin). They also come in flavors of level of gradiation and color. While the standard dark to light is most common, that dark area can also be a colored area. You’ll see why that’s cool in a moment.

Imagine you’re standing in front of a fantastic mountain scene. The sun is behind the mountain, casting long shadows over your foreground, but the sky is still fairly bright. How do you meter to get both the bright part of the shot and the dark part of the shot? Yep – the grad ND to the rescue. The dark part darkens the sky enough for you to open up the exposure for the shadowy foreground. It’s pure genius. And once you add color, you can get an interesting special effect – a bluer sky. A yellow sky. A red sky. The possibilities are somewhat limitless.

So those are the beauties I always drag alone with me – my “Can’t Live Without” filters for landscapes. And in a pinch, a Polarizer rates about 1.5 stops of ND when you need it. Just so you know.


  1. This is exactly what I needed to know. I have been really curious about ND and graduated ND filters now that I am trying more landscapes. Can you recommed what stop levels are good to start with? -1, -2, -3 or all of them?? What about different levels in the graduated filters? Are there commonly used ones?

    Oh – I’m asking all of this because I am one of those slept in and missed the 5 am shot….man I fellt like that was pointed right at me. =)

  2. I’ve used a Tiffen 2ND and 3ND as my main components. Let’s me go from 2-5 stops – which I’ve so far found to be enough.

    With the grad ND, I’ve played with colors – but mostly I just use the same thing – the Cokin 121 series (the ND2 and ND4).

    Look here:

  3. Thanks, as always for the excellent advice.

  4. The naming / numbering can be confusing for neutral density filters.

    ND2 = 0.3 = 1 Stop
    ND4 = 0.6 = 2 Stops
    ND8 = 0.9 = 3 Stops

    I also have a 2 and a 3 stop ND filter. 1 stop seems almost pointless.

    Also, it’s worth pointing out that as with any other filter, a good multi-coated one would be better than the cheapest one you can find.

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