A couple of days ago I had an email exchange with one of the fellow photographers. The subject was the use of graduated filters: how often I use them, what kind, etc. Here are my expanded thoughts on this topic.
First of all, I have several Singh-Ray Galen Rowell filters in various strengths: Hard Edge 1, 2, 3, stops, Soft Edge 1, 2, 3 stops. They are all 84 mm x 120 mm in size. If I were to buy new filters, I think I would go a little bigger, perhaps 100 mm x 150 mm. The ones I have work ok for all my lenses (even the 24mm Tilt & Shift) but I found out that when I use 17mm-40mm lens at 17 mm then I have to be quite careful not to stick my thumb into the image (I hand-hold them, but more on that later). Between these filters I can cover almost every situation in the field. Of course there are some cases where there is no way that a standard graduated filter will work. In those situations I usually take two (sometimes three) exposures and will blend these images in Photoshop. I don’t use the HDR technique. I tried it on a number of occasions but I was never too happy with the results, meaning you could kind of tell that it was an HDR image. Which in my book is a “no, no”. I really dislike the HDR Look. I know that it is quite popular with many people but it doesn’t turn my crank at all. There are some very good photographers who use this technique all the time and the results are great but I just can’t find motivation to master it. For me it is a lot easier to get the results I want in camera. The benefit of doing it this way is that you see the result on the back screen of your camera immediately. You can make necessary corrections right there.
Now back to the graduated filters.There are a few systems out there that allow to mount a rectangular filter onto the lens. The most widely used are made by Lee and Cokin. Of the two, the Lee system seems to be of the higher quality and has many fans among landscape photographers but the down side is it’s high cost. In both cases you essentially screw in an adapter onto which you can slide your filter holder. Once it is in place, you can position the filter any way you want. Simple ? Yes. Convenient ? No. The main problem is that the whole thing is slowing me down and is contributing to a certain level of laziness. Many times I knew I should’ve changed my lens but the process of removing the filter, removing the adapter, changing lenses, putting the adapter back on, inserting the filter holder, re-positioning the filter, while trying to keep all elements clean and dust-free was just too cumbersome. Especially in a fast changing light conditions at sunrise or sunset. Additionally, the risk of introducing heavy vignetting is quite high. Based on that experience, I decided to try different solutions. For a while I used pieces of gaffer tape to keep filters in place (a trick I found in one of Tim Fitzharris’ books) but that didn’t work for me either. Finally, I decided to try hand holding and that was the solution I have stuck with. So the whole procedure goes like this:
- Put the camera on a tripod
- Switch camera to Live View mode
- Turn Image Stabilization and Auto Focus off
- Zoom-in onto a portion of the image you want to focus on
- Adjust focusing ring
- Press down the depth of field preview button with your right hand
- Position the filter based on the Live View image (I hold the bottom corners of the filter with my left hand)
- Remember relative position of the filter as compared to the lens edge (you may want to put a small mark on the edge of your filters with a Sharpie pen to make it easier)
- Release the depth of field preview button and press the shutter release.
That’s it. It’s simple and works quite well for me even for very long exposures (more than 30 sec). Of course certain stamina, patience and practice are required but it works and I’m able to work quite fast, often changing the position of my tripod. There is one more thing I do to increase my speed of work and flexibility. I have a small shoulder bag I bought at MEC (Canadian outdoors outfitter) that holds all my filters including polarizers and some other more exotic filters like Singh-Ray Gold-and-Blue. Typically it sits on my right hip while the belt is on my left shoulder. With this arrangement, the bag does not slip off my shoulder and I can easily wear my backpack at the same time. All graduated filters are put in a sequence (usually: 1 stop Hard, 2 stop Hard, 3 stop Hard, 1 stop Soft, 2 stop Soft, 3 stop Soft) so I can find the appropriate filter very quickly. In the past I kept filters in my backpack but again, it was slowing me down so I ditched if for the shoulder bag.
One thing that you should keep in mind is that when you use this technique, the transition from darker to lighter area on your image will be a lot less abrupt as in the case of the filter holder. However, in my eyes this is actually beneficial because it makes the use of a graduated filter a lot less obvious.
Finally, if you are just considering the purchase of a set of graduated filters and have some financial constraints, I would suggest that you go with just hard edged filters. As a minimum, buy 2 and 3 stop. I found out that those are the ones I use most often (probably 80% – 85% of the time). In cases when more strength is required, you can stack two filters together to get the the effect you need. Also, from my experience soft edged filters are not very often used. Due to a much longer transition between dark and light they appear to be less “strong” as compared to the hard edged ones.