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The best ND grad filters in 2020: our pick of the best individual filters and filter kits

best ND grad filters
(Image credit: Digital Camera World)

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.

7 things to remember when buying an ND grad

1. Shape
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. 

2. Neutrality
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.

3. Density
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.

4. Material
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.

5. Versatility
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...

5 best ND grad filters for photography

Best ND grad

(Image credit: Future)

1. Benro Master 100x150mm Glass GND

Benro’s Master ND grads offer unbeatable performance for the money

Available sizes: 100x150mm, 150x170mm, 170x190mm | Available densities: 2-5 stops (100x150mm size) | Available transitions: soft, hard, or reverse

Class-leading optical quality
Superb water/oil-resistant coating
Neat frame & holder design
Holder a bit bulky compared with rivals

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.

Best ND grad

(Image credit: Future)

2. LEE Filters 100mm Neutral Density Grad Set - Hard

Cost-effective resin filters that maintain superb image quality

Available sizes: 75x90mm, 100x150mm, 150x170mm | Included densities: 1, 2 & 3 stops | Available transitions: soft, medium, hard, or extra hard

Well priced
Excellent optical quality
light and resilient construction
Poor water and oil resistance
Resin rather than glass

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.

Best ND grad

(Image credit: Future)

3. Cokin Nuances Extreme Z-Pro Soft Graduated ND Kit

A versatile soft-graduated 3-filter kit that performs superbly

Available sizes: 84x100mm, 100x150mm, 130x170mm | Included densities: 2, 3 & 4 stops | Available transitions: soft, or reverse

Well priced for each filter in kit
Very good optical quality
Lovely holder
No hard transition option
Density rating could be more accurate

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.

Best ND grad

(Image credit: Future)

4. Formatt Hitech Firecrest Ultra 100mm Grads

Providing you steer clear of water, these filters won’t disappoint

Available sizes: 100x150mm | Available densities: 2 & 3 stops | Available transitions: soft, hard, or reverse

Optically flawless
Reverse-transition option
System uses a good quality holder
Only 2 and 3 stop density options
No water/oil resistance

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.

Best ND grad

(Image credit: Future)

5. Marumi 100x150mm Magnetic Graduated ND Filters

Superb filters that are a pleasure to use, if slightly short on bang-per-buck

Available sizes: 100x150mm | Available densities: 2, 3 & 4 stops | Available transitions: soft, hard, or reverse

Top-notch optical and coating quality
 Clever and useful magnetic attachment
Relatively pricey
Density accuracy not quite as advertised

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.

Read more:

10 things you need to know about camera filters – and which ones to buy
The best polarizing filters
The best neutral density filters
Best variable ND filters
Best protection filters for lenses: UV, Skylight and Protector filters
The 50 best camera accessories in 2020