As good as current cameras are, point even the best pro DSLR at a high contrast landscape scene and you'll often have to choose between a burnt-out sky or underexposed foreground.
A quick and very effective solution is to use a graduated neutral density filter, or 'ND grad'. Clear at one end and grey at the other; the darker section can be positioned to cover a bright sky, restricting light transfer by several F stops so the foreground has time to expose correctly without the sky becoming a burnt-out whitewash.
Various densities are available to suit different contrast levels you may encounter, with most filter manufacturers offering ND grads with hard or soft transitions between the clear and tinted sections of the filter. Hard grads are great if your scene has a straight, defined horizon. But when the landscape is less uniform with objects like buildings or trees scattered on the horizon, you’ll need the more subtle and forgiving transition of a soft grad. There’s also a third way - the reverse ND grad. This has the darkest section across the middle of the filter, fading out to the top - it’s the ideal filter when shooting a low sunset.
Finally, size matters. The bigger the filter, the more lens diameters it'll cover and the greater the flexibility you'll have in positioning the transition area to suit your composition. That’s why we’ve opted exclusively for 100x150mm rectangular filters in this list, as this size allows for maximum versatility without breaking the bank.
Finally, these really are the best ND grad filters - all are quality options that won't reduce image sharpness or introduce an unwanted colour cast. We're confident you'll be happy with any filter on this list.
Five things to look out for when buying an ND grad filter…
We’re featuring 100mm-wide rectangular ND grads, as they’re large enough to tailor to most compositions. Round, screw-in grads are also available, but they’re too restrictive.
A good neutral density filter should be just that: neutral. The grey section shouldn't introduce any noticeable colour casts to the final image.
If you only buy one ND grad, consider how you'll use it. Too low a density and bright sections may still burn out, but restrict too much light and skies take on an overbearing, leaden appearance.
Most filters are now made from optical grade plastic, making them lighter and more shatter-resistant than glass alternatives. They are more prone to scratches though, so handle with care.
Buying an ND grad filter system opens up possibilities for adding additional filters like polarisers or colour grads for even more striking images.
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)
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 colour 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 colour 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.
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
Unusually for high-end ND grad filters, Lee’s grads are made from polycarbonate resin rather than fancy optical glass. Lee claims this makes it easier to dye the tinted portion, resulting in a more even 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 colour neutrality, although our sample filters did product visibly different exposure brightness, despite adjusting shutter speed appropriately for each filter. The filters do have a hydrophobic coating, though water doesn’t bead away quite as willingly as with the Benro filters on this list.
This hard grad filter set comprises three densities - 1, 2 and 3 stops - so they'll cater for a wide variety of lighting conditions. You can also buy individual Lee grads, in soft, medium, hard and extra hard variants. The latter is useful when shooting a scene like a seascape, where the horizon is perfectly straight and defined. There’s a reverse ND range, too.
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
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. Colour 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.
4. Formatt Hitech Firecrest Ultra 100mm Hard Edge Grads
Providing you steer clear of water, these filters won’t disappoint
Available sizes: 100x150mm | Available densities: 2 & 3 stops
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 colour 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.
5. Marumi 100x150mm Magnetic Hard 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
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, colour 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.
The best polarizing filters