Landscape Photography - ND Grads vs Bracketing / by Adam Karnacz

Which is best? ND Graduated filters or bracketing. I head to a remote reservoir in Yorkshire to test out both landscape photography techniques.

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In this video I aim to find out if using physical ND grads is better than using the bracketing or HDR technique. 

Landscape photography techniques

It is an issue I have been thinking about for a while. Partly because I often see photographers running workshops and convincing beginners that they need ND grad filters and then selling them a nice set of Lee Filters. In many cases people are people misled and I do not believe they are required thanks to the ability to use the bracketing technique. 

This is not really a tutorial of how to use bracketing or ND grads but I do have other videos on the channel that will help you out. See the links in the video. I have been using bracketing for the last few years and have increasingly not bothered with the ND Grads. However I felt it was not time to test out this photography technique and see if it was true.

Bracketing is not cheating

Many people seem to think that bracketing and/or HDR photography is cheating. They make claims like you should, ‘get it right in camera’. I do not buy into this. Ansel Adams said there are three parts to making a photograph. Firstly, it requires your visualisation of the scene and capturing it in the camera. The second part is the post-processing, the darkroom in his day and, usually in Lightroom today. Thirdly is the print. There is no such thing as an unprocessed image. A raw file is simply a digital negative that requires the addition of some processing to make it into anything other than a lifeless, flat image. If you shoot jpeg then the camera is doing the post-processing for you by adding contrast, saturation and sharpness. We only get into realms of cheating when we start to actually adjust the landscape itself, with techniques like cloning and patching etc. Post-processing therefore, is an equal part of the artistic process and bracketing and HDR are included within this.

ND Graduated filters

There is nothing wrong with using Graduated Filters. If you choose to use them after some experience of creating landscape photography then I fully respect that. Personally though I believe they no longer serve a purpose. Given there significant cost, it is always worth people trying bracketing first. Even a single image, with a modern day camera like the Canon 5D Mark IV, will often contain so much dynamic range that using a software ND grad will be just as effective as the physical filter. Once you add in the bracketing technique of shooting multiple shots (usually 3) with difference exposures it makes the physical filter redundant.

Pros and Cons

There are pros and cons to using ND Grads. The pro’s are that you can get more right in the camera and be able to see, at the time of shooting, something closer to your final image. The cons are greater. They are a faff to use, they are expensive and take up more room in your bag. Bracketing on the other hand is done with no additional cost, it is easy and gives much greater control of exposure in post-processing.

Whilst the test in the video is made by looking at only one image it has only served to confirm my beliefs that physical ND grads are not required. If you choose to use them then I totally appreciate that but bracketing is definitely worth a try. It is not cheating. Processing of bracketed shots can be done using HDR or layer masking and both can work very well in the right situation.