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Using Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape and Waterscape Photography

Here to read about neutral density articles? This article on day time long exposures also might be of interest.


The best purchases I have made for my camera, have been the Canon 10-22 and my Cokin graduated neutral density filters. I thought I’d just touch on how come they are so handy and how sometimes the viewer may be mislead into thinking the shot may of required alot of editing to achieve that effect when realistically it was achieved in-camera without photoshopping.

A very popular tool in any landscape photographers kit is the graduated neutral density filter. When looking at landscape photography the average user doesn’t realise that many shots these days are composed utilising graduated neutral density filters. For the somewhat more experienced photographer it may be assumed that the photograph was composed and later digitally edited in photoshop. This belief comes as a result of the difficulties which photographers have when composing a shot in camera. Without a graduated neutral density filter, the user instead focuses on a point in the shot to gain a correct exposure. If you do this to the land of the shot then another for the sky, it will differ. Therefore when taking the photograph the sky may be over exposed while the land will be as hoped. This is where graduated neutral density filters come into the equation. Included below is two shots, as you can see the first is with the dark area of the neutral density filter facing down whilst in the second the top end is facing up. I must note that these are ND graduated filters which differ to other ND filters in that they slowly fade from dark to clear, as a gradient effect if you will. A strong neutral density filter instead is just dark and does not fade to clear. For my general shooting of photography I much prefer to use graduated filters over strong/solid neutral density filters as I find strong is more appealing for waterfall shots during the day where you require a long exposure however this isn’t as much the case for sunrise or sunset waterscape photography.


As you can see with the second shot above, the filter adds mood to the sky whilst the land is properly maintained and not as under-exposed as the sky may be. Such appeals to landscape photographers so they can properly under exposed their foreground subject whilst the sky is not affected and doesn’t become washed out. Below are a few recent examples of when the filter has enabled me to get a shot with ease without having to worry about fixing the shot in photoshop. Speaking of which, I find the filter minimises alot of photoshop work and usually my photographs only require minor sharpening and other minor adjustments which save time and is how photography should be (That could open a can of worms..)


One thing about each shot above is that the foreground (land) is not overly dark and the viewer can see the detail on the rocks. If the shot was taken without filters and for example the sky was exposed then the land would be very dark and would not retain detail. The same would apply if the land was exposed and as a result the shot would not have the sky as you see in the shots above. Instead the user would have to compensate and aim for a darker image so the sky was not blown out (under-exposed) whilst the foreground was somewhat exposed. This leaves the image being quite dark and advanced users consult photoshop through exposure stacking.Photoshopping the sky to make the exposure look more natural is a completely different story. For anyone wondering I’ll quickly explain how I would maybe do this (I haven’t done it before so can’t comment from experience) but here goes

  1. Open both images in separate windows in photoshop
  2. Set one image as the work place and then drag the other image into the workplace to create another layer
  3. Make this new layer a vector mask
  4. Select the paintbrush and press D to make the colours black and white
  5. Begin drawing on the area which you want to bring out
  6. Play with the opacity to make it more natural

But when dodging or doing the above be careful not to bring the area out too much. I’ve seen countless photographs where the scene is quite dark because the sunset has just finished but then there is rocks in the foreground which look like they are exposed with 1pm sunlight.

But moving on, the equipment I use for these shots can be purchased at bhphotovideo. I use the more expensive Cokin Z Pro which in comparison to the P series, is a little bigger which greater suits wide-angle shooting to minimise vignetting. There are other brands available such as Lee and Hitech but I’ve never seen them so can’t really offer any advice but have heard good reports. The Z-Pro range is worth the extra pennies but I must warn you that they must be treated carefully as I have dropped filters in the past and chipped them.

Cokin Z-Pro neutral density filters are available at Adorama. Also available are the Lee neutral density filter kit which are more expensive but apparently have less colour cast issues.

Hope that helps.

11 thoughts on “Using Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape and Waterscape Photography

  1. Why Use Neutral Density Filters | Alex Wise Photography…

    The neutral density filter is a great tool for any landscape photographer as it gives control over the exposure to create the shot you want….

  2. […] main waterscape kit consists of a Canon 350D, Canon 10-22, Cokin .3 .6 .9 nd grad filters and of course a manfrotto tripod. Sometimes I will mix things up and use my Canon 24-70 if I find I […]

  3. Hello, excellent post. Very well explained. I really enjoyed and learned a lot. Theses photos looks like a HDR pos-processed image!

    Thank you,


    1. Alex,

      Great work, Please do not short sell your gift-you have a what it takes—

  4. Be careful – what you’re describing here is a graduated neutral density filter (ND Grad) not an ND filter, which darkens the whole scene.

    Other than that, great article. Thanks.

  5. Yes I probably should clarify that it’s graduated filters I’m discussing and not solid ND filters. Thanks for noticing that Calum 🙂

  6. Thanks for this great explanation!
    I would like to try on day light and water:see rivers lakes!

    I have OLYMPUS E-330 and lenses: Zuiko Digital: 40-150mm f3.5-4.5 and 14-45mm f
    3.5-5.6 [58mm]
    Hoya filters ND8 and cir-polarizing!
    What I need and you can recommand me to do running water with long exposure!
    Here shop are limited no bigger choice!
    Thanks for your time!

  7. Hi there

    For long exposures to capture running water you can use ND filters but I prefer to use the soft light of an overcast day or even just the soft light after a sunset where the colours are still vivid.

    I’d thoroughly recommend that package.

    Hope that helps.

  8. have you thought about using the rotating “screw in” type ND grad filters instead of the slip-in square ones? they allow you to use your lens hood and prevent glare/ghosting

    ..i must apolagise – when i first saw your shots I thought you were using HDR – ND grad is the way to go 🙂

  9. Hey there mate

    Negative I haven’t but am definitely getting a little frustrated with the reduction in image quality as they seem to get dirty which becomes too visible at f20~. Do you use grads?

    Cheers for popping by

  10. Thank you Alex!
    See you after my try, for report and maybe successful photo!
    I have idea now I am going to make it real !

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