ND grad filter vs exposure blending.

Is exposure blending in landscape photography still considered morally inferior to ND grads?

Camillo Berenos Photography Photographic musings 2 Comments

Directional light such as sidelight or backlight are generally the most interesting types of light in landscape photography but also among the most challenging. Often the sky is a lot brighter than the foreground and this difference in light intensity can exceed the dynamic range of film or digital sensors, causing skies to be overexposed and washed out, or foreground elements lacking any detail due to blocked shadows.. I am sure that we all have experienced this at some point during our photographic life, at least I did. When I just started taking landscape photos using an SLR back in the film days (to be precise: slide film in my case), I was scratching my head why the skies were always white. The advice I got from more experienced photographers was always: “Get a graduated neutral density filter”. So that’s what I did. Actually, I got a set of soft edge ND grad filters, ranging from 1 to 3 stops. And yes, when selecting an graduated neutral density filter with the right intensity, I could maintain detail in both foreground and sky. And they have been a part of my photographic development for quite some time. However, we never became friends as there were a few things I did not particularly like about ND grad filters.

  • The hassle.

When using ND grad filters, you have to meter the sky, meter the foreground, choose a graduated filter that matches the dynamic range present in the scene, fit a filter holder on the lens and then position the ND grad filter such that the transition between the dark and clear part falls right where you want it. This means you’re spending a lot of time setting up, which could be spent exploring the scene, or trying out alternative compositions. Also, when looking through the viewfinder I found it extremely difficult to get the transition between dark and clear part of the filter where it should be.

  • Bulk and damage

Transporting a filter holder and several large rectangle filters in protective sleeves or pouches means adding bulk to your kit, which is a problem if travelling lightweight. Plastic rectangle filters are also prone to scratching, especially when working in sandy conditions, which will affect optical quality. Glass filters are supposedly more scratch-resistant, but these are easier to break or crack.

  • Expenses

This would not be such a problem if good quality filters were cheap. But they are bloody expensive, and so are good quality holders!

  • Not all photographs have straight horizons

Many compositions feature elements that protrude through the horizon (such as trees, buildings, rocks), and sometimes the horizon is far from straight and uniform (such as in mountainous scenery). This means that the dark part of the ND grad also darkens those foreground elements, which looks artificial and sometimes even nasty.

Being able to blend exposures was like a dream came true.

However, still shooting analog, the general adage was to get it right in-camera so I just had to live with the shortcomings of graduated ND filters. Everything changed when I got my first DSLR, which was when cameras using full frame sensors started to get more affordable (2008). All of a sudden HDR (High Dynamic Range) was possible and I could leave my graduated ND filters at home. Shooting digital there was no longer a direct financial loss when bracketing exposures, so in challenging conditions I often shot multiple frames, and later blended them using my still rudimentary Photoshop skills, or alternatively using (ahem) HDR software.

I quickly realized that HDR software was not leading to consistent results, and I did not like the compressed tonal range, rendering everything tones flat and muddy. Manually blending exposures led to far superior photos, though obviously this was a little bit more time-consuming. But post processing is just part of the creative process, just as dark room skills were in the film era, and I did not find learning to create masks a problem, just as setting the white balance isn’t. And the longer you spend doing something, the easier it gets. I now rarely spend more than a few minutes on creating the selections and masks to blend two or more exposures, and often revisit older shots as my masking skills develop. And while I think that graduated neutral density filters have served me while before, I am glad that when blending exposures I don’t have artificially darkened trees or foreground elements in my photographs, leading to, at least in my opinion, more realistic results. Of course, I am not saying that exposure blending always leads to superior results, or that graduated ND can’t be used with satisfying outcome. In rapidly changing conditions, such as with fast moving clouds, exposure blending can be nigh impossible, so I can totally understand if others keep using their ND grads.

Example showing the difference between an ND grad filter (above) and the more realistic results obtained using exposure blending (below)

Example showing the difference between a soft ND grad filter (above, simulated in Photoshop using a gradient mask) and the more realistic results which can be obtained using exposure blending (below).

So why do some photo contests make a fuzz about exposure blending?

Hence my surprise when I found out that some photo contests don’t allow exposure blending. Blending underexposed and overexposed RAW files is fine, in-camera multiple exposures are fine, stitched panoramas are fine, but blending two exposures, taken only seconds apart, isn’t. For example, this is an excerpt from the rules of a certain prestigious travel photography award:

“Composite or montaged images, from more than one original image are not eligible – this includes images shot at different exposures/dynamic ranges and combined.”

ND grad filter vs exposure blending.Second example showing the difference between an ND grad filter (left, simulated in Photoshup using a gradient mask) and the more realistic results obtained using exposure blending (right). I actually blended three exposures for the photo on the right as I felt the sky would otherwise be unrealistically dark.

This anonymous travel photography award* can of course set the rules however they want, which is fine with me. I am free to either comply with the rules or not participate. It’s not like they’re the only photo contest in the world, there are other photo contests (such as LPOTY) out there who do accept exposure blending. Generally I am quite old fashioned when it comes to what I consider “good” photo manipulation, and what I find unethical manipulation as I tend to believe that I aim for realistic looking landscapes. Stripping in a sky or clouds from a different scene? Not something I’ll likely ever do. Blurring clouds or sea in Photoshop to emulate a fake long exposure effect? Come on, that’s definitely naughty! But I am confused as to why exposure blending is apparently by some still perceived as trickery given that it serves exactly the same purpose as an ND grad filter, the use of which is totally accepted. Perhaps it is to protect them from having to wade through thousands of HDR monstrosities which have lost all touch with reality.

Given that being commended or winning in photo contests can have positive consequences for the career of aspiring (landscape) photographers, I feel that seemingly arbitrary rules such as these deny the sizeable proportion of the photography community who have made the decision to no longer carry around their ND grad filter kit the opportunity. Can’t ND grad filter users and exposure blenders just happily coexist? Perhaps it’s time to purchase a decent set of graduated neutral density filters again?

Do you agree that exposure blending is trickery? Please feel free to share your thoughts below, or follow me on Facebook.

* I have actually contacted said organization to asky whether they could confirm that exposure blending is indeed not allowed, as I was hoping that this rule had been updated but that they had forgotten to update that section on their website, but they have yet to reply.

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