There are many ways to shoot landscape photography and which method you’ll use generally depends on the scene laid before you. But there’s one debate that never seems to end. ND grad filters or bracket and composite in post? Which is best? And why is either technique even needed these days?
These are the questions that Photo Tom addresses in this video, going over his experiences and workflow using both methods, providing his insight and offering some tips for working with the images in post.
Graduated neutral density filters (ND Grads) are one of the few filters that seems to have survived the transition from film to digital. They’re designed to let you bring down the exposure on a part of the frame while leaving the rest untouched. Primarily, these days, they help to overcome the dynamic range limitations of digital sensors used in cameras, that typically max out around 13-15 stops.
They’re particularly favoured by landscape photographers, who need to bring the sky under control while getting good exposure on the relatively dim ground – scenes which can often exceed that 13-15 stops with a high level of quality throughout both the highlights and shadows.
But the advent of digital means that we can bracket shots, shooting multiple exposures, at no extra cost (unlike the film days), retaining all that highlight and shadow detail through several files and then composite them in post fairly easily.
Personally, I don’t think either method is invalid, but I always try to shoot with an ND grad filter wherever possible. It just saves me time at the computer. Sure, bracketing might provide more options in post for exactly how you want to blend everything together, but it can be a bit of a faff, especially if you’ve had a productive day and done a lot of shooting.
Of course, like most photographers, I don’t take my ND grads with me everywhere. Sometimes I’m out and a scene presents itself that I just have to shoot. Bracketing is the only real option at those times and I don’t really have a choice – unless I choose to not shoot it.
If you haven’t bought any ND grad filters yet, though, then bracketing and compositing is a good technique to learn and experiment with without having to buy any additional gear. You will spend more time at the computer, though. And even if you decide to go with ND grads, it’s still a useful technique to have as a backup.