Cokin's Graduated ND filters - A Product Review
Benjamin Von Wong - Montreal Based photographer here! I recently reviewed for you a set of teleconverters, and this time wanted to follow up with a set of Graduated ND filters from Cokin supplied to me during my trip to Africa by the nice fellows over at B&H!
As you may probably know, a graduated ND filter is essentially a square plate of glass that darkens the image gradually from top to bottom. What's fun about the filter set from Cokin is that it comes with various "densities" of darkness that are stackable. What this means is that you have a pretty good control over how big of a change in dark-light transitions that you can do. Additionally, since the filter rests on a ring, you can rotate the filters to manually control the angle of the gradient!
I had never used graduated ND filters in the past so I was quite curious to see how significantly they would affect my photographs. A first try of a couple stacked filters gave the following effect:
As you can see, there is actually a significant gradient that appears across the skyline that cuts through the trees. A recomposed image a couple minutes closer to sunset and a straighter horizon line gave something like this:
Since I had the graduated ND filters that helped knock down the exposure of the sky, I was able to pull in a little more detail into the foreground. I'm not sure if I technically did the right thing since there is a little bit of over-exposure in the bottom center of the image where the sun was strongest, but I did manage to pull of a reasonably dramatic and almost surreal look using the filter!
Excited about my initial trial, I was curious how the whole thing would look in bright noon day sunlight.
Without a filter the place was ridiculously bright. As you can see, you get a dramatically overexposed "halo" around anywhere the sun happens to be located… the shot isn't uninteresting per say, but what if we wanted to capture a nice sun flare?
Well, I figured that if I stacked all the filters up all the filters that came with the filter pack, I could probably get something extremely dramatic edgy and unique… so stack them I did.
Although I'm certain the average landscape photographer would not be very impressed, I was quite thrilled at the possibility of being able to transform the morning sunlight into something extremely dramatic and contrasted… Not only was I able to capture epic sun flares that would be otherwise blown up I got to keep the nice directional shadows created by the sunlight thanks to the nifty ND filters. Check out the results! (Note that the only changes are general colour modifications in lightroom, nothing more!)
A second attempt a couple days later in the sand dunes gave another spectacular sun flare:
Though these shots may not look particularly interesting to you, keep in mind that it's actually quite hard to get a full sun flare like that even when shooting a HDR. Here's a 5-stop HDR against the sun that I shot. You'll notice that despite the additional tonal range, the center hotspot where the sun is located still comes out with a white halo!
For those of you interested in a more "standard" use of the filter, here's a side by side comparison of two shots with and without a single slide of graduated ND filter. (can't honestly remember which one it was… its not included in the metadata haha :P) As you can see, there is a minimal amount of effect on the lower end of the sand dune as opposed to the sky. (Also small side note, the sun was on the left which is what accounts for the right to left gradient)
The ND filters are quite simple to use… they simply screw onto your lens and you can stack up to four filters thick one on top of another (though you're only given three at varying densities). Personally I found the results most exciting when the filters were stacked one on top of another and was quite excited to get surreal landscape results straight out of camera. If you guys have odd insane ways of using graduated neutral density filters, I'd be quite interested in knowing! In conclusion, for 50$ I think it really wouldn't kill to have one of these little kits in your collection especially if you do landscape and have nice horizons to play with.
Oh, small side note: stacking filters means lots of opportunity for little dust particles to get stuck…. and since spectacular sun flares when shooting at high apertures results in, sadly, less than attractive spots on the final product…. you need to be careful :)
The Graduated Neutral Density Kit from Cokin consists of three filters: 121L (1 stop), 121M (2 stops) and 121S (3 stops). Often it is necessary or desirable to balance the light intensity in one part of a scene with another. This is especially true in situations where you don't have total light control, as in bright contrasty landscapes. Cokin graduated ND filters are part clear, part neutral density. They allow the transition to be blended into the scene, often imperceptibly.