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Getting great results from a cheap eBay graduated ND photo filter

Queenscliff shot with Canon S95 and Graduated ND Filter

Filters can be fun

A few weeks back I ordered the Lensmate Quick Change filter adapter for my Canon S95 camera. Now I’ve never really used photography filters much in the past, apart from maybe a polariser or UV. But since the Lensmate adapter would give my S95 the ability to use filters, I decided I would make the most of it, and ordered quite a few eBay.

Now originally the plan was just to buy a set of ND (neutral density) filters. What these do is reduce the amount of light reaching the lens of the camera. I bought a set of 3, with each being a different strength. Why would I want to reduce the amount of light the camera receives? When shooting video on the Canon S95, I’m unable to control the shutter speed. One of the limitations of the camera is that there’s no shutter speed control for video. Normally the shutter speed for video is close to 1/50 second. This provides a nice natural look with just the right amount of motion blur. When shooting video on the Canon S95 during bright daylight, the camera will be forced into using a higher shutter speed, and the results might not look that desirable.

When using ND filters on the camera to reduce the amount of light entering the camera, it will no longer be forced into using higher shutter speeds in order to compensate for that extra light on a bright sunny day. If strong enough, or if multiple ND filters are used, the camera will then switch to using a slower shutter speed. The goal being to reduce the shutter speed as close to 1/50 second as possible. Of course when shooting in low light, at night time perhaps, the camera will most likely switch to 1/50 seconds or a speed close to it regardless. In which case you won’t need an ND filter.

If you need to check what shutter speed and aperture setting the camera is using for video, switch the camera to photo mode and half press the shutter button. It will give you the details on screen. Although considering the ISO might be different in photo mode, I wouldn’t trust it. My advice is to just go for what looks good. Do a few tests in different lighting conditions and see what works best.

Other photography filters

What other filters did I buy? Well I also bought a pack of three basic filters with a 37mm thread. 37mm is the lens thread size of the Lensmate filter adapter. This a was a popular size on a few of the older video cameras. Sony Handycams etc. The filter pack I bought contains a polariser filter (which can make bright daylight shots look nicer), a UV filter (blocks UV rays to reduce haze), and a diffusion filter. Now that last one is a great little filter. It gives you that soft focus look. I sometimes use soft focus filter plugins in Sony Vegas Pro which provide a nice subtle glow/blur. I’m still yet to test that one properly, although I’m hoping to shoot a music video using it. I might just need to do a few more tests with it first though.

The graduated ND filter

Out of all the filters I bought on eBay, this would probably be my favourite. It’s like a normal ND filter, like those I mentioned above, except only half the filter restricts light entering the lens. So essentially, it darkens half the shot. I bought this one on eBay too of course, and it wasn’t too expensive. Below is a photo of the actual filter.

graduated ND filterWhat got me interested in buying one of these filters

A few years back I bought a great photography book at a book sale. It’s an older book, and was published back in 1993. Obviously there were no digital cameras back then, or least nothing like we have now. Which meant nearly all the photos in the book were shot on film. But what a great look! That’s a big part of the appeal for me. The photos just look so much nicer than those from digital cameras we’ve had to endure for the past decade or more.

Anyway, browsing through the book I noticed quite a few photos taken using graduated ND filters. Great looking photos too. In one shot there’s a dark grey cloudy sky with sunlight on the ground, but with a graduated ND filter on the camera, the sky looks almost black. But normally these filters are used to darken bright skies. Think of any photos you’ve seen where the sky is nicely exposed with plenty of detail in the clouds (as opposed to being overexposed where it looks white). Normally with such photos, and especially around sunrise or sunset, the ground, trees, buildings etc will look a lot darker, almost like a silhouette. With a graduated ND filter, darkening the sky will of course allow everything else to appear brighter, rather than appearing black.

Although the ND half of the filter I bought might not be that strong, it can still make quite a difference. Below is a comparison. In this first photo directly below, you can see that I have adjusted the filter so that the darker part covers the sky. It’s a nice look. The clouds aren’t overexposed, and yet the leaves below still appear quite visible.
graduated nd filter, dark at top
In this second example below, you will see that I have flipped the dark half of the filter upside down. The effect of doing this is that the sky now appears a lot brighter, and the shadows around the leaves of the treee are a lot darker. What would you use the filter in this position for? Perhaps on sunny day where there’s water and the sun is reflecting off the water? Or possibly when shooting an actor/actress, to make their face more clearly visible, as the graduated ND filter flipped upside down like this could be used to darken their body. This is actually one way in which I am planning on using the filter.
graduated ND filter upside down
Lastly below is a photo of the same scene, but without the filter attached. To match the exposure here, I actually had to increase the shutter speed a couple of notches. Although even with that increase in shutter speed, it’s still probably a bit too bright. Another thing I notice here is that this photo doesn’t look as ‘yellow’ as the two shots taken with the filter. Of course the white balance was set to daylight for all the photos. So of course the filter must be adding a yellow tint. This is something I wouldn’t worry about. The light loss it causes, well that’s to be expected. Although even the clear half of the filter appears to darken that half of the image slightly.
same scene, no filter

Examples of what can be achieved

Below I have included a gallery of photos taken during a walk to Manly the other day. I try and find the time to go for a long walk like this whenever I can. Over the past few years, these walks have also given me a chance to try out any new camera I buy. I’ve been there with my last two Ricoh cameras, my Xpreria X10 phone, Canon Ixy 510 IS, and the S95. But this time the goal was see what of results I could achieve with using the graduated ND filter. All photos were taken with the dark half rotated to the top in order to block the brightness of the sky. I’m quite happy with how the photos turned out. I’ve definitely been able to achieve an increase in dynamic range. The ISO for all shots was set to 80. Unfortunately with some of the darker shots, some noise still became visible around dark cloudy areas of the sky. Something I’ll have to keep an eye out for in future.

[slickr-flickr search=”sets” set=”72157626330071709″ type=”gallery” thumbnail_scale=”96″ align=”left” items=”42″ size=”m640″ flickr_link=”off”]

Can this be used for video?

For video I would definitely use a filter like this. It would work well for wide angle outdoor shots, or even people shots, using the filter with the dark half at the bottom as I mentioned above. There might be other uses. I’m definitely keen to do a bit more experimenting with it.

For anyone wondering if the effect can be achieved in post using some kind of gradient filter in Photoshop or in a video editing program, well no, you won’t get the same result. Remember this filter allows more detail to be captured in both bright and dark areas. Without the filter, you won’t have that additonial detail from the original photo to work with.

In conclusion, I would highly recommend including one of these filters in your camera kit. They are quite versatile and will enable you to achieve some very nice results if used correctly. Graduated ND filters are nothing new of course, but I get the feeling a lot of photographers (amatuers especially) and video shooters still don’t know about them. To be honest, I don’t think I knew about them until reading the book I mentioned above. Keep an eye out for them on eBay. The one I bought actually came from the US, and if I remember correctly, was less than $20.

13 Responses to Getting great results from a cheap eBay graduated ND photo filter

  • As you know, I’ve been suggesting ND filters for use with digicam video for quite some time now. Coupled with a full optical zoom-in, it can create an amazingly good look, with quite some shallow DoF.

    • Yes, you have! I’ve not yet had a chance to test the ND filters properly yet though. But this graduated ND filter I like a lot. Ideally, I would like to pick up a couple of more at different strengths. I think this one I have is fairly generic. Something a bit darker would be nice.

    • You can buy a variable strength one, no reason to buy many different strengths. The variable strength goes from 3x to 400x, depending how you turn it. This way you can have pretty much any possible combination. I got mine for $40 on Amazon (link).

      One problem with the variable strength one is that it has a flare problem on the side, because it’s using two polarizing filters to create the effect, rather than true ND filters. But since I always zoom-in outdoors, in order to create that background blur, the flare goes away (since it’s picked up by the lens only when not in the long end).

      • I still shoot a lot wide, especially hand held, so the flare might become a problem. I’m wondering if using a 43mm variable filter like this and a step up ring would help?

    • You might want to go for a 37mm-to-52mm then, to make sure, and even then… The flare appears circularly on the first 10% of the field of view, on the left of the filter. Goes away when you zoom a bit.

    • Alternatively, you an create a Fader ND by yourself. All you need is two stacked circular polarizers, which you may find for cheaper than buying a variable ND filter. And you can use them independently if you don’t want the fader ND effect.

  • Yeah, I might give it a try. I have another tutorial for making one here too. I have a 43mm polarizer for the HV20, and a 37mm to 43mm step up ring. So all I need is a second polarizer.

    • Make sure your second one is also 43mm then, because the two filter lenses need to be close to each other — you don’t want a step-up-ring in between them.

  • I might have to check with Lensmate. The filter adapter is stuck on with an adhesive, and they don’t recommend any more than two filters. I don’t know if a step up ring will add much more weight.

  • Are the photos of the weeds and spider with shallow DOF using the diffuser filter, or is that shooting in macro to get the background to blur like that? Do you have video tests?


    • No, I haven’t used the diffusion filter yet, apart from a couple of shots at home here. All in macro mode on the spiders etc. That’s how I got the shallow DOF there 🙂 No video tests yet with these filters.

  • Great article, learnt alot already! My s95 will arrive soon!

    Just couple questions.. The lensmate site said, that filter stacked with a polarizer may have slight vignetting. Have you had any vignetting with stacked filters? Or can it be avoided with a 37-43mm key ring adapter?

    And also, you reckon a square half ND filter could be used on the s95 somehow? Just wondering as it would be much more versatile than a circular lens.


    • Thanks! And that’s a good question. I think I’ve only ever had two filters stacked together on one occasion, although I can’t remember if one of those was the polariser. Although I think it might have been. But I didn’t have any problems stacking the two filters. I think I had the polariser stacked with the graduated neutral density filter.

      As for using a square filter, I haven’t looked into using anything like that. But you could try using one of the attachments at the bottom of this page. Using something like that on the S95 would be nice, as you would have to worry about putting any extra weight on the Lensmate adapter.

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About Avene
Sydney based artist specialising in creating music videos, cinematography, music production & beat making, digital art, sound design & photography.