Graduated Neutral Density Filter - With a Digital Twist!

by Jim Zuckerman

Before - Digital Grad Filter
Before - Digital Grad Filter
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved
These filters are designed to darken a bright sky to prevent it from becoming overexposed when the bottom portion of the image - a landscape or cityscape - is exposed correctly. A digital sensor (and film) can't handle extremes in contrast very well - meaning that you can't get a good exposure when you have both very bright highlights and dark shadows in the same picture.


Due to the limitations of what is called the "dynamic range", which is essentially the ability to show detail, you have to choose which area of the picture will be property exposed: the highlights or the shadows. Our brain has no trouble seeing complete detail in a contrasty scene, but capturing it in a photo is challenging.

After - Digital Grad Filter
After - Digital Grad Filter
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved
In CS4, there is a feature that allows you to darken the sky AS IF YOU HAD USED A GRADUATED NEUTRAL DENSITY FILTER. See the two images below of Malbork Castle in Poland. The original shows that the sky turned out much too light when the castle was exposed correctly. In the bottom image, I applied an ND filter effect in Adobe Camera RAW, and now the photo is exactly what I would have wanted.


The screen capture below shows the dialog box with a red arrow pointing to the icon that gives you access to this feature. When you click on the icon, you can then drag the cursor down the thumbnail image of your photo until the reduced exposure is exactly what you want. With the sliders on the right, you can then tweak the exposure, contrast, etc. to your liking.


This feature is not available in Photoshop CS3, and you must shoot in RAW mode and not JPEG to be able to do this.


Screenshot - Digital Grad Filter
Screenshot - Digital Grad Filter
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved

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Article by Jim Zuckerman. To learn more about photography, explore the many online photography and Photoshop classes offered here at BetterPhoto.com.