With digital photography becoming so mainstream these days, many advances have accompanied the evolution of the technology. At some point, it was bound to be expected that tools that were considered unheard of in photography just ten years ago would eventually become standard items for many people who wouldn’t consider themselves photographers at all. At the same time, many tricks and developments were created to accommodate for different ranges of light, two of them being layer mask blending in Photoshop, and the other, HDR. For those wondering, this is not a rant against HDR. That time is over. It’s found its audience and at this point has established itself as a style many prefer.
Myself, I was a hardcore advocate of the layer mask blending technique in Photoshop, though admittedly, it’s above the head of many who simply don’t care to learn Photoshop. Lately, however, I’ve rediscovered the simplicity and ease of using a Cokin graduated neutral density filter, with which the above image was created. This is quickly becoming my preferred method for leveling light in high contrast situations.
Unlike the typical circular filters which fit over your lens, a Cokin filter uses a ring that fits your lens, attached to a holder for which the rectangular filter slips into. This allows you to balance out the sky with the foreground, achieving the desired result in one simple shot, such as the above example.
The cons of the graduated neutral density filter are that there’s an initial investment, the price depending on the quality that you purchase. Of the three methods discussed here, it’s the only one that requires external gear to purchase. HDR is often built into many cameras these days and layer mask blending only requires one more shot. There are also many high contrast scenes where the neutral density filter simply wouldn’t work, such as looking outside through a window, or at an ancient ruin site where many walls reach toward the sky irregularly. In those situations, I would be much more likely to do a layer mask blend, but that’s only my opinion. Many would also find HDR perfectly adequate for such a scene.
The pros of the Cokin graduated neutral density filter are that you only need one shot and very little post-processing time at the computer. Essentially, the shot is captured in one photo, minimizing computer time, while still allowing you full control over how the image is taken. The benefits over layer mask blending are that you don’t even have to open Photoshop, and you don’t need more than one shot, especially at different exposures. The benefits over HDR are that you still retain full control over how the image is processed, whereas with HDR, the camera or computer is doing most of the work for you. Also, finding appropriate settings can often be time-consuming and potentially frustrating.
Despite the initial investment, I’ve still made my Cokin graduated neutral density filter a vital part of my workflow in high contrast scenes. If you haven’t checked one out yet, you might be surprised.