There are a few issues in nature photography that seem to be brought up and argued over again and again. Near the top of this list is the mentality that we can shoot a mediocre photo and then fix it up in Photoshop. We seem to be more and more ok with in camera mediocrity because of the availability to “fix it later”. Now, before you think I’m here to dog on editing let me be clear, I have nothing against editing our images. If Ansel Adams were alive today I’m sure he would be amazing at Photoshop. No, the issue is when we take a photo incorrectly and then say to ourselves “its not great, but I will just make it better later”. Not only does this diminish the value of our photography, it also makes us worse photographers. We have the tools necessary for amazing in camera capture; we only need to take advantage of them.
One of the most difficult parts of being a nature photographer is the need to expose different parts of the same photo when lighting conditions on each are completely different. We wake up super early to capture amazing sunrises and stay out late to get those great sunsets, but without the right equipment we find ourselves in a tough spot. Exposing for a bright sky as well as a darker and often shadowed foreground during these situations can be challenging under even the most perfect conditions. Simply put, the dynamic range of our cameras doesn’t work like that in our eyes and the vast difference in the range is just too much for our cameras to pick up. Often times in situations with a bright background we simply struggle to get the correct exposure. If we took the photo as is we would usually either blow out the sky and end up with a good foreground, or we would darken the foreground, often to the point of silhouette, and have a good sky. Getting both to look good in the same shot, without heavily post-processing the image, is often an impossibility without the help of some kind. Fortunately for us graduated neutral density filters allow for easy and accurate capture of these scenes. While darkening the background and leaving the foreground as is we are able to bring that range into a sense that our cameras can pick up on, allowing us to get amazing in-camera results.
In addition to helping us to achieve the perfect exposure for a sunset these filters are equally beneficial whenever we have a background element that is a few stops brighter than the foreground. They are made for any situation to help even tonality throughout the photo, such as a forest leading back from a river, or a path leading into fog. When we take these photographs, just as in sunsets it often tends to overexpose parts of the photo, which would normally leave them useless. However, once again, the graduated neutral density filter comes in to even out the scenes, making for great photography.
Like most things in photography, there are cheap options and there are good options. If you’re just starting out with using grad filters I would recommend trying some the Cokin brand A-series, they are inexpensive, most camera stores carry them, and they do a descent job. After getting familiar with them and seeing how much you would actually use them I would then recommend going with Lee Filters. Lee makes a very high quality product, allowing for tack sharp images and easy of use. With this high image they produce they can be a little on the expensive side, but its just like with lenses; you get what you pay for. However, when it comes to getting great images we have been told we need to invest in our equipment and high quality grad filters are definitely part of that investment. Grad ND filters can change the process by which we get our final products, from accurate in camera capture to appropriate amounts of image editing they allow for the complete package.
© 2013, Tony. All rights reserved.