I’m sure you have had this scenario pop up from time to time if you do your photography outside like I do. You have a great landscape set up in the viewfinder, everything is just perfect the way you want to shoot the scene and you release the shutter. A second or two goes by as you anxiously await the LCD review to pop up so you can marvel at your latest masterpiece. But when the image appears, you are completely let down. You had zeroed the light meter like you were told to do and you have the latest and greatest camera. What you are seeing is a dark and muddy landscape with a large expanse of blown out highlights in the sky. Almost as if to add salt to the wound, you camera is blinking a lot of black in your sky indicating that you have totally blown out your exposure. You adjust the exposure, because it is digital and we can correct issues like this in the field pretty easy. You fire off another frame, and you have perfectly exposed sky, but you have lost all the detail in the ground. You adjust the exposure again, and the opposite occurs…you can count the blades of grass in the scene, but the sky looks like somebody ripped the top section of the picture off and left it on a stark white background. At this point, you are too frustrated to continue, you sell your camera and buy a bicycle to work out your frustrations. An extreme story, but I’m sure you can relate since you are a landscape photographer. Remind me to tell you about the years I spent on a bike some day when I just wasn’t happy with my photography at all.
In this situation above, you actually have a couple of different options that will work to capture the image that you have been after. The easiest only works if the exposure latitude isn’t too great. You can take the image into post processing and massage the shadows and highlights to recover the data that is largely under or overexposed. You have to be shooting in RAW for this to really work, and you have to be really careful about introducing noise into the image. The other option, since you have bracketed is to blend these images together for either an HDR image, or an exposure blended image in Photoshop. Both of these options carry with them some inherent negatives, and the windier the scene is, the more these problems stand out. If branches are moving, either of these methods are likely to give you some strange ghosts that you will have to deal with. This means a lot of time in front of the computer. For some, that is the thrill of the photo, and for those folks, I would understand if you left this review right now. However, the goal is always to start with the best image possible when you get to the computer, right? Well, I have a method that will allow you the ability to get it pretty dang close in the field and minimize your struggles in front of a monitor.
For this review, I will be dealing with a total of six of the filters that carry all at once. These are my ND Grads, and currently, I carry the following Singh-Ray Grads: Galen Rowell 2 and 3-Stop hard, and soft edge ND Grads, and Daryl Benson 2 and 3-Stop Reverse ND Grads. I know that this is a lot to cover in a single review but each of these does the same thing with subtle differences. You can get them in lesser and greater stops if you find the need. For my purposes, I’ve found that this is the perfect combination to handle just about everything that you will come across in the field. Before I go any further, I do need to state that I have purchased each of these filters myself several years ago. In the past year, I have developed a relationship with Singh-Ray, but I am receiving no payment of any sort from them for this review. In fact, they don’t even know I am working on this one.
Lets take a look at what an ND Grad actually is.
This is my collection on a white background to show what they do. Obviously, each filter is divided at the halfway point with the bottom half being absolutely clear. The top half has the same effect as a regular ND filter by reducing the amount of light that enters the lens from only that half. There are two basic differences between each filter here. If you are looking at the labels, you will see that they come in different stop values just like an ND filter. What I like about how Singh-Ray does it, they refer to it as full stops, not a decimal interpretation of a stop. To me, it makes it much easier to anticipate the effect. The other difference is the transition effect. The two soft edge filters have a gradual transition from the clear to the dark half, while the hard edge is just that…a very abrupt transition at the horizon point. On the other hand, the Daryl Benson filters are reverse grads which mean that the transition is very hard at the horizon and then fades to a lighter shading at the top. I’ll get into the use of these shortly so you can see the differences in how they work.
Before I get into that, I wanted to point out something really cool about Singh-Ray, and how they work. You will notice that these filters are named. They didn’t go into a baby book to pick out the names when they were developing the filters though. These are actually photographers who had worked with Singh-ray to develop filters that fit a specific need of theirs. That usually means that there is a slight difference in these from what you will get from other manufacturers. These filters are not cheap at $160 a piece for a 4×6″ flat filter, but I think you will see that they are worth the money in the long run as these are made to order filters and not just a box of mass produced pieces of equipment.
What comes in the box?
OK, nothing at all earth shattering here. You are buying a filter, not a complete camera kit. The filters come in this standard Singh-Ray pouch that is great for regular storage if you choose to do so. Inside this pouch, you will find your brand new 4×6″ (100x150mm) filter placed in a plastic bag with protective paper on the faces of the filter. I would suggest getting rid of this part of it for regular use as the paper could get grit on it and eventually scratch the filter. The bag has the same concern. The inside of the pouch is padded and textured so that any contaminants should be kept away from the filter. Of course, you want to exercise due care and caution with these filters to avoid scratches.
You will see the label on the strap of the pouch that denotes what filter you are looking at. This is the Galen Rowell 3-Stop Hard Edge filter (ND-3G-HS). This has always been an issue that I have had with Singh-Ray. I love that they include a custom pouch for the filter, but in every situation I have worked with as far as storage, these labels are blocked from view which eliminates their benefit. What I have had to do with all of my pouches over the years is to tape my own label to the top of the pouch to tell me what it is. That works out fine, but eventually the tape gets weak and I have to redo it. It also looks rather low rent to have hand written labels on my filters pouches. It is a minor complaint, and when it comes to image quality, the filters more than make up for this shortcoming. Plus, I have a different way of storing these filters so I’m not overly worried about this nit that I’m picking.
What makes Singh-Ray stand out from the crowd?
One of the things that I kept reading in the reviews of other ND Grads is that they introduce a bit of a color cast in the area at the top of the filter. Again, this means work on the computer to get that sorted out, so I would just rather avoid that at the time of capture. A bit of history on me with these filters. This is actually the second set of ND Grads that I have purchased from Singh-Ray. My first set was back in 2008 which served me well up until I started riding a bike out of frustration (and you thought I was kidding). I purchased them because of the color cast concern since I was not doing a whole lot with post processing and didn’t have a clue how to work Photoshop except for global adjustments. I relied on filters more than most digital photographers because if I didn’t get it really close to right in the field, that image was going to be trashed when I got home. When I decided to come back to photography in 2013, I wasn’t much better with post processing, so I went with what I knew worked. I now had about $1600.00 invested in these filters between the two different purchases. I added the Daryl Benson filters this time around though. Why in the world would I spend so much on filters? Quality, both in equipment and in image quality.
I had used ND Grads from Hoya and Tiffen in the past when I was shooting Sony. There was a definite color cast in my images that I didn’t like at all. The bottoms were always fine, but the tops would have a magenta cast, and in some cases a purple cast. I used these filters rarely, and even though they were cheap filters, I feel like I never got my money’s worth out of them. That is the problem with saving money, you end up not being able to use them like you wanted. Also, these were screw on filters which dictated that you put the horizon smack center in the image. Compositionally, this is a terrible handicap to have. Yes, I could have gone with other manufacturers and gotten flat filters, but I was just sold on the reviews I read on the Singh-Ray filters. It didn’t hurt that some of my favorite images shot in landscape magazines were done with these filters. To this day, I don’t regret dropping the money on these filters because they have greatly improved my work over the years. They are instrumental at getting the image in the field very close to how I envision it as a final piece.
How does one effectively use these filters?
OK, that is a fair question. I much prefer the flat filters over the screw on ones because you can adjust the horizon. For that reason, I would suggest that you get the rectangle size when equipping your bag. Since my lenses are rather wide in diameter, I had to get the 4×6″ versions, but if you can get away with a smaller one, go for it. By having the rectangle shape, you can select the horizon position either very close to the top, or near the bottom. You just don’t have that latitude with the square filter as the edge will start to come into play. You can either hand hold, or mount it to a filter mount which allows you to rotate and move the filter up and down to fit YOUR composition, not dictate your composition.
You can see how I was able to deal with the ridge in this image with the extreme light I was looking at. Looking at the video there was no way I was going to get the colors in the car that I did in a single exposure while getting the detail in the sky. You will also see that I am using a Lee Filter Holder which I will review at a later time. It is a nice piece of kit that allows you to mount several flat filters, and you can even put a screw on polarizer on the front with the correct hardware. You purchase a mounting ring that will fit your specific lenses so that you only need the one holder. You can rotate it as much as you want to, and since the filters slide into the slots, you can move the filter up and down within the holder. That was difficult to do with one hand in the video, so I just moved the whole contraption up and down to show how to line it up on the horizon.
When you think about ND Grads, working sunrises and sunsets come to mind almost immediately though. That was the main reason that I started getting into these filters because I was tired of shooting these photos and being forced to render the landscape as silhouette and shadow just to get the sky to expose properly. They are very useful in these situations for just that reason, and I have several examples of how that works. I recently shot a sunset on the Blue Ridge Parkway that I had time to do a video with which also shows a little about how to use these filters. In this case, I was actually using two of them to get the sky and the ground featured balanced.
Like I said, you can use multiple filters when you are talking about ND Grads which is why I only use a 2 and 3-Stop versions of each. A single stop variation is easy to recover in post processing, and if you need more than 3-Stops, you will usually go right to 5 or 6-Stops to get it right. Something to keep in mind, and you can see it in the video, when stacking these filters, you rarely want to stack to hard edge filters on top of each other in exactly the same position. The division line will be much too abrupt and it will look fake. What I do, is combine a hard and a soft filter and stagger them with the hard filter a little higher with the soft filter making the transition more natural. There doesn’t have to be much difference, just a couple of millimeters will do. You can also really stretch the division with two soft edge grads.
Something else to keep in mind is that transition point and how a different focal length will make it appear. The wider the angle of the lens, the sharper the contrast will be, while zooming in tight will make even a hard edge filter have a soft transition. In fact, when shooting more than 150mm, I’ve found that depending on where your horizon is, if you use a soft edge filter, you won’t get to see the full effect of the filter. If you use a hard edge, it will be a soft enough transition at that focal length to blend right in. When shooting wider than about 30mm, I’ve found that if you use a hard edge filter, the division is too noticeable but switching to a soft edge, you will have a more natural progression. Just a bit of free advice for you when selecting your filters.
One of the filters that we haven’t talked about much is the Daryl Benson Grads. These are a little more limited in use. If you will remember, they are reverse grads which means that the effect faces gradually as you go away from the division point. Theoretically, this is an amazing concept with ND Grads at sunrise or sunset. The brightest part of the sky is right at the horizon and then the colors fade as you get closer to straight up. The reverse grad takes that into consideration and allows you to expose the natural blue sky at the top of the image while intensifying the color through exposure control at the horizon. What I have found is that this effect only works with a wide angle lens where the horizon is relatively low in the frame. This gives ample time for the effect to be rendered.
You can kind of see the effect here with the reverse grad. I knew that with very few clouds in the sky, I was going to have to combat that sliver of bright light at the horizon more than further up in the sky. I opted for the 3-Stop reverse grad which worked OK here since I was shooting rather wide. It would have been more effective had I placed the horizon lower, but that would have not been near as effective of a composition. This is the biggest weakness of this filter that I can see. It is just not fully effective until you have a great deal of sky present, and even possibly if you are shooting a vertical image. For most of my images where I use an ND Grad, I will go with the Galen Rowell ones for this reason.
There are also times when the exposure is really good all on its own without any use for additional filters, but it is just lacking that certain something. I love to use these filters to bring mood into my images. Having an ominous sky one of those times when you can use an ND Grad creatively to make the scene appear a little different than it does in reality. An example of this was from a recent shoot I did with a rat rod truck that really needed to have moody sky above it to complete the “look” I was going for and the overall mood of the image.
I went overboard with the filters on this shot. I needed the 3-stop to control the sky since I was actually shooting into the sun. That would have been just fine to get some detail in the sky, but I wanted more. By adding one more 2-stop grad, I was able to get this wonderfully moody sky that looked the part for what I was shooting. It is another example of stacking filters. I used both soft grads and then staggered them so that you really can’t see the transition line. By the time you got to the top of the image, there was a total of 5-stops of light reduction present which balanced perfectly with the shadowed ground below.
I’m obviously a fan of Singh-Ray and have always talked very highly about them. I always say that you get what you pay for in most things in life and unfortunately this is not an exception. These filters are expensive for what they are, but for that price of admission, you get a completely neutral filter that doesn’t introduce any strange color casts to your images. There are no optical problems which can always be an issue when using filters. The last thing that you want to do is to put a filter on the front of your thousand dollar lens that will make the image look like it was shot with a bargain basement lens. I’ve seen it happen, and it is not a pretty sight at all. Lee and Cokin are probably the industry leaders in ND Grads, and both have their own proprietary systems for the filters. To be fair, I have not tried either of these brands for myself, but I kept reading that their filters would introduce a bit of warmth or coolness in the images that had to be corrected later. It was never a huge amount, but it was enough for me to sway away based on the reviews. I’ve been totally happy with my Singh-Ray Grads over the years and don’t regret any of them. I do wish that I had understood the Daryl Benson filter a little bit more and when it would actually work to its fullest potential. That is a limiting factor for this filter, but there are the off chances that I get to use that filter where it works as advertised.
My current set of filters has been in my bag for about six years and not a one of them has any damage. Well, there are scratch marks on the sides where they fit into the filter holder, but I don’t count that since it doesn’t affect the optics at all The corners have finger prints on them, but again, that part never gets in the line of sight of the lens so I’m not worried about that at all. What I am worried about is the part that spends its time in front of the lens, and after six years of use in nature, they look brand new where it counts.
I love the pouches that are included with every filter I’ve ever bought from Singh-Ray with the exception of where the description is placed. My first go around, I kept the filters in those protective cases on a medium bag attached to the side of my Tamrac bag. They were easy to get to and with the new labels added, simple to pick the right one. I now keep them in a protective Lee Filter wallet that is designed for 4×6 filters. It is zippered for safety and for keeping contaminants out of the sleeves. There are only slots on one side of each sleeve so that the filters are always protected from each other. The filter itself is labeled well at the edge so that I can read what they are in the sleeve which is a great thing! This wallet will hold 12 different filters so I have extra room in there for my Mor-Slo filters which will be reviewed at a later date.
I highly recommend the Galen Rowell line of filters and recommend the Daryl Benson line for those that understand the limitations of the filter. They are both excellent lines and you can get them in a number of sizes from Singh-Ray. If you don’t see what you need, let them know and they can make it for you. Also, keep in mind that if you purchase directly from Singh-Ray, you can use a promo code of KISER10 at checkout and receive 10% off your order. That is really a good deal, and I wish I had that option after dropping $1600.00 on these filters alone. That would be like getting one of them for free!
I do hope that you enjoyed this review, and I hope that it helps you make your decisions about what filters will fit your needs. There are a lot of filter companies out there, and they range in price dramatically. Do your homework, and understand what the product will do for you before making your decision.