I recently wrote an article about metering for landscape photography, in which I discussed some of the general guidelines I use for shooting high-contrast scenes. Among other things, I noted how it's better to underexpose a high-contrast landscape scene than to overexpose it, due to the fact that our cameras are so good at recovering shadows, and so bad at recovering highlights. But what if the dynamic range in the scene is too great? What if the sky is so bright that to expose for it properly, you end up with a photo that's dark to the point at which the shadows are so clipped that they can't be recovered without introducing a bunch of noise into the final image? Well, there are two ways to approach the problem: you can "exposure bracket," or shoot a series of photos of the same scene, one after another, at different exposures and blend the images together in post, or you can use a graduated neutral density (ND) filter to darken the sky in-camera for a properly exposed shot.
Before I go on, I should say that this problem is less of an issue than it used to be. With cameras on the market that approach 15 stops of dynamic range, like the Sony a7R IV or Nikon D850, plus a long list of other cameras that come pretty darn close to that, chances are that the majority of the landscape scenes you encounter can be adequately exposed for without the use of exposure bracketing, or of a graduated ND filter. However, throughout your journey as a landscape photographer, you are bound to come across your share of pesky ultra-high-contrast shooting conditions, as I did when shooting this iconic scene in Manhattan's Tudor City neighborhood.
Using spot metering on my camera and monitoring the histogram while experimenting with my exposure compensation dial, I could see that if I exposed for the mid-tones of the image in the buildings and trees, I would completely blow out the sky, as you can see in the example image just below. Conversely, if I exposed for the sky, I would have quite a bit of shadow clipping in the image, as seen below the first image.
To ensure a balanced image in the end, I turned on my camera's auto-exposure bracketing mode and shot a series of three images that were 1 EV (exposure value) or "stop" apart from one another, effectively giving me one dark image with a properly exposed sky but with clipped shadows, one bright image with all of the buildings well exposed but with completely clipped highlights, and one that's in-between the two. Then, I blended the images together in Photoshop, and the result can be seen below
The darkest of the three exposures makes up most of the final image, but some of the shadows in this shot were too noisy for my tastes after trying to recover them in Lightroom. Since I had a bracket of three exposures, I was able to bring the images into Photoshop as layers, and mask out the noisy areas in the shadows using elements from the brighter exposures.
Another way you can combine bracketed exposures is by using the Photo Merge > HDR function in Lightroom. Lightroom does a pretty good job of merging the photos in a way that looks natural, and using this method can yield good results for most scenes. Blending the photos manually in Photoshop will definitely give you more control over the image, but it's also more time-consuming.
Graduated ND Filters
Now, if you read the paragraphs above and said, "I don't want to fool with any of that," then you'll be glad to know that you don't have to. Using a grad ND filter like this 2-stop B+W MRC 702M, you can darken the sky when capturing a high-contrast landscape scene, while your exposure in the foreground remains unaffected. Grad NDs are great for people who love taking landscape photos, but hate post-processing, and want to stay out of Photoshop as much as possible.
Graduated ND filters come in a variety of densities, as well as in soft edge and hard edge models. A soft edge is a longer, more gradual change from very dark at the top, to clear as it approaches the bottom. A soft edge grad ND filter is generally what you would want to use in scenes where there's an object that crosses the horizon, such as a mountain or a building. A hard edge grad ND filter has a more abrupt change from dark at the top, to clear toward the middle of the frame. A hard edge ND would be what you use in scenes with a straight horizon, where there is a clear contrast between the bright and dark sections of the frame, such as a field with a bright sky behind it.
While using graduated ND filters can save you time in post-processing, they do have their drawbacks. First, it's more gear to haul around, and if you're trying to travel light, adding grad NDs to your camera bag may be more trouble than they're worth.
The other main drawback to grad ND filters, versus using exposure bracketing and blending them in post, is that if there are objects in the scene toward the top of the frame, they will be darkened along with the sky. For example, if I had used a graduated ND filter to shoot the cityscape scene above rather than bracketed exposures, the tops of the buildings would have been darkened, and I would have ended up in Photoshop, anyway.
There are more ways than one to skin a cat, and there are more ways than one to expose a high-contrast landscape photo properly. I hope this article helped to point you in the right direction, and thanks for reading. Please feel free to leave any questions you may have, or any opinions or stories that you'd like to share, in the Comments section, below.