Regular blog readers probably remember that my favourite kind of post processing is the kind that takes less then five minutes. This means that I concentrate pretty hard on getting things right in camera and creating my images, as far as the camera will let me, in the moment. This also means that I’m a big fan of using filters for landscape images and even occasional wildlife images.
When it comes to landscape shots I’ll almost always use a circular polarizer and then I’ll add a graduated neutral density filter as needed. The most used “grad” in the kit is my trusty 2-stop soft edge X4 filter from Breakthrough Photography.
Normally when you think about using graduated ND filters like this, you also think about using a filter holder to perfectly position the filter’s transition in the perfect spot and hold it still throughout the exposure. Sometimes I do use a filter holder, I’ve written about that here, but I’m here today to admit that sometimes I just hand hold them on the front of the lens.
When I was first learning more about landscape photography I saw Art Wolfe hand holding filters on his TV show and, well, if it’s good enough for Art then it’s good enough for me!
If you’re in a hurry and the light or landscape is changing rapidly, hand holding the filter might just get you a shot you’d otherwise miss if you took the time to set up the holder. A filter holder, even a very good one, is likely the most fiddly item in your kit to set up!
I have no problem taking a bit of a risk if I think I might otherwise miss the shot entirely. In fact after you’ve done this for a while, I think you’ll be surprised at how easy it is.
That said, I do have some personal rules about the process. Firstly, it can’t be too windy because the wind can catch the filter and buffet it almost imperceptibly against the lens which would soften the image. Secondly, I don’t tend to use this technique with exposures that are longer than 1 second. If you try this, your mileage may vary on your own maximum exposure time, but I’m pretty confident in my (current) ability to take a deep breath and hold the filter still enough for up to a second.
If you are going to hand hold a filter you must make sure you keep the filter up against the front of your lens. Sometimes people will worry about scratching their filter and so they try to hold it slightly in front of the lens. If theres is light coming from behind the plane of the filter, though, it will reflect off the filter into the lens and cause a loss of contrast and maybe even unsightly bright spots or flare. If you’re going to use this technique, you must commit to it and hold that filter right onto the lens 🙂
Sometimes it can be a benefit!
In some circumstances hand holding a filter can actually be a benefit, and I’ll do it even when I have a holder with me and have all the time in the world. That circumstance is when you want to really soften the transition between the lighter and darker parts of the image to make the graduation softer than the actual graduation on the filter. In this case you can actually move the filter up or down or both, during the length of the exposure. You might need to do this if you only have a hard edge filter and want to create a softer transition, for example.
Don’t throw out your holder
I’m not saying you should ditch your filter holder, there are still many times when its the only solution. Especially for very long exposures. But if the light is changing rapidly then sometimes it’s necessary to go a little bit rogue and break a few rules to make sure you get the shot in the bag. Give it a try next time you are out with your filter kit! It’s a good skill to practice and keep in your back pocket for the right moment.