How to Rock a Grad Filter – Part 2

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Greetings, homenuggets and welcome to Pro Photo Tips. Josh Cripps here and you can find me online at the Nature Photography Academy. In the first part of this video we learned that grad filters come in as many shapes and styles as there are lobsters in the ocean. I also told you that my filter of choice is the 100mm-wide, 3-stop soft grad. But we didn’t learn how to actually put this thing to use! Well stick around cuz that’s what we’re going do right now.

The key to using a grad filter effectively is timing. This filter is designed to tame a bright sky and bring it in line with a darker foreground. And this specific situation is most likely to happen at sunrise and sunset. If you look at your histogram during those times you’re likely to see a U-shaped histogram. This means you have a lot of highlights and a lot of shadows in your image and they are separated by a vast tonal gulf. And a grad filter is exactly what lets you bridge that gap.

Could you use a grad filter during the middle of the day? Sure, but it’s probably unnecessary since the sun is likely illuminating the ground and the sky fairly evenly.

So once you’re in the position of needing to use a grad next you need to know how strong of a grad to use. Generally speaking the sky during magic hour is anywhere between 3 and 5 stops brighter than the ground. Which makes a 3-stop filter an ideal candidate to start with. If the sky is supernova bright you might want to layer on a 2-stop filter as well.

You also want to think about whether to use a soft, hard, or reverse grad. Hard grads are good for when you have very well defined horizons or are using mid range or telephoto lenses. Reverse grads help when the horizon is the brightest part of the scene, like shooting toward the sun at sunrise/sunset. And soft grads are the big catch all for pretty much every other situation, like when you have an uneven horizon, or the transition between bright and dark isn’t well defined in your scene. If you’re not sure about which filter to use, start with a soft one.

As far as attaching the filters to your lens you can hand hold them, in which case I recommend you pinch them in the corner and splat them flat up against your lens so that you don’t get any reflections or light leaking in.

And hand holding is a perfectly cromulent method which I personally used for years, but for consistency, as well as to minimize the scratches you put on your filters, you should use a filter holder. These typically attach to your lens via an adapter ring which screws onto the front of the lens. The filter holder then clips into that and allows you to easily stack multiple filters, be totally consistent from shot to shot, and it gives you a free hand during shooting.

As I mentioned in the previous part of this video, these big square grads can be slid up and down in the holder, so the best way to know they’re in the right spot is to either take a test shot, or go into Live View on your camera. This will give you a preview of the photo you’re about to shoot so you can tell if your grad is in the right location. Canon users, take note that you might need to hit your DOF preview button in order to get an accurate display of your image.

Another cool thing about grad filters is that they can be rotated to suit your scene. If one corner of your sky is brighter than the other, angle the grad down in that spot to help tame those highlights.

Now that your grads are in place be sure to double check your exposure. Because you’ve darkened the sky relative to an already dark foreground, don’t be surprised if your whole image looks, well, dark (especially if you’re shooting in manual mode)! So really pay attention to your histogram to make sure you’re getting a good exposure.

At this point your photo should be looking pretty great, but I recommend sliding your filters around slightly to see if you get a different look you like better.

So to recap, here’s our checklist for using a grad filter effectively. First, shoot around sunrise and sunset. Next, start with a 3-stop grad and decide if you need a hard, soft, or reverse grad. Put your filter in the holder then either use live view or a test shot to see if you grad is positioned well. Also see if the image fits your aesthetic preferences: for example, if the sky still too bright compared to the f/g add another filter. And of course, constantly check you histogram, highlights, and exposure.

This should give you a great starting point for working with grads, but of course this list is not meant to be prescriptive because in art you should always salt to your own personal tastes. The best thing to do once you have the basics down is simply to shoot A TON till you figure out what you like and don’t like and develop your own instincts about which filters to use and when.

In the next part of this video you’re going to learn a few best practices for getting the most out of your grad filters.

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