Looking for the best ND grad filters? These helpful little accessories are perfect for landscape photographers, helping you achieve an even exposure in difficult lighting conditions. High contrast landscape scenes can often result in an overexposed sky or an underexposed foreground when working with a bare lens, but ND grad filters are designed to quickly resolve this issue.
If you have a super bright sky and a dark foreground, exposing your camera correctly can become tricky. Some photographers use the HDR technique to get around this problem (taking several different exposures and merging them together later in an image editing program). However, there is a simpler solution. Graduated neutral density filters, or 'ND grads', are clear at one end and grey at the other. By positioning the darker section over a bright sky, the light is restricted by several f-stops to prevent it from become overexposed.
Unlike an ordinary ND filter, the clear end of the ND grad filter is positioned over the darker foreground, ensuring that there's no restriction of light over this section of the composition. This means you can capture an even exposure without having to comp several images together.
Landscapes come in all shapes and sizes, with some including dramatic mountains and others featuring minimalist seascapes. Luckily, there are a vast variety of ND grad filters that offer different densities and transitions. For example, if you're capturing a straight, defined horizon (such as a seascape or flat landscape), then you can use an ND grad filter with a hard transition. However, if you're capturing a more cluttered landscape (such as a cityscape or a scene with mountains), you'll want to use a soft graduated filter instead.
Lesser known is the reverse ND grad filter. This has a dark section across the middle of the filter that fades out at the top. It's a perfect option for capturing a low sunrise or sunset where the majority of the light is emanating from the middle of your scene.
When looking for the best ND filter for you, one of the most important things to consider is the physical size of the filter. The bigger it is, the more lens diameters it'll cover and the more flexibility you'll have in positioning the transition area to suit your composition. In this round-up, we're exclusively showing 100x150mm rectangular filters, as this size gives you maximum versatility for an affordable price.
Finally, these really are the best ND grad filters – all are quality options that won't reduce image sharpness or introduce an unwanted color cast. We're confident you'll be happy with any filter on this list.
These are not the only camera filters of course. We've also got guides to the best ND (neutral density) filters for long exposures and blurred seascapes, and the best polarizing filters for intensifying blue skies, suppressing reflections and increasing saturation.
The best ND grad filters for photography in 2021
Benro is relatively new to the filter game, but judging by these ND grads, it means business. Utilising top-end German Schott B270 optical glass, Benro’s Master Filters also boast ULCA (Ultra Low Chromatic Aberration), and reflectivity below 1.5%. A waterproof multicoating is also applied to repel dirt and liquid, and it also resists scratches. Then there’s the anti-infra-red coating that blocks IR and UV light, in order to minimize the chance of unwanted color casts.
It all sounds good, and thankfully our testing of 2-stop and 4-stop sample filters backs it up. The tinted region has no negative impact on image sharpness and doesn’t introduce any observable color shift. Benro’s hydrophobic coating is also terrific, beading water off the filter without a trace.
Benro Master Filters come in a few size variants, but we reckon the 100x150 option is the best balance of versatility and cost. Choose from 2, 3, 4, or 5-stop densities, in soft, hard or reverse fades. The Benro system’s filter holder also deserves a mention. It’s paired with a clever filter frame (pictured) that can be moved up and down within the holder by a geared wheel, enabling ultra-precise filter positioning.
Unusually for high-end ND grad filters, Lee’s grads are made from polycarbonate resin rather than optical glass. Lee claims this makes it easier to dye the tinted portion, resulting in a more accurate density across the filter and greater precision when controlling the transition line. Resin is also said to have lower intrinsic reflectivity, negating the need to apply an anti-reflective coating.
If there is any disadvantage with using resin rather than glass when it comes to image quality we couldn’t find it. Lee’s grads maintain perfect image sharpness and color neutrality, although our sample filters did product visibly different exposure brightness, despite adjusting shutter speed appropriately for each filter. The filters do not have a hydrophobic coating, so water doesn’t bead away quite as willingly as with the Benro filters on this list.
These filter set comprises three densities - 1, 2 and 3 stops - so they'll cater for a wide variety of lighting conditions – and come with a choice of transitions (soft, medium, hard and extra hard). You can also buy individual Lee grads, in soft, medium, hard and extra hard variants. There’s a reverse ND range, too.
We’ve sampled several filters in Cokin’s top-line Nuances Extreme range, and have come away impressed every time. This kit of three 100x150mm soft grad NDs doesn’t disappoint either. 2, 3 and 4-stop densities are included, which covers most landscape shooting scenarios.
Like Benro's Master Filter range, each is constructed from uncompromising Shott glass. Cokin also applies a water and oil-resistant coating, and it works brilliantly. We can’t fault these filters for image sharpness, either, as all three perfectly preserve maximum lens sharpness. Color tint neutrality is also top notch, although if we’re to nitpick, the density of our 2-stop sample filter was slightly darker than spec.
Nuances Extreme ND grads can be had in three size options: P Series (84mm-wide), Z-Pro (100mm-wide), and X-Pro (130mm-wide). We recommend these 100mm Z-Pro filters though, as it’s a suitable size for lenses with a filter thread up to 95mm. Soft grad and reverse grad kits are available, as well as an unusual centre grad option where the tinted region goes across the centre of the filter and both top and bottom are clear. However, there’s no hard grad option - either as a kit or for individual filters - a strange and disappointing omission.
The unique feature of Firecrest Ultra filters is that they have the tinted coating in the centre of the filter, sandwiched between two sheets of 1mm glass. This is to enhance the scratch resistance of the filter, and it enables the glass to be lapped and polished so they’re perfectly flat and clear. An added benefit of having two bonded sheets of glass rather than a single pane is greater rigidity.
This manufacturing process certainly pays dividends when it comes to optical quality. Our testing showed flawless image sharpness, density accuracy and color neutrality. The only downside of sandwiching the filter coating inside the filter is there’s no hydrophobic coating on the outside, so water droplets don’t bead away - not great when shooting a seascape.
Firecrest Ultra ND grads are available in soft, hard, or reverse transitions, with the hard-edge grads offered in 2-stop and 3-stop densities. While other non-Ultra Firecrest filters can be had in smaller size options, the Ultra range only comes in 100x150mm guise, but this is the ideal size for most users.
Marumi’s filters stand out in this group thanks to their magnetic filter frames - the frames being made by H&Y. When combined with Marumi’s Magnetic Filter Holder M100, the filters simply press onto the holder and detach just as easily, yet still hold securely when in use. The magnets also make it a cinch to by slide the filter up and down the holder to precisely align the ND’s transition line to suit your composition. It’s a very neat system.
The frame surrounds premium Schott B270 glass, coated on both sides for scratch, water, oil and reflection-resistance. We tested ND4 (2-stop) and ND16 (4-stop) hard graduated filters, with respectable results. Although the darker ND came up slightly lighter than spec, all other aspects of image quality - sharpness, color neutrality - were flawless. Marumi’s water-repelling coating is also brilliant, beading droplets as effectively as the Benro filter on this list.
The Magnetic Filter System is exclusively 100mm-wide - ideal for most stills photography - and you can choose from ND grads with soft, hard, or reverse transitions. All come in 2, 3 or 4 stop densities.
At the heart of this comprehensive filter kit is Cokin's new NX-SERIES filter holder. Made from aluminium, it can mount a polarizing filter at the back, closest to the lens, with a built in adjustment wheel for precise positioning. Additional filters are mounted in special frames which in turn slot into the filter holder. These frames come in three sizes: 100 x 100mm for square filters, 100 x 143.5mm for Cokin’s own NUANCES Extreme graduated filters and 100 x 150mm for grads from other makers.
The NX filter system is available in several different kits which include various filters. This Landscape Kit includes all the essentials you'll need to get started with landscape photography: a filter-holder, polarizing filter, one neutral density ND1024 10-stop filter and one graduated neutral density filter - a soft graduated ND8 filter providing 3 stops of light reduction at its darkest point.
If you're just after one or two ND grads to add to an existing filter system, this kit isn't for you, but when you're just starting out in landscape photography, having an ND grad in conjunction with a full ND, polarizing filter and a dedicated holder opens up a host of photographic possibilities.
7 things to remember when buying an ND grad
We've solely featured 100mm-wide rectangular ND grad filters, as they're large enough to easily suit the vast majority of compositions. You can also purchase circular screw-in grad filters, but these tend to be pretty restrictive.
The clue is definitely in the name here. Good neutral density filters should be neutral, introducing no noticeable color casts or unwanted fuzziness to your images.
If you're buying your first ND grad filter, you'll want to consider how you're likely to use it and purchase one that's pretty flexible. If you get too low a density, you might find that overly bright skies might still be overexposed. Alternatively, if you get too dark a density the skies will take on an overbearing, leaden appearance.
The majority of filters are made from optical grade plastic, which makes them lighter and more shatter-resistant than the glass alternatives. However, the downside is that they tend to be more prone to getting scratched, so make sure you handle them carefully.
If you invest in a ND grad filter system, you've then got the possibility to add more filters to your line-up later. This means you could use polarizers or color grads to add some extra pizazz to your images.
6. Single filters or kits?
If you already have a filter system you just need single filters – you don't need to buy a whole new kit all over again. But if you're just starting out, a filter kit will give you everything you need at a lower all-in price.
7. Double-check the details
It's the strength and transition you need to check. There are lots of permutations! Don't get a 1-stop soft grad when you meant to get a 3-stop hard grad...
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