I get quite a few e-mails every week about which filters I use and the technique involved, so I figured it would be easier to just write something up and link people to it, instead of typing the same reply over and over. This isn’t meant to be an introduction to filters by any means, and I will provide some links for that at the bottom. This is just my no non-sense guide to filters and how I use them. When I was learning about this stuff, I found it hard to find information on hand holding grads, etc.. Hopefully this little write-up will help someone out…
What polarizer do you use?
I use Hoya HD, and B+W polarizers. For wide angle lenses you will want the “thin mount” version so that you can avoid vignetting in the corners. There’s 2 big differences that I have come across between the Hoya and the B+W’s; The Hoya thin mount filters have a front thread, while the B+W’s don’t. This means that you can’t screw in a filter holder or use a regular lens cap on the front of the B+W. That may or may not be a big deal for you. The other thing that I have noticed, is that the B+W filters are much easier to clean than the Hoya. I don’t know the exact reason behind this, but it’s a huge difference, and I get annoyed with the hoya filters because they are so hard to clean at times. Performance wise, they are probably both the same, and I don’t notice any difference when it comes to the photos.
I want to get some Graduated Neutral Density filters, what do you recommend?
This is probably the most common question I get. I tend to hand hold my filters 95% of the time, and for this, the larger 4×6 inch filters are waaay better suited. They cost more, but the flexibility is worth it in my opinion. As far as which filters to get, if I could only have 2 filters, they would be a 3-stop soft, and a 2-stop hard. Those are the 2 filters I use the most. I also have 2&3 stop Singh Ray reverse grads as well. Unless you are including a huge amount of sky in your images, these filters work more like regular hard stop filters, and probably aren’t worth the extra money.
As for which brand of filters to get, there are a few choices. I recommend skipping the cheap cokin filters altogether, as they have a terrible colour cast. I bought the cokins as my first set, and soon gave them away to another photographer thinking he would try them out to see if he had a need for some grads. Instead of trying them out, he decided to use them for a year or so, stacking all 3 filters together (more is better right?). He used this technique for about a year and got ridiculous purple skies on almost every shot, before finally forking over some money for a single hi-tech filter.
Ok, funny stories asside, if you want to get a decent filter at a decent price, you could start out with the Hi-Tech 4×5 inch filters. I believe these are about $60 each, and they seem ok. The next step up are the Lee filters, and I think they go for roughly $80 each for the 4×6 inch filters. After that, you have Singh Ray. For some reason that I haven’t been able to really determine yet, the Singh Ray filters cost $160 each for a 4×6 inch filter. As far as I can tell, they don’t’ perform any better than the Lee filters, which are half the cost. So there it is, pretty plain and simple; if you want a good 4×6 inch filter, buy the Lee’s unless you have some specific reason to buy the Singh Ray’s.
What filter holder do you use?
I personally rarely bother with the filter holders unless I’m taking a really long exposure (2 minutes or more). I prefer the flexibility of hand holding the filters. This cuts out the vignetting problem that you will run into when stacking filters on top of the polarizer, but it also allows you to move the filter around during the exposure. I like to be able to move the filter around during an exposure for a few reasons; the main reason being that you can reduce the affect of the grad line, and spend much less time fixing that later in post processing. Also, when shooting into the sun, bye slightly moving the filter up/down during the exposure, you can cut down on lens flare, and increase the affect of the “sun star”. The other reason for me, is that it’s just easier and faster than messing around with a filter holder. Also, the polarizers that are made for the filter holders are very expensive. By hand holding the grads, you just place the grad on top of any regular polarizer. This also means that it’s much faster to adjust your polarizer…
I did finally break down and buy a holder for when I experiment with long exposures. I ended up getting the “Lee Foundation” holder, and the wide angle adapter ring. This holder is very well built and will take all three filter brands (Singh Ray, Lee, and Hi-Tech).
What Solid Neutral Density filter do you recommend?
I’m not really an expert with these, and I mostly just experiment with them. You can get the screw in filters, or you can get the square ND’s. I have the B+W ND 3.0, which is a 10-stop screw in filter. That’s a lot of ND, and too much for some people. It’s really best used when it’s bright outside (mid day, etc.) For sunrise, and sunset you would probably be better off with a 6-stop ND filter depending on what you are using it for. I have been using a Hi-Tech 4×4 inch 4-stop ND lately, and it seems to be working well for what I do most of the time. Again, I prefer the square filters because it’s easier to use them with a polarizer and stack them with GND’s.
What is the best technique for hand holding the Grad filters?
Well, the best technique is the one that works for you, but if you don’t have one yet, I will try to explain how I do it here. A lot of articles will tell you to use the DOF preview button on your camera to help line up the grad. I don’t mess with that button at all, and have never really found a need to. I generally get my polarizer tuned how I want it, and then I hold the grad in my left hand on the bottom left hand corner, and press it up against my lens/polarizer. Then while looking through the view finder, or live view, I line it up properly. I have never had a problem figuring out where to put the grad line, and that’s why I don’t see the need for the DOF preview button that all these articles refer too. By any means, use it if it helps you though. Then while holding very steady, I click the remote cable release with my right hand. I usually try to get at least a 2-3 second exposure so that I can move the grad up and down slightly (probably a quarter inch or less) in order to reduce the grad line on the final image. If your exposure is longer, say 30 seconds, you will want to do this a few times during the exposure.
Using the grad filters this way, you will tend to get them scratched up easier compared to putting them in the holders. Honestly though, it needs to be a really significant scratch for it to show up in photos. I have 5 filters that are all heavily used and scratched up, but only my 3-stop soft has a bad enough scratch to show up in photos. It’s a single quarter inch scratch that is visibly deeper than all the other ones. I need to replace that one actually. So basically what I’m saying is, if you hand hold your new $80 Lee filter, you are going to scratch it up in no time at all, but don’t worry about it because it takes a really significant scratch to affect your photos.
Now that I have given you the run down on filters and how they get scratched, and how much they cost etc. It’s possible in most cases to just bracket images and blend them later for the same affect, and I have been experimenting with this more and more lately. For some instances, you need to do this anyhow, so it’s a good thing to learn…
If you have any questions, comments, or anything to add, please feel free to post them here…
And now, if none of this really made much sense to you or you just want to learn more about Grad Filters in general, feel free to visit some of these links:
Singh Ray Blog – Full of articles on grad filters and technique. Probably the best one stop shop to learning more about grads.
Darwin Wiggett Article – Full of pictures and useful information regarding holders etc.
Earthbound Light Article – Good info on some of the differences between the filters
Rod Barbee Tutorial – Good all around info on filters
2filter.com – One stop shop for your filter needs… (except Singh Ray)
This is a fantastic article. I am a huge supporter of the use of filters and like your technique of moving them around during the exposure. I’ve only used my Z-Pro holder and never even thought of a hand-hold with them. Something I want to get out and try. You have a tremendous photo-style and I deeply admire that. Thank you for taking the time to put your thoughts out on the web to share with us novices!
Jesse- thanks for your in-depth review on what you use. It’s great to get some insight on your processes.
Thank you so much for writing this. I have been a fan of your work for awhile now, and I was just about ready to start shopping for some filters, so this has just made my day! Time to open my wallet…
Thanks again, and keep up the amazing work!
This is just the information I needed. I also hand hold my 4×6 ND Grad and move it slightly during the exposure. Yes, mine are also scratched here and there, but not bad and don’t show. I use the Cokin (more affordable) on top of a Hoya circular polarizer. I get some vignetting at 16-18mm wide, but no funky purples. I may step up to the Lee when I need a replacement. Thanks for the great tips.
Thanks for this great article Jesse. Very helpful…
Take care man.
Once again Jesse, you’ve knocked another one outta the park by providing a very well written and informative article on your personal use of filters. Reading this (and the accompanying filter article links) should easily provide anyone seeking, greater insight on how to begin using filters to enhance their photographic efforts. Such tools are often needed to address unique lighting situations yet trial and error can often frustrate many on their correct use. Your time and effort to address some of the common questions concerning filters should point many on the road to improved imagery.
I do have one question if you’ll allow. When addressing grad hand-holding technique you shared, “I generally get my polarizer tuned how I want it, and then I hold the grad in my left hand on the bottom left hand corner, and press it up against my lens/polarizer. Then while looking through the view finder, or live view, I line it up properly.” You further share that this technique will lead to scratching of one’s filters but that such minor scratching normally doesn’t affect one’s photos. (paraphrased)
My question: Is it necessary to actually press the grad against your polarizer/lens vs holding and moving it that 1/4 inch or less up and down just slightly away from the surface of the polarizer/lens? I’m just wondering considering you mentioned finally getting a scratch deep enough in your 3-stop soft GND that does show up in your imagery.
Thanks again for your willingness to put together such an easy to grasp article on filter use. I hope many will benefit from your professional insights.
I suppose you could hand hold them without pressing them up on the polarizer, but you will have a hard time keeping the filter lined up while trying to hold a filter steady in mid air. I think some people do it this way however, so you will have to just give it a try. For the shorter exposures, this will probably be hit or miss, but for like a 10 second exposure, I don’t see it working at all.
Hope that helps!
I appreciate your prompt response to my filter question. Can I safely surmise that even using live view for alignment while holding the filter slightly off the CP/lens would be a hit or miss proposition for anything longer than a few seconds? As you say, I’ll need to give it a try. Ultimately, one would be hard pressed to disagree with your fine results as they speak volumes but I thought I ask all the same.
IMHO, any and all advice from those who blaze such trails always helps.
“Not knowing something is often a milestone on the way to knowledge.”
Live view could probably help here, but the problem is just holding your hand in the same place without moving it more than a half inch during the exposure. I’m sure some people use this method, it just doesn’t work for me is all.
Jesse, thanks very much for writing this article. I am a frequent user of the Lee filters, and I’ve always used them with the holder attachment. I’ve been interested in learning to just hold them like you mention, but I’ve encountered a few problems with this:
1. On longer exposures, I can’t see through the viewfinder while the exposure is taking place, and I lose track of where the filter is supposed to be.
2. If I touch the lens with the filter, won’t my arm shake the lens and lead to unsharp results?
Justin – For the longer exposures, I generally get the filter lined up, and then I just watch the filter. If you are looking through the viewfinder you are also chancing camera shake. I tend to sort of rest my left wrist on the tripod when putting the filter up to my lens, and this allows me to stay very steady and avoid unsharp results. If you aren’t able to keep steady then hand holding won’t work for you.
Hope that helps…
jesse excellent picture, the colors are spectacular
Here I leave the invitation to visit my site where I highlight a series of photos of a tradition that goes for more than 500 years are the processions.
PS excuse my English is not the best lol
Yup, could not agree more. Moreover I’d love to add that you’ve got a wonderful colour layout on your website, I suffer colour blindness as a consequence numerous site owners do not give us a second thought!
howdy very good little blogging site you got here 😉 I utilize the matching web theme on my website however for what ever factor it looks to reload earlier on this blog eventhough this site contains a little more content. Have you been getting any plug ins or widgets which quicken it up? Do you think you could write about the widgets so I might use these on my own web site so twilight eclipse fans could watch twilight eclipse online trailers and films more easily I’d personally be ever so happy – thanks ahead of time 🙂
Hi Bella – I did speed the blog up with a plugin called wp-supercache. You will most likely need access to your server to enable it and customize the features, etc.
Thank you for the concise article.
Ordered my 3 stop soft and 2 stop hard GND just now…
Just what the doctor ordered. Thank you so very much, Jesse. Just found your blog today – I’m way behind on everything. Great work and I’ll be checking it out more.
Been thinking of getting some ND filters to play around with eposures rather than with sunsets/sunrises. Love the effect of using a ND to affect water, so this article was a great help in my understanding whats available and what may be a good choice for me.
Hey thanks, this is very helpful. This guy has made the world a better place. Thanks Jessie!
No problem David! Thanks for stopping by.