Graduated Neutral Density Filters vs Solid Neutral Density Filters: Differences and When to Use Them

Last updated: 04-07-2018

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Graduated Neutral Density Filters vs Solid Neutral Density Filters: Differences and When to Use Them

If you're a beginner photographer, it's easy to be overwhelmed with all the photography jargon, creative elements, and photography gear that's required to capture the best images.

Most beginners focus their attention on simply learning how to work their cameras, as should be done.

But, if you ask me, the next step is to develop an understanding of other essential photography gear that can make a true difference in the quality of your photos.

That, my friends, means that you need to learn how to use lens filters!

In this quick guide, you'll learn about graduated neutral density filters and solid neutral density filters, and how both can have a positive impact on your images.

Editor's Note: Sample images used in this article were taken using NiSi filters and are used with permission.

Graduated neutral density filters are one of the most popular type of lens filters for landscape photography.

They're dark on one end and either gradually reduce their density, becoming clear on the other end, as shown at left and right above, or transition much more abruptly, as shown in the two filters in the middle.

The question is, why are these filters constructed this way?

It's simple - when you photograph a landscape the brightest area is the sky. In fact, it's often much brighter than the landscape.

In looking at the image above, you can see how there is no detail at all in the left portion of the sky.

That happens because your camera can have difficulties getting a good exposure for the entire scene. That is, it might expose for the sky, which leaves the foreground very dark, or it might expose for the foreground (as was done in the image above), leaving the sky very bright.

Graduated neutral density filters help you get around this problem by blocking out some of the light from the sky, which evens out the exposure.

With a smaller dynamic range in the scene, your camera can accommodate the range of highlights and shadows, resulting in a much-improved image as shown above.

You can immediately see the difference between the two shots - the sky and the foreground are both well-exposed. That's thanks to a graduated neutral density filter.

More specifically, a hard graduated ND filter was used in the images above, meaning, the transition from light to dark on the filter is quite abrupt, which is ideal for situations in which there is a definite horizon.

Editor's Tip: There are hard graduated NDs, medium graduated NDs, and soft graduated NDs. See the differences here.

But sometimes you're presented with a scene in which elements protrude into the sky, such as the buildings in the image above.

In such cases, a soft graduated ND or a medium graduated ND is called for because they transition much more gradually from dark to light.

You can see the difference between the previous image and the one immediately above when using a medium graduated ND.

The foreground remains well-exposed, but in the second shot, the sky has beautiful definition that was totally lacking in the first shot.

As you can see in the image above of NiSi solid neutral density filters, these filters have an degree of density throughout, unlike the graduated ND filters discussed earlier.

These filters are specifically designed to allow you to use a longer shutter speed when shooting during the daytime in order to blur the movement of elements like water or clouds.

In the image above, you see a scene that's pretty enough, but there's not a lot of visual excitement happening.

Instead, it's a scene just like we'd see with our own eyes.

But add a neutral density filter and slow down the shutter speed, and you get much more compelling results.

The blurred movement of the clouds and the smoothed out water of the lake adds a dreamy effect to the shot.

But just like there's differences between graduated ND filters, there are also differences between solid ND filters.

Solid NDs have differing degrees of filtering power, which are measured in stops.

In the image above, a 10-stop ND filter was used, which generated the gorgeous blur that sets the image apart.

But let's say you didn't want or need that much blur.

In that case you can use a 3-stop ND filter, which has far less filtering power than a 10-stop ND.

As you can see in the before and after images above, even a 3-stop ND has more than enough filtering power for this scene to slow things down and result in beautiful blur in the waterfall.

ND filters in the 3-stop to 10-stop range are the most popular, but there are much, much darker ND filters available - NiSi, for example, offers up to 20-stop ND filters.

Naturally, the more stops of filtering power the filter provides, the longer the shutter speed you can use to get truly otherworldly, ethereal effects.

ND filters aren't just for still photography, either. You can also use them for videography.

See NiSi Nano IR ND filters at work in the video above by Nisi and filmmaker Tanguy Louvigny.

With that, you have a basic outline of what graduated ND filters and solid ND filters can do for your images.

But don't just buy any filters - high-quality filters will generate high-quality results, and when it comes to quality, NiSi is at the top.

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