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Graduated filters


Time for an update: I still use film, though. Not vast quantities, but I have a darkroom, and I'm not afraid to use it.

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Graduated filters

25 Apr 2022 12:18PM   Views : 402 Unique : 220


This is for Hannah, and anyone else who has come across the casual way that a lot of togs talk about one or two types of filter that landscaper photographers use a lot: graduated filters and neutral density filters.

A graduated filter is one that is tinted at one extreme, and clear at the other, and the aim is to allow a subject that’s bright on one side and dark on the other to be recorded in a single image, controlling the contrast range. It’s a bit easier said than done.


I don’t use them much, and the first one that came to hand is the notorious Cokin tobacco filter. These were monumentally popular for about six months in the late Seventies, and have been unacceptable in polite society ever since. You can possibly see why – one apocalyptic sky is impressive. But hundreds… Not so much.

As the image of the camera shows, the filter holder allows the user to slide the filter up and down, and it’s also possible to angle it to allow shooting steep hillsides. It’s crucial to use depth of field preview to adjust the position, as the examples show.


The precise effect varies with aperture, focal length, and which slot in the holder the filter is in. Using a wider lens, a smaller aperture or a slot further from the lens makes the division between filtered and unfiltered sharper. Filters are available with greater or less strong tints, and with sharper and more gentle transitions between the two, and some people carry a variety. The good ones – high quality optical glass – can cost £100 each.

The purist filter is a grey one, altering tones but not colours – though often, there is a slight colour tint (especially for those using auto white balance, I suspect). Careful testing and experiment is wise before using one for an important picture!

Confusingly, many people call a graduated filter a graduate, which makes it easy to confuse with a measuring cylinder (also known as a graduate in some circles) or a person who has successfully completed a university degree…


And there are neutral density filters, too. These can be bought for relatively normal purposes, to deal with exceptionally bright light, or with a very high filter factor, to allow extended shutter speeds when the user wants to blur movement of clouds, water or anything else. A popular strength is ten stops, which turns day to night – but that is perhaps for another blog…



25 Apr 2022 12:52PM
Ah!! Tobacco skies, I remember them well, John, still think I have mine, hidden in the dim, deep recesses of some drawer or other Smile

On the other hand, I have never used a neutral density filter, as they do not suit my type of photography, but I can admire the images of those
who use them to their full potential.

There are, of course, Graduated Filters in Photoshop etc, but not to be confused with the in front of lens type,

Meta_Morph 1 5 1 United Kingdom
25 Apr 2022 1:56PM
Thanks John, very helpful 👍 would you recommend using these instead of bracketing? Hannah
dark_lord Plus
19 3.0k 836 England
25 Apr 2022 2:34PM
I now see the use for the graduated tobacco filter, it adds a splash of colour interest to a discussion on filters Wink
I have a set of Lee ND grads. Even with cameras that have good dynamic range and shooting in RAW, such filters still hel manage the cotrast range which makes any software proessing easier and moe flexible especially in more extreme circumstances.

A useful and informative blog John.
dudler Plus
19 2.0k 1996 England
25 Apr 2022 4:16PM
Hannah, it depends on your preferred way of working.

If you like to shoot, and do minimal editing on a computer, get a filter or two. If you're happy to do more extensive work in software, bracketing is definitely the way to go.

I suspect the more versatile workers will choose a route (grad filter, HDR, other melding of separate images) depending on circumstances. A bit outside my normal field of operation, I'm afraid. Keit's comment contains more wisdom than I have in the area!
Meta_Morph 1 5 1 United Kingdom
25 Apr 2022 5:15PM
Thanks that is really helpful. Looks like more kit is needed...👍

Out of interest, should I have used a polarising filter instead at Dungeness to mitigate the hazy bright skies?
25 Apr 2022 7:36PM
This will explain much better than i could, Hannah Wink

dudler Plus
19 2.0k 1996 England
25 Apr 2022 7:46PM
A polarising filter can help, but only at right angles to the sun... It's also really useful for killing reflections from most shiny surfaces - such as glass and plant leaves. Doesn't work on shiny metal, though.
pablophotographer 11 2.1k 440
25 Apr 2022 9:26PM
Architecture is one subject you can find the neutral density filters. They allow long exposures which "evaporate people to extinction" 😯😄

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